Winnaretta Singer

To continue my recent series of ‘Badass Women’ posts, today I’d like to talk about Winnaretta Singer: heiress, arts patron, two-time princess, open and unapologetic Victorian lesbian.

Oh, and I forgot to add to her bio: fabulous cape-wearer.

I’ll just do some quick bullet points about her life:

1.) She was the 20th of 24 children, so first of all, YIKES. Her father was Isaac Singer, he of the millionaire sewing machine fortune, and his second wife, a Frenchwoman named Isabella Boyer. Of course she had a French mother. Fabulousness was pretty much in her blood.

2.) Her parents had a scandalous damn marriage. Firstly, her mother was thirty years Isaac’s junior (being 22 to his 52). He had divorced his first wife years previously, and had many mistresses over the years. I suppose that’s not really surprising, though, because he looks like a walking hard-on:

Two observations–Winnaretta clearly got her cape-wearing skills from him, and he also looks like the sort of guy who begins every sentence with, “Baby”, Barry White-style.

When Isaac convinced his young second wife Isabella (who was pregnant with his child, but married to someone else at the time) to leave her husband and marry him, it wasn’t Isabella’s former husband who caused the trouble. Oh no. Isaac’s former mistress had him arrested for bigamy, because they apparently had had a common-law marriage.

Turns out he had SEVERAL secret families. While still married to his first wife, Catherine, he had an affair with Mary Ann Sponsler, by whom he had ten children. Over the years, he had other overlapping families, including Mary McGonigal (who bore him five children), and Mary Eastwood Walters (who bore him one daughter).

Well, with three mistresses/common-law wives all named Mary, I guess you don’t have to worry too much about shouting out the wrong name in bed. Unless it’s with one of your actual wives, Catherine and Isabella.

From what I understand, he seemed to settled down once he married Isabella.

3.) Winnaretta’s family seemed to attract scandalous unions. We’ll get to her own marriages and affairs shortly, but it should be known that her nephew, Paris Singer, was the poor, long-suffering sod who was Isadora Duncan’s long-term partner, in this completely banana-pants post I wrote way back in the day.

4.) When Isaac Singer died in 1875, Isabella took the children back to Paris with her. Around 1887, when Winnaretta was 22, she married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, despite it being a fairly open secret that she preferred the company of women.

As the possibly apocryphal story goes, on their wedding night, Winnaretta climbed atop an armoire and told the amorous groom that she would kill him if he came near her. Their marriage went unconsummated until it was annulled in 1892.

5.) Her second marriage, which took place a year after the first one was annulled, was considerably happier. Following in the footsteps of her parents, the ex-princess quickly re-princessed (look at me, making up verbs!) by marrying Prince Edmond Melchior Jean Marie de Polignac, an aristocrat and amateur compose who was exactly 30 years her senior.

The reason for the success of this marriage? They were both openly gay, were extremely good friends, and both had a deep passion for music.

He died only eight years after their marriage, and was sincerely mourned by Winnaretta. She never remarried, although she did have plenty of affairs (more on that later).

6.) Although her first marriage was an unhappy one, it did give Winnaretta initial access to Paris’s elite artistic circles where she quickly became a patron of the arts. She became even more embedded in the arts scene during her second marriage, and established a salon in 1894, which became known as THE PLACE to go for avant-garde music in Paris.

She was so close with musicians that you can actually find several famous compositions dedicated to her, including Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte“, Stravinsky’s “Piano Sonata” and  Fauré’s “Mandoline“.

7.) During both of her marriages (and before and after them), Winnaretta had many affairs that she never attempted to hide. This was revolutionary, and not only because she was a lesbian. As I’ve talked about in previous posts about etiquette and marriage in the upper classes, affairs were fine (mostly), as long as the participants were discreet. It was discretion, not fidelity, that was the prized trait in aristocratic circles. In short: DON’T FUCKING EMBARRASS YOUR SPOUSE IN THE EYES OF SOCIETY.

I’m not sure about how either of her husbands felt about her quite public love affairs, but an educated guess would be that the first husband was pretty pissed and the second husband probably less so.

Winnaretta was rarely single for long, and seemed to favor other married women. This occasionally led to scenes being made by outraged and embarrassed husbands. At one point in Venice, an enraged husband stood in the middle of a palazzo and yelled up at Winnaretta’s apartment, “If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me.

As far as I’m aware, she did not fight him.

8.) It didn’t help that Winnaretta’s affairs were with other high-profile women. The list includes:

Olga, Baroness de Meyer, (the artist’s model, writer, and socialite who was rumored to be Edward VII’s love-child). The affair lasted from 1901-05.

Romaine Brooks (the American painter). It is rumored that Winnaretta left Olga, Baroness de Meyer, for Romaine Brooks. Quel scandal.

Ethel Smyth (English composer and suffragette). She fell violently in love with not only Winnaretta, but (later?) also Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf, although I’m not sure to what extent those other relationships were reciprocated.

Renata Borgatti (Italian musician). Winnaretta was with her in the early 1920s, presumably until Winnaretta met one of the great loves of her life: Violet Trefusis.

Violet Trefusis (English socialite and author). Violet and Winnaretta were together for ten years.

Previously, Violet Trefusis had a notorious affair with author and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West that ended rather badly. Vita Sackville-West went on to have a famous (if rarely consummated) friendship/love affair with Virginia Woolf. Virginia was so smitten with Vita that she wrote Vita’s fantasy-biography, Orlando. In Orlando, Violet Trefusis is portrayed as the heartless and heart-breaking Russian princess, Sasha, who abandons Orlando early in the book.

Alvilde Lees-Milne, Viscountess Chaplin (British gardening expert and landscaper; daughter of the Governor of South Australia). This was all kinds of messy, not only because of their tumultuous relationship, but also because Alvilde had once been involved with Vita Sackville-West, the one-time lover of Violet Trefusis. It looks a bit like Vita and Violet rebounded, respectively, with Winnaretta and Alvilde after they broke up, only to have their rebounds go on to date each other years later.

Alvilde and Winnaretta had their ups and downs, but were together until Winnaretta’s death in 1943.

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