Alfonso León Fernando María Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Austria-Lorena, (1886-1941): Gesundheit

A name fit for a king, and so he was.  A king, that is. His father King Alfonso XII died before he was born, which gave him the rare distinction of being king right out the starting gate, though technically his mother Maria Christina of Austria was regent for his first sixteen years,  a time that saw the loss to Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to Teddy Roosevelt and President McKinley.

Married one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (1887–1969),  kept Spain out of the First World War, left Spain in 1931 and never quite made it back, dying in Rome in 1941.

Why am I on about this?  Because as of Friday, I’ve been enduring the ‘flu (yes, yes, I know. Vaccination.  I know.  I was busy, and  besides probably some geriatric or tot needed it more). With little else to do but sneeze, shiver, and cough, I began to wonder, why was the 1918-19 pandemic called the Spanish ‘Flu?  One of those bigoted we-didn’t-start-it monikers, like the French calling syphilis the Italian disease and the Italians calling it the French?  Was Spain being made to pay for avoiding the mass slaughter of the trenches? Continue reading

Ewald Georg von Kleist, 1740 -1748: Shock of the New

The recent death of Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20 conspirators,  who but for bad scheduling would have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, set me to wonder  about the rest of the family.

There are the usual suspects, a long line of more or less prominent military men, the writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist  (who started out as a solider), minor professionals who left no particular marks behind them.   And then there was Ewald Georg, jurist and cleric and Bishop of Pomerania.   Continue reading

The Rev. John Castleton Miller, 1775-1828: Whilst I Breath I Hope

(Actually, that’s the family motto of Sir Charles Drake  Dillon, Bart.  More on him in a minute.)

Who doesn’t like a good divorce?  Someone else’s, by preference.  1817 saw a rather nasty one that excited a London public that had gotten little enough of excitement since the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The Reverend John Castleton Miller was chaplain to the British Army at  Malta, and married, we can hope happily, to Sarah Paget.  After a brief time in Malta, a time that saw the birth of one child,  Mrs. Miller was compelled for reasons of health (dodgy liver)  to return to England.  The year was  1809, and her stay was supposed to be a short one.  Continue reading

James Swan, 1754-1831: “A Corrupt Unprincipalled Rascal”

There’s gratitude for you!  Colonel Swan had been one of the original Tea Partiers  (the early iteration, the ones who dressed as Indians and got on the boats),  a veteran of Bunker Hill and other life threatening engagements during the revolution, a firm revolutionary from the beginning.  Once in the money, he acted as surety for privateers,  doing well by doing good.  And for this James Monroe calls him a rascal?

Swan was born in Scotland and came to Boston at age eleven.   He worked in an accounting house.  He was diligent and studious and even principled;  at eighteen, he wrote A Discussion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.  (He was against it.)  Continue reading

Gaetano Giulio Zummo (aka Zumbo), 1656-1701: The Wax Man Cometh

I came across a review of Rupert Thomson’s novel Secrecy, which sounds like one for the to read list. What struck me was the protagonist Zummo, aka Zumbo.*

He was an historical personage, as it happens, born in Sicily, possibly to impoverished aristocrats, certainly in reduced circumstances, and was initially schooled to be a cleric.  The records give him the title of Abate.   Somehow his talents in the plastic arts emerged (he was self taught) and it was clear that this was a man destined for something other than performing Mass and taking confessions.

Perhaps because he was self taught, his first public appearance as an artist comes relatively late in life, in the 1680s, in Bologna.  The work was good enough to encourage to try for Florence, where in 1695 Grand Duke Cosimo III put him on the payroll.  Continue reading

Diana Vreeland, 1903-1989: The Scarlet Empress of Fashion

Empress of Fashion A Life of Diana Vreeland
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Harper 536 pages

All the stories that circulate about editrices of Vogue make a colorful mosaic of anecdotes.  There are the tales of Anna Wintour’s dislike of elevators, and her consequent habit of being conveyed  upstairs in makeshift palanquins by young lackeys, there are the ones of Jessica Daves, Vreeland’s predecessor in the top spot, who is reported to have said, “NO!” to a skirt three or four inches above the knee, very ill advisedly in 1962.  But neither of these ladies, however idiosyncratic, was ever a patch on Vreeland, who was a walking agglomeration of eccentricities.   Continue reading

Niccolò Franco, 1515-1570: Ink Stained Wretch

We sometimes take for granted that whole first amendment thing and forget that the price of a loose pen has at times been more than a mere libel suit.  Take for example the case of Niccolo Franco, a bit of a wastrel, certainly too clever by half, and yet not quite clever enough to keep himself out of trouble.

He was born in Benevento in 1515 of a good family and given all the advantages that a modest but reasonably prosperous family of that time and place could give.  He was quick to take it all in, mastering Latin, as one does, chiefly to get at the racier bits of Martial, Petronius and Catullus, also as one does.  He combined his flair for language with a taste for the low life and contention.  A good time for him was a brothel with free flowing wine and loose women and petty (and even not so petty) criminals. Continue reading