Caresse Crosby (1891-1970): America’s First Girl Scout

It’s true! In 1910, Robert Baden-Powell came to America to help get the Boy Scouts going here and brought Lady Baden-Powell with him.  She somehow wound up at our  subject’s school  and had lunch with Miss Ruutz-Rees.

Mrs. Crosby writes:  “I am sure it was in exchanging modern ideas over the after luncheon coffee cups that they together with Miss Loundes and Miss Lewis (both as British as buns) brewed the scheme for instigation of a Girls Scout movement right there at Rosemary.”

Polly was chosen as the first initiate, and got the name Policumteenawa, signifying Little-Possum-By-the-Fire, or some such.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading

Gladys Towles Root – (1905-1982): One Instead of Five

On the American east coast, the gold standard for radical lawyer has always been William Kunstler,  classic show-boater and last best hope to the downtrodden and damned.

No surprise that the west coast should one-up him in the person of Gladys Towles Root.

She got into the mouthpiece business decades before the notion of women lawyers was credible – Adam’s Rib was nothing to her.  Having endured law school and passed the bar, she was unable to join any firms in California.  The woman thing again.  Nothing daunted, she hung out her own shingle, a few blocks away from Skid Row and waited for trade. Continue reading

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in. Continue reading

Francois Coty, 1874-1934: Taking Care of Business

Francois Coty is known for the cosmetics giant he created, and less happily for his politics, which in the France of the 1930s leaned considerably to the Right.  But his real legacy may not be his political bent, nor yet his fabulous success in the world of cosmetics, but his innovations in the field of business.

For political historians Coty is the man who bought newspapers in France during the waning of the Third Republic, including the right wing L’Ami du Peuple, and who also flirted with Mussolini and his Fascist regime.  The Manichean politics of the 30s have cast a long shadow over the rest of his life, and perhaps that is a shame, because the Ligurian Corsican from Ajaccio, was a great businessman.  He became a multi-millionaire in a matter of two years after creating his first real perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, and never looked back.  Continue reading

Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

Really, you couldn’t make up a name like that and even if you did, no fiction editor worth his salt would let it pass.   So, truth must step up where fiction dares not tread.

Poivre  was the son of a Lyon merchant and was heading towards a religious career when the Society of Foreign Missions, impressed with a native talent of languages,  sent him to China and Indochina to get his feet wet with a little evangelical work.  Reports of his time there get somewhat murky (mysterious east and all that), a curious mixture of amusing anecdote and utter silence. One story goes that he  landed in a Chinese jail through a misunderstanding with a local mandarin but learned enough Chinese while incarcerated to talk himself out of it.

On the utter silent part (or at least the Not-In-Front-Of-The-Servants part), is the fact that he was encouraged to leave the mission and indeed, from China altogether.  Certainly he gave up the path towards the church.    Continue reading

Thomas and Daniel Wildman (floruerunt 1760-1780): Improving the Shining Hour

“June 20 1772 Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.”

Imagine only that Lennon had had that poster instead of Pablo Fanque’s! 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

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

Gilbert Imlay, 1756-1828: Jersey Boy

No picture of the fellow seems to have survived, which is appropriate, given the man’s furtive nature.

He was born in Freehold, New Jersey and was of an elevated enough class to be come a lieutenant in the  American Revolution, serving as paymaster to a New Jersey Regiment. Salesmanship seems to have come naturally – he was allegedly able to talk some English prisoners of war into signing up.

With America’s tiresome British ties eventually cut, he went west. Land grants were something of an early GI bill perq for veterans, and the aftermarket proved an opportunity for the young and ambitious and unscrupulous. Imlay got a position as a surveyor, which made him well placed indeed for gaming the system. Continue reading

Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading