Buffalo Bill and Susan B. Anthony

I’m re-reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) for the third time and stumbled across this story about the unlikely intersection of two huge nineteenth-century celebrities.

A majority of the narrative follows the construction–and ensuing success–of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At this fair, one of the main attractions was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people saw this show during the months the Fair was open. It’s hardly surprising that the occasional celebrity guest turned up.

One such guest had had a rough morning at the fair: suffragette Susan B. Anthony had publicly stated (much to the chagrin of Sabbatarians) that the Fair should remain open on Sundays. While at the Fair, she was accosted by one such outraged Sabbatarian, who asked her if she’d prefer any son of hers to attend Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (apparently the most shocking thing he could think of) rather than go to church.

Anthony responded: “Yes, he would learn far more.” This, of course, confirmed the Sabbatarian’s already-held belief that all suffragists and suffragettes were wicked.

The confrontation was seen by many people, and word got back to Buffalo Bill. “When Cody learned of it, he was tickled, so much so that he immediately sent Anthony a thank-you note and invited her to attend his show. He offered her a box at any performance she chose.

“At the start of the performance Cody entered the ring on horseback, his long gray hair streaming from under his white hat, the silver trim of his white jacket glinting in the sun. He kicked his horse into a gallop and raced toward Anthony’s box. The audience went quiet.

“He halted his horse in a burst of dirty and dust, removed his hat, and with a great sweeping gesture bowed until his head nearly touched the horn of his saddle.

Anthony stood and returned the bow and–‘as enthusiastic as a girl,’ a friend said–waved her handkerchief at Cody.

“The significance of the moment escaped no one. Here was one of the greatest heroes of America’s past saluting one of the foremost heroes of its future. The encounter brought the audience to its feet in a thunder of applause and cheers.

“The frontier may indeed have closed at last, as Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed in his history-making speech at the fair, but for that moment it stood there glittering in the sun like the track of a spent tear” (320-21).

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Guiseppe Mezzofanti

I first found this story in the New Yorker here. The article is about hyperpolyglots, or people who speak at least eleven languages (the general definition of a polyglot is someone who speaks at least five languages).

One of history’s most remarkable hyperpolyglots was Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849), who reputedly spoke over seventy languages.

As the article states: “Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal, was fluent in at least thirty languages and studied another forty-two, including, he claimed, Algonquin. In the decades that he lived in Rome, as the chief custodian of the Vatican Library, notables from around the world dropped by to interrogate him in their mother tongues, and he flitted as nimbly among them as a bee in a rose garden.

Lord Byron, who is said to have spoken Greek, French, Italian, German, Latin, and some Armenian, in addition to his immortal English, lost a cursing contest with the Cardinal and afterward, with admiration, called him a “monster.” Other witnesses were less enchanted, comparing him to a parrot.

“But his gifts were certified by an Irish scholar and a British philologist, Charles William Russell and Thomas Watts, who set a standard for fluency that is still useful in vetting the claims of modern Mezzofantis: Can they speak with an unstilted freedom that transcends rote mimicry?”

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I found this story in Eric Berkowitz’s Sex & Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire (2013). All quotations are from that book.

“Rukhmabai, the daughter of an educated Hindu family, had been married off to Dadaji Bhikaji (variously described in the press was ‘ignorant,’ ‘idle,’ a ‘boor,’ and a ‘coolie’) in 1876, when she was eleven and he was nineteen. The marriage was never consummated, and she remained with her stepfather until 1884, when Dadaji demanded that she come to live with him.

“Bucking thousands of years of tradition, she refused. He then went to the Bombay High Court to get an order forcing her to comply. Dadaji lost the first stage of the case, when the British judge ruled that there was no marriage because there had been no sex, and because hi claim for ‘restitution of conjugal relations’ had no root in Hindu law.

“Dadaji appealed and won; the higher court found that while native law didn’t approve such a suit, it didn’t forbid it either. Rukhmabai was ordered to go to her husband, or to jail for six months.

“Her stepfather then paid Dadaji two thousand rupees [about £370 or $470 in today’s money) to drop his suit, after which Rukhmabai traveled to England to study medicine and become a physician. She eventually returned to India to head up a women’s dispensary.

“The case was picked up in mid-stream by the London Times and immediately became a political and media football. Everyone had an opinion. Not only were Rukhmabai’s stream of letters about her case and the dark fate of Indian child brides generally published and intensely discussed, but so were the opinions of Hindu nationalists, marriage-law reform advocates, and various members of the British ruling class. The controversy tied the bodies of Hindu girls to the stability of British rule in India.

