Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957): The Case of Byron’s Slippers

I was reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor and came across the anecdote of Lord Byron’s slippers.  I’d read it before (it’s part of Leigh Fermor’s book of travels in Greece, Roumeli) , but I had forgotten it long since.  The only reason I pricked up my ears this time is that it referred to Judith Blunt-Lytton, 16th Baroness Wentworth,  who I had occasion to mention in this previous post.

Fermor first.  He was a cheerfully wayward autodidact , charmer, adventurer, writer, war hero and social climber who had a particular affection for all things Greek.

As a favor to a friend who was trying to compile a definitive collection of Lord Byron’s letters with a view towards publication (it happened, you can find them here),  Leigh Fermor and a friend  who happened to be on good terms with Lady Wentworth went down to Crabbet Hall for lunch. Continue reading

John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.)  Continue reading

Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673 – 1734: Walk of Life

A theologian, medical doctor, and alchemist.  He it was who came up with Berliner Blau, aka Preussisch Blau, aka Prussian Blue.

Dibbel was the son of a vicar, and one of those articulate and passionate golden boys too smart for his own good and made the worse by a touch of innate contrariness. for its own sake.  His M.A. thesis in theology was titled  De Nihilo.

However goth seeming in theory,  in practice he was quite fervent as far as his theology went.  Lutheran theology, that is.  Nothing more rancorous than a dispute between revolutionaries.  In the case of Dippel, it boiled down to – Orthodoxy Good, Pietism Bad.  On later reflection and perhaps nudged by the cold fact that Orthodoxy did not look good on job applications, he would reverse the order.   Just as well, really.  Under Orthodoxy, he had killed a man in a duel, a misadventure that forced him on the road (something he would have to get used to). Continue reading

Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, 1756-1829: Privilege Done Right

Look him up and the subject will immediately turn to dogs.  Dogs and boots and dinner parties.

“At his table, which was celebrated, Sir Henry invited companions of more than one kind. Bijou and Biche, the two favourite dogs, were often there seated on chairs, with imposing napkins around their necks, and to them each plate was solemnly offered. One day, however, their behaviour not conforming to the ideas of their master, they were punished in the most terrible manner! A tailor was immediately summoned.

” ‘ These blackguards have deceived me,’ said their eccentric master. ‘ I have treated them like gentlemen, they have behaved like rascals. Take their measure! they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets, and stay in the anteroom, and be deprived of the honour of seeing me for a week.’ ”

Nevermind these two, there were plenty of other dogs as well, for each of whom expensive boots were hand made, along with clothing.  All the dogs would sit at table, a servant for each one of them, and let the feasting begin.  They, and the household cats, were also given free use of the earl’s numerous carriages, much to the amazement of their Parisian neighbours.  Ils sont fous, ces anglais!

The writers of potted biographies tend to leave it there, which is very wrong of them.  Truth is, the fellow had a good deal more on offer,  much of it remarkable. Continue reading

Luisa, Marquise Casati Stampa di Soncino (1881 – 1957): All The World’s A Stage

As close to a living Edward Gorey character as you are likely to find, and had that good man written plays or novels, she would have been one of the characters.  No matter.  She was first and foremost a visual creature and therefore perfect for his metier. Tall (nearly six feet), thin, green eyed, decorated with living snakes and accompanied by a pet leopard (this years before Harrods sold such things to the chic young things of 1960’s London).   She was a muse,  and subject for a seeming all of the top visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.

The pictures are beguiling, the stories are irresistible. Her employment of servants who were clad in gold leaf and little else.  Her use of live snakes as a fashion accessory. The pet cheetahs on a leash decades before that became fashionable.  The dinner parties where empty seats were filled with wax dummies  (though it is hard to believe that she could not fill a dinner party as large as she liked if she wanted to).  Couture clothing, jewelry, artwork, books, constant travel and a collection of high end real estate in the most exotic cities of Europe. Continue reading

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, 1404-1440: Gilles et Jeanne

Gilles et Jeanne.  Sounds like a Truffaut film.  The Jeanne in question is Joan of Arc, and the two did in fact work together, fought side by side for France, and both were vilified by and tried by Ecclesiastical courts.  Joan of Arc became a saint. Gilles became the template for Bluebeard.

