Bibi-la-Purée (1847? – 1903) The Last King of the Latin Quarter

“It will come as a shock to every Englishman who has studied in Montmartre to know that the famous Bibi la Puree has been locked up for forgetting to pawn some clothes of a brother bohemian and putting them on himself.  The downfall of this strange character, with his long hair and historical looking clothes, dates from the night when poor Paul Verlaine, the decadent poet, took him home and housed him for a few days.  The poor fellow came back severely stricken with poet mania and has never done a stroke of work since, and never will.  I believe he belongs to one of the most aristocratic families in France.”

The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 38, May 7, 1902

Well, that would be a “no” on most points.

Continue reading

Sweyn Asleifsson, 1116 – 1171: The Ultimate Viking

He was born in Caithness, son of Olaf, who was murdered in 1135 by Olvir Rosta, who a year previously had lost a minor sea battle and carried a grudge.  Olvir’s method of restoring his self esteem was the burning Olaf’s house down while Olaf was still in it.  This is how cycles of violence start, and neglecting to take out the nineteen year old Sweyn was an oversight that was going to cost Olvir.

That would come later.  In the meantime, the boy (who, curiously, took his surname from his mother Aslief) gets his first mention at the 1135 yuletide revels at the household of the earl of Orkney.  It seem the Earl’s cup-bearer had grabbed some of Sweyn’s holiday grog, an act that Sweyn did not take in the spirit of the season. He  stewed for a day or so, then brained the fellow. 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

Antonio Rinaldeschi, ? – 1501: The Perils of a Lost Temper

He had had a bad run at the dice that night, and left the Osteria del Fico (Fig Tree Tavern) the worse for drink and significantly lighter in the pocket, and possibly missing a few articles of clothing.  A disgruntled man on a hot July night – Florence is a furnace in summer –  with an eye out for someone else to blame for his misfortune.  He passed by a fresco of the Madonna at church of Santa Maria degli Alberighi not far from the tavern.

As luck would have it, a horse had recently relieved itself, and Rinaldeschi felt a sudden urge to take out his annoyance on the Virgin who had chosen not to play Lady Luck on his behalf.  He scooped up a bit of the pile and hurled it at the painting. Continue reading

Henry de la Poer Beresford, third marquess of Waterford (1811–1859): Beast and the Beauty

“I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”   A Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare knew his stuff of course, and what he says goes double for those who come into their inheritance too young, especially if that inheritance is large and privileged in the old sense.

Henry de la Poer got his title and his pile at age seventeen while at Eton, and then, oddly, went on to Christ Church, Oxford, from which he was sent down for being rather too much. Continue reading

Wilson Mizner, 1873-1934: “God help those who do not help themselves.”

America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels.  Bernie MadoffKen LayCharles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style.  Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.

Mizner was old school.  He was the youngest son of an old line California family from  Russian Hill.  A beautiful place, but it was not for him.  Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived.  His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on.  At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself.  With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.

He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights.  When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild.  It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but  in the miners’ pockets.

Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss. Continue reading

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610; Darkness and Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Norton, 2011

Caravaggio, brawler, pimp, murderer, fugitive from justice.  Basically your wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley kind of man.

He was also (like Kit Marlowe) an artist of startling quality and originality.   A painter of lush paintings of horrific realism and originator of the Mannerist style.

It’s powerful work, Caravaggio’s and not surprisingly as you read his story, it can be a bit queasy making.

Caravaggio fell out of favor with the art establishment until the twentieth century.  (It happens. You couldn’t give away Vermeers until the late nineteenth century.)  What changed? Difficult to say, though Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio’s style fits in well with the son et lumiere fashion that movie making exploits (there is a good deal of worthwhile ink spilled on Martin Scorcese).  Continue reading

Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

Or, how to make a fortune in public transportation.

Yerkes is one of the Robber Barons who tends to be forgotten amongst the Carnegies and Mellons and J.P. Morgans and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. For one thing, he died nearly broke and the only hard asset legacy he left is the Yerkes Observatory – high tech in its age,  quaint now.

Forgotten or not, his life was the stuff of scandal, full of material worthy of a novel. Theodore Dreiser found Yerkes so irritating that he wrote three: The FinancierThe Titan, and The Stoic.

Well, who reads Dreiser much any more?  (Kind of surprising, given his taste for the rich and seamy.) Continue reading

Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1885-1921: Bloody White Baron

The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2011.

It doesn’t much matter how vile, cruel, insane, despicable a person may be, if the war or country he’s disgracing is obscure, his bad behavior will probably also be obscure.  It was this unfortunate fact that led Hitler to tell doubters that no one remembered the Armenian genocide, and that no one would remember what the Nazis might do.

Wrong on both particulars. The Armenians are getting their overdue press.  That said, there is a depressing truth in the general concept. The victims of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg are still more or less a footnote to the list of atrocious murderers of the twentieth century,  though God knows he tried. Continue reading

Renato Bianco, ca 1500 – ?: Smell The Glove

The story goes that Renato was a foundling and raised by Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella, where the brothers taught him how to distill herbs, presumably for medicinal purposes.  The work was interesting enough, but he other requirement of the order probably less so, and when the master died (rumors of murder were whispered), Renato was looking for something a little less restrictive, a little more glamorous, than being a mere apothecary.

He got his first big break concocting a bespoke scent for Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589).  She was all of fourteen.

She was also decidedly on the way up.  Niece of a pope, daughter of phenomenal wealth, in 1533, she left Florence to wed Henri, second son of King Francis I of France (and eventually king himself), and since France at the time was a backward place nowhere near as civilized as Italy, young Catherine was obliged to bring some civilization with her.  Continue reading