“To Rukhmabai, the issue was inequality: Indian girls were being sacrificed to a system that robbed them of an education and personal freedom [….] Rukhmabai’s views were not shared by Indian nationalists, who regarded British tampering with local marriage practices as an assault on Indian pride.

“British opinion on the Rukhmabai case was divided. Even as the British viceroy cabled messages to his colleagues that ‘it would never do to all her to be put into prison,’ a British ex-judge in India opined in a letter to The Times that ‘in Eastern climates girls are precocious, and, unless early settled in her home, the girl is almost certain to disgrace her family‘ [i.e., Eastern girls become sexually mature at a very early age and, unless married off young, they’ll turn promiscuous]. He went on to observe that the ‘real mistake was educating [Rukhmabai] so as to make her unfit company for her husband‘” (364-66).

Her case was a huge contributing factor to the 1891 Age of Consent Act, which changed the age of consent for girls from 10 to 12 in British India. Girls were still allowed to marry at 10, but consummation had to wait two years–although its unclear how much this new legislation changed anything in practice.

Rukhmabai went on to lead a full medical career for the next thirty-five years. She was also a strong advocate against the practice of Purdah, which is the Indian custom of widows being secluded from society after the death of her husband. Rukhmabai thought it was a sexist practice that rendered especially young widows useless and denied them the chance to live a full life and to contribute to society.

Her loutish husband remarried the year after the dissolution of their marriage. She never remarried, but after her ex-husband’s death in 1904, she decided to wear a white sari in compliance with the Hindu traditions of widowhood. She died in 1955.

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Genevieve Halevy Bizet Straus

This is my third and final post about Marcel Proust’s muses for his Duchess de Guermantes. This week we discuss the fab Genevieve Halevy Bizet Straus. All quotations are from the June 2018 issue of American Vogue.

“But it was through Genevieve Halevy Bizet Straus that the young Marcel (despairingly bourgeois but an assiduous flatterer) first penetrated society. An assimilated Jew (like him) and the mother of a school friend, Genevieve was a fragile, glamorous Bohemian. Her first husband, composer Georges Bizet, died on the eve of achieving world renown with his opera Carmen, whose Gypsy heroine, it was whispered, owed much to his young wife’s dark, Sephardic looks and skill at flirtation.

“Known as the ‘Mauve Muse‘ for the half-mourning she wore for years, Genevieve would loll in a peignoir on her daybed beneath a haunting portrait of herself, to pull the strings of a salon packed with high-profile artists, politicians, and writers.”

Guys, I don’t know one thing more Extra than lolling in a peignoir on a daybed beneath a haunting picture of myself while receiving high-profile visitors. This is presumably her portrait, and an associated lolling face:

She had a sad life–she lost her father (also a composer) and her sister at a young age and her mother suffered from periods of mental illness. Georges Bizet was one of her father’s students, which is how they met, although he died of a heart attack only six years later. It was through her son that she met Marcel Proust (her son and Proust met and became friends at school).

For a long while, she was the darling of French society and her salons were renowned for entertaining some of the brightest minds in Paris. However, according to Wikipedia, her popularity waned after the turn of the century and she became increasingly depressed around 1910. She isolated herself until her death in 1926, outliving both her son and Proust (who both died in 1922).

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Laure de Chevigne

Following up to my post from last week, I’m doing a second one about Marcel Proust’s other muse: Laure de Chevigne. All quotations are from the June 2018 edition of American Vogue.

“Laure de Chevigne’s ancestors included the notorious Marquis de Sade and her namesake, the poet Petrarch’s muse. She parlayed an early marriage to a lackluster count serving the exiled French court in Austria into a leading role among the gratin of Paris. Her salty language, gender-bending fashions, exaggerated links to the ancien regime, and near total independence from her husband delighted members of the all-male Jockey club, even as they raised eyebrows – and blood pressure – elsewhere”.

She was born Laure Marie Charlotte de Sade in 1859 and lived to the ripe old age of 77. She married at 20 and both she and her husbands were legitimists, meaning that they believed in the sovereignty of the eldest branch of the Bourbon dynasty, which was overthrown in 1830. Laure was a great friend of Isabella II of Spain. She was also a heavy smoker, which led to her famously husky voice.

