Through a Lorgnette Darkly

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century.  Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.

Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb.  He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive  business of acting in the mid nineteenth century. Continue reading

La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

Mastro Titta (1779–1869): Er dilettante de Ponte

Mastro_TittaA slurred pronunciation of Maestro di Giustizia, or Master of Justice “The dilettante of the bridge”, the name he got from Romanesco poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the bridge being Ponte Sant’ Angelo which connects Rome’s left bank with the Vatican. Belli also credited him as a sure cure for headache.

Titta’s real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti. He was a short, round, amiable man who, with his wife, made his living by manufacturing, decorating, and selling umbrellas to the tourists who visited the nearby Vatican.

As jobs go, it is easily overlooked, and presumably it was neither steady enough nor profitable enough to make ends meet. At age seventeen he found a second income stream.

He was, in the years between 1796 to 1864, the Vatican’s official executioner Continue reading

Charlotte Oelschlegel (1898-1984): Ice Queen

Before there was Ice Capades,  before there was Holiday On Ice, before there was Cirque du Soleil, there was the Hippodrome,  5200 seats of theatrical goodness (this was New York – nothing like it on earth).  It was the venue for that needed filling, and Charles Dillingham was just the guy to fill them.

He had taken over the place seats of the from the Shuberts, and those 5200 seats needed filling.  The Schuberts had already gone through the line of elephants act, the wild west show, and any number of water shows.  Dillingham had bigger things in mind.

Job applicants filled in the forms listing their qualifications:  “drive a car, ride a bicycle, dive, ice or roller skate, ride horseback, plus the usual requirement of quality and range of  voice. Dancing – the basic one – was accepted for granted.” *   Among the final cast were  such now forgotten luminaries as Arthur Deagon the Chubby Comedian and Harry Griffiths, The Jaunty Juvenile;  and the unforgettable John Philip Sousa). Continue reading

Thomas Dallum (ca. 1575 – ca.1614): Don’t Shoot, I’m Only the Organ Player

Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork.  Makes sense.  When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal,  you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged.  Fortunately for Europe,  there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.

As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time.  A simple one handed  pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases,  twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work.  By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate.   And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire,  was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company,  the gift had to be spectacular indeed.

So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III? Continue reading

Catherine Walters (1839 – 1920): Champagne and Skittles

Spurning frown and foe
With slacked rein swift Skittles rules the Row
Thought scowling Matrons stamping steeds restrain
She flaunts Propriety with flapping mane.

Alfred Austin

Do poets write poems to loose women anymore?  Do they even exist anymore, les grandes horizontales?  One reads about high rent hookers occasionally, but really, only in connection with low rent politicians or even lower rent entertainers.  We do not as a rule, however, know their names, or see their pictures in the papers, or even (at least in my provincial circles) hear their names spoken in whispers behind raised hands.  I suppose the last of the breed was Pamela Harriman, and as she tended to marry the men, well, that almost disqualifies her. And what are we to make of her becoming an ambassador?  Of course standards have slipped in recent decades, but I mean to say –  can you imagine the likes of Madame du Barry presenting her credentials at the Court of St James?  Doesn’t bear thinking on. Continue reading

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

Marguerite Joséphine Wiemer, aka Mademoiselle George, 1787-1867: A Woman of Many Parts

Her father was a tailor and the first fifer for a Lorraine Regiment but who yearned for a life of showbiz and eventually lived his dream in a small theatre in Bayeaux, he conducting the orchestra, his wife playing the soubrette roles.  When their daughter was old enough, she too wound up on the boards.

It was a provincial affair, but shuffled along well enough.  Then, in one of those dramatic turns best suited for bad movies, Mademoiselle Raucourt, célèbre tragédienne happened to be passing through, saw the troupe and more to the point, saw something special in the now fourteen year old Marguerite.  She whisked the young thing off the Paris and and put her through the paces, which eventually meant entree to the Comedie Francais.  Her first  major role was as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia in Aulis. (She sounds a bit young for the role, but what is acting if not a convincing lie?)

Among others in the audience was Lucien Bonaparte, brother to the First Consul.  Mlle Georges’ comment:   “In spite of his love for his wife, I think he rather liked me.” 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

Gaby Deslys, 1881-1920: Material Girl

Norman Douglas on the subject of Menton writes in passing that the Riviera seems to have produced no persons of note other  than Andrea Doria and Gaby Deslys.

Clearly a joke that left them in the aisles in 1922, but hers was not a name I was familiar with. My wife, given the name without context, thought she might have been be one of Yves St Laurent’s muses.   Good guess, but wrong.

She was a dancer and and chanteuse and one of the most notorious stage presences of her day.  The Madonna of the aughts and teens,  making up for modest innate talent with colossal work ethic and a flair for publicity.  A multi-millionaire at the time of her death, she hung her numerous hats on the Corniche (229 Avenue Kennedy, Marsailles) in the sort of place that might entice even Gerard Depardieu back to France. Continue reading