We all have our bad days.

So what was the back story here, what got him to his ugly end?  You wouldn’t necessarily come to it by a look at his early years.   He was born in 1404, son of minor aristocrat who had fought for the King of France in the earlier stages of the Hundred Years War.   Gilles spoke Latin and illuminated manuscripts.   He was raised by his grandfather, an ambitious man who married Gilles off well, that is to say, to a girl whose family could increase the Monmorency-Laval estates.  Continue reading

Hedy Lemarr 1913-2000/George Antheil 1900-1959: What’s It All About, Hedy?

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Richard Rhodes, Knopf, 2012.

Of course we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover,  but honestly, what are we to make of a Come Hither Hedy sliding down a golden torpedo?  Is this supposed to encourage the sexy girls to bone up on calculus? Or the smart girls to reach for the feather boas?  Work those propellers, baby!  And what exactly are these inventions in the subtitle? I mean, judging from that golden torpedo, well, a guy could get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. Or, or….*

Okay, Americans love an underdog and what better scoop than the Hollywood starlet coming up with a high tech solution to a serious wartime need?   The story’s been kicking around in one form or another since 1942, and for the short version, the details scarcely mattered, not when put next to the glam (hence the cover shot).  Kind of disrespectful of the promised story of intellectual achievement, I would say.  Kind of disrespectful of her lab partner George Antheil, too, which, along with the zing zing picture, may say something about the convoluted state of current sexual politics.

What’s it all about, Hedy? Let’s start at the beginning.

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

Pierre de Camboust, duc de Coislin, 1664 –1710: the Politest Man in France

Pierre de Camboust was a peer of France (sort of the aristocracy of the aristocracy) and a member of the Académie Français at age sixteen.  Other than that, there is little in the way of accomplishment to point to, save perhaps for being a prototype for Alphonse and Gaston. Most of what we know of him comes straight from that first-rate gossip,  Saint-Simon (1675 – 1755).  There’s really no point in paraphrasing.  Here follows S-S’s describing Pierre on the road with two of his brothers, the Chevalier and the Cardinal de Coislin:

“The party rested for the night at the house of a vivacious and very pretty bourgeoise. The Duc de Coislin was an exceedingly polite man, and bestowed amiable compliments and civilities on their hostess, much to the disgust of the  Chevalier. At parting, the Duke renewed the politeness he had displayed so abundantly the previous evening, and delayed the others by his long-winded flatteries.  When at last they left  the house, and were two or three leagues away from it, the Chevalier de Coislin said that in spite of all this politeness, he had reason to believe that their pretty hostess would not long be pleased with the Duke.  The Duke, disturbed, asked his reason for thinking so. Continue reading

Joseph Kyselak, 1799-1831: “Kyselak Was Here.”

A modest official in the Imperial Austria Exchequer, Kyselak was by avocation a mountain climber and even wrote a book on the subject. Possibly on a bet, he vowed that his name would be known throughout the kingdom within three years.   His claim to fame – graffiti.   Soon after making his declaration, Kyselak began to write his name down on rock faces across Austria.   If this were not bad enough, his name also began appearing on building faces in Vienna itself.

Eventually, an unamused Emperor Franz I had the young man brought to his office and forbade him from defacing things in this manner.  Kyselak bowed, promised to behave, and was a allowed to leave.

A little later, the Emperor found the name KYSELAK carved into his desk top.

(For all his fifteen minutes of fame, not a single portrait of the fellow seems to exist. By the way, if you encounter any of his markings, the Kysalek Project wants to hear from you.)