Much like last week’s muse, Laure did not particularly like Proust (I have no idea if he was aware that his muses seemed to hate him; maybe that was part of their allure).


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The Vicomtesse Greffulhe

I found a really interesting article in the June 2018 issue of American Vogue about the French fin de siecle author Marcel Proust (article called “Marcel’s Muses”). I’m going to do a post on each of the three real-life muses that supposedly helped form Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes in his  À la recherche du temps perdu.

The first of these women is the rather magnificently named Elisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay (the future Vicomtesse Greffulhe). According to the article, she “had received, for a girl, an unusually thorough education, often accompanying her father, a Belgian prince, on diplomatic missions. Her marriage at eighteen was a mismatch: The vicomte disparaged his bride’s dark beauty and intelligence, favoring blonde, blue-eyed mistresses.”

La Comtesse Greffulhe dans une robe de bal. Papier albumine, vers 1887. Galliera, musÈe de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

Come on, now. Who needed a mistress when you had a fabulous bish rocking a cape like this?

She was also famous for her very unusual eye colour, which has been described as purple-brown.

She was a particular fan of both fashion and photography, recognising both as significant art forms in their own right. She once said, “I don’t think there is any pleasure in the world comparable to that of a woman who feels she is being looked at by everybody, and has joy and energy transmitted to her.”

Apparently she even upstaged her own daughter at her daughter’s wedding in 1904 by wearing an elaborate dress that is now famously known as her “Byzantine” gown:

Charles FrÈderic Worth (1825-1895). Robe byzantine portee par la Comtesse Greffulhe pour le mariage de sa fille, 1904 – Taffetas lamÈ, soie et filÈ or, tulle de soie, application de paillettes. Galliera, musÈe de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

It was made out of gold lamé, completely encrusted with pearls, and trimmed (rather tackily, in my opinion) with fur. When she entered the church, people in the crowd apparently said, “My God, is that the mother of the bride?”

Despite her unhappy marriage, she led a glittering and privileged life, around which Proust notoriously buzzed, trying to get in with the In Crowd. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, the elderly Vicomtess recalled Proust to her grandchildren as: ‘A displeasing little man who was forever skulking in doorways‘. Somehow, I think he’d be okay with that.

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Malinda Russell

I’ve been way behind on my Vogues lately, but the US June 2018 Vogue had some killer Victorianist stuff in it, so the next few posts are going to be from that issue. God, I’m so fancy. Anyway, it was in their article “A Cut Above” that I first learned of Malinda Russell.

Malinda Russell was the author of A Domestic Cookbook (1866), which was the first cookbook known to be written by a black woman (presumably in the US? The article doesn’t specify). According to Wikipedia, “The book is historically significant, as it shows that black Southern cooking was not solely the domain of poverty cooking, but provides evidence of a sophisticated cosmopolitan skill with complex dishes.”

She was probably born in 1812 in Tennessee. Her mother Karon was a free woman so, as best as I can tell, Malinda was born into freedom as well. Despite Karon’s early death, Malinda received a surprisingly good education for women in general at the time and had high hopes to see the world.

Her plan, at age 19, was to travel to Liberia (I’m not sure if she intended to relocate there permanently or if she just wanted to visit; regardless, a trip of that length at that period could not have been made lightly). She saved up enough money for the trip, received a certificate vouching for her good character, and made it all the way to Virginia where her ship was to leave.

Because the world is a shitty place, Malinda was robbed on the way by a fellow traveler and arrived in Virginia with absolutely nothing. She was forced by circumstance to take up a job with a local family as a nurse and traveling companion. It was there that another freed woman first taught her how to cook.

She married soon thereafter, but her husband died after only four years, leaving her to care for their invalid son on her own. She worked as a laundress to pay the bills, eventually earning enough to return to Tennessee and run a boarding house. From there, she opened a pastry shop, which was very successful until it was raided by a gang of traveling white men in 1864 (the war no doubt increasing the already fraught race relations in the south–especially relations that include a successful, business-owning, single black woman).

She and her son fled quickly to Michigan where she decided to write a cookbook. She self-published the book as a way to supplement her income and in the book gave a potted autobiography, which is how we came to know it as the first cookbook to be written by a black woman. There were undoubtedly others, but their identities have been lost to time. It contained not only 265 recipes, but also recipes for ointments, colognes, and other household and beauty goods.

Unfortunately, a few months after her book went to publication, her entire new town in Michigan was destroyed in a fire. No one knows what happened to her after that–she simply disappeared.

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