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

Harry Crosby (1898 -1929): Rich and Different

Mrs. Allen contends that the let-it-all-hang-out generation of the sixties was not all that revolutionary and really was not a patch on the nineteen twenties.

Reading the life of  Harry Crosby, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Short version, he was a connected Boston boy of privilege gone to the bad.  He prepped at St. Marks and was to go to Harvard (of course), but he found the lure of World War One more attractive and so went off to join the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. Not exactly soft duty – he was nearly killed by an artillery shell, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 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

Sampiero Corso ‘the Fiery’, ‘the Most Corsican of Corsicans’ – 1498-1567

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved Vendetta, on the other, Morte.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans.  No surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.

And while Napoleon had to prove himself to the rest of the world, Sampiero Corso was concerned only with his own country and his own people.  Keeping it local, as it were, which is a sensible scope for any political leader.

He was born a commoner in 1498 near Bastelica.  Then as now, the army was a means to advancement, and a little less now than then, fighting as a mercenary under foreign flags was a respectable career path.  He started out on that path at age fourteen.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Continue reading

John Harrington, 1561-1612 : Toilet Humor

Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
If treason prosper, none dare call it treason

Old joke, and a good one.  The other night we were trying to remember whose it was.  Too light hearted for Milton.  Too old timey for Dr. Johnson.  Not quite good enough for Shakespeare, but about that period.

It was John Harrington.

He was one of your basic old Etonians who went on to Cambridge. He was also the godson of Elizabeth I, which connection helped him get a minor place at court.  He was witty, or close enough for courtly work.   Seemed to have a taste for dirty jokes.  They must have been utterly filthy – the story is they got him exiled to Kelston, near Bath.*  Well, the jokes, and the stuff insulting the government in general Continue reading

Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737 – 1772) Lèse Majesté

We got a copy of A Royal Affair the other week, drawn in mostly on the basis of the costume drama appeal.  It’s good stuff, and the more I watched it, the more I  wondered how much the film makers had fiddled with the truth.  I mean to say,  American movies that tear their stories from yesterday’s headlines are almost invariably poppycock.

The Danes, as it turns out, are a bit better at the whole thing, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop now and get yourself the video. This post isn’t going anywhere.

So – Struensee was a precocious son of a German superintendent (much like a bishop) of Schleswig-Holstein.   He trained in medicine, getting degreed at a young age, and spent his off hours rebelling against the stodgy doctrines of his elders. 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

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

Elizabeth Sutherland Leveson-Gower, 19th Duchess of Sutherland, 1765–1839; “Scotch people are of happier constitution…”

I was digging around a Scottish root of the family tree and reading about the ill-fated Clan Gunn (great-grandfather Harry Nelson of Stirling, and so a member) when I came across a reference to the Highland Clearances and the evil Countess of Sutherland.

Highland Clearances were one of those suspiciously neutral phrases so disliked by George Orwell.  But an “Evil Countess”?  Not a lot of wiggle room with that kind of talk.  It was irresistible.  I had to know more.

The countess in question turns out to be Elizabeth Gordon,  only child of the 18th earl of Sutherland and his wife.  One of those households so yearned for by young readers of children’s books where the parents exit early  and both freedom and responsibilities  are put on tiny shoulders.   In Ms Gordon’s case,  the title came to her just after her first birthday.  Already we can see where this story is going. Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading