Saturday, February 28, 2009

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire

This post was suggested to me by one of my readers, Kenneth Campbell. I'm fudging a bit on the science stuff because even though I took 4 years of biology in high school, I still never managed how to figure out how to turn on the bunsen burner!

She was one of the most beautiful and brilliant women of the Enlightenment age, and the lover of Voltaire. Her name should be on everyone's lips but due to the erasing of most women from history, Emilie du Chatelet is not as well known as she should be.

Born in December of 1706 to a well-to-do family, Emilie was encouraged in her studies by her father. Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil was the Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to Louis XIV. This gave him access to all the great thinkers of the day who came to court. Emilie's father would bring them home to meet Emilie like Fontenelle, who was the perpetual secretary of the Academie de Sciences. They talked astronomy together when Emilie was ten years old. Despite the fact that most girls of her class were barely educated, many couldn't write their own names, Emilie had a classical education, much to the disgust of her mother who only cared about Emilie making a brilliant marriage. Her father also arranged for her to having fencing and riding lessons, she learned Latin, Italian, Greek, and German. When the family fell on hard times, Emilie used her mathematical skills to win at gambling. The money she won, she used to buy books, instead of dresses and fripperies.

At the age of 18, she played the dutiful daughter and married the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet (it was Voltaire who introduced the spelling Chatelet), becoming a Marquise. Out of all of her suitors, the Marquis was the only one that Emilie felt she could tolerate. The Marquis promised not to interfere with her studies, and Emilie turned a blind eye to his infidelities. After bearing three children, Emilie was bored out of her mind. She moved to Paris where she hoped that she would be able to find some way to pursue her studies further. Her husband didn't mind because he felt that a pied a terre would be good to have in the capital.

Emilie soon found herself involved in a love affair with the duc de Richelieu, great grand nephew of Cardinal Richelieu. The duc was rich, powerful, and extremely handsome, men wanted to be him, and women threw themselves at his feet, begging him to make love to them. Emilie was a different kettle of fish. He fell for her because he liked to talk to her. She was witty and talked a mile a minute about the things she loved, which was mainly science and the theories of John Locke. The affair didn't last long, the duc couldn't be faithful to anyone, and the very thing that made Emilie different began to pall after awhile. Still they managed to end their affair with dignity and remain friends. Now that Emilie had discovered sexual satisfaction, she yearned for a man who could satisfy her both intellectually and sexually.

She found in him Voltaire. Born Francois Marie Arouet in 1694, he had just returned from a long exile in England. His father had been a lawyer and notary who despired of his youngest son. He took the name Voltaire during his first sojourn in the Bastille. Since his father thought so little of him, why should he keep his name? Emilie and Voltaire were introduced by mutual friends in 1733. Emilie was 26 and Voltaire was thirty-eight. Already he was famous for his plays and poems and his ability to get into trouble. His English exile had come about because he insulted the nephew of Cardinal de Rohan, how had Voltaire beaten up for his pains. When Voltaire protested, his aristocratic friends turned their back on him and he was jailed. Given the choice of another sojourn in the Bastille, Voltaire chose exile in England.

Why did you only reach me so late?
What happened to my life before?
I hunted for love, but found only
I found only the shadow of our pleasure.
You are a delight
You are tender
What pleasure I find in your arms
Voltaire to Emilie du Chatelet

Emilie and Voltaire were immediately attracted to each other and became lovers soon after they met. They were so hot for each other that they broke the conventional rules of adultery, showing their affection in public, romping indiscreetly all over the countryside. Voltaire had finally found a woman who was intellectually his equal, although his superior in rank. Emilie finally had a man who respected her brain as well as her body. In Voltaire's case, he had finally met a woman who respected and adored him. He taught her how to speak English so that they could converse without anyone understanding what they were talking about. She read his work and gave him gentle criticisms. Voltaire had managed to make a fortune by manipulating the French lottery, which impressed Emilie.

Although they were in love, the relationship had its ups and downs. Voltaire was a terrible hypochondriac, and Emilie, although she tried, had little patience when he fell ill. They broke up briefly and Emilie plunged into an affair on the rebound with Moreau de Maupertuis, an explorer and scientist. Although intellectually they were compatible, she didn't love him the way she loved Voltaire. He also tended to treat her more like a mistress and less like a fellow scientist. She missed Voltaire and they soon became lovers again. They even found a project that they could work on together, a wife for their mutual friend, the duc de Richelieu.

Soon after they moved into the Chateau Cirey, a tumble down chateau owned by Emilie's husband in the country between Champagne and Lorraine where they would spend the next ten years on and off. The move was precipitated by Voltaire who had gotten into trouble again. His book Letters from England had been censored, but the printer, looking to make a quick buck had printed it anyway and was selling copies. Voltaire escaped the arrest warrant by fleeing to the duc de Richelieu's camp, where he lived among the soldiers for a few weeks, instead of fleeing to Switzerland or the low countries. When Emilie found out that he had moved into the Chateau and had started renovations, she was pissed. It caused yet another rift which was soon healed when Emilie again realized that Voltaire was the only man for her.

They discovered that they were both enamored of Newton and decided to work together to further interest in the late scientist. They also worked together on a study of the Bible as well. They also liked to put on plays in the Chateau's little theater, where Emilie would also entertain by singing. Voltaire's interest in science was sparked by his lover, he decided to enter a contest dealing with experiments with light and fire. Emilie too entered the contest anonymously. Neither won, but Voltaire soon realized that Emilie's mind was quicker than his. She managed to best his work even though she didn't have the expensive equipment that he was using. He quickly realized that the only reason that she had been ranked lower than him in the results was because she was a woman. His pride was pricked although he refused to admit it. Soon, Emilie and Voltaire were hanging out with some of the best minds in France, and Emilie soon began a correspondance with other scientists. Her work was beginning to be recognized and her intellect approved of by more than just Voltaire.

Their idyll was also interrupted by Voltaire's inability to hold his tongue. He'd already gotten into trouble once during the duc de Richelieu's wedding when he ended up fighting a duel with the bride's cousin and killing him. Their relationship also ruffled feathers at court. Versailles ran by making it the center of life for the nobility, for Emilie and Voltaire to be happy in the country meant that other aristocrats might get the same notion in their heads and realize that Versailles was not the center of the world after all. They were saved by the fact that Emilie's husband and Voltaire became good friends.

Emilie was also involved in a court case involving her newly discovered half-sister, and the cousin who was upset at having to share the family wealth. She had also moved on from Newton to his great rival Gottfried Leibniz and his theories. They were starting to grow apart with their now seperate interests. Voltaire had given up science for history, planning a biography of Louis XIV that was not flattering to the Sun King. There was also the problem of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Voltaire had been corresponding with the new monarch since he was still the crown prince. Now that he was King, Voltaire was hoping to put his Newtonian principles into practice by advising the new King.

He used Emilie's contacts at court to be sent as a sort of spy for the French government to the Prussian court. Emilie tried to convince him not to go but his pride demanded it. In Prussia, he found a King who on the surface seemed indolent but it was only a ruse, Frederick had great plans involving his army. Voltaire was just a prize to be won. The long seperations from Emilie began to take its toll on the realtionship. Puffed by the King's flattery, Voltaire became indiscreet in his letters, criticizing not only the French government but also Emilie. All his resentment towards her came out in his letters, but what Voltaire didn't know was that his letters were not private. Frederick had been sharing them with others and the news got back to Emilie about what her lover was saying about her. The two lovers split once again.

Voltaire tried to salvage his reputation by becoming a courtier at Versailles, the very thing that he had never wanted to become. Emilie was appalled and distraught over the end of their relationship. She gave up her work and spent more time gambling, but her old skill had left her and she ended up in debt. When she wrote to Voltaire for help, he made her wait until the last possible minute before paying the debts. Voltaire and the duc de Richelieu saw a chance to curry favor with the King when his latest mistress died. They found Jeanne de Poisson, the daughter of a fishmonger, and introduced her to the King, figuring she'd be grateful to them. However, Jeanne was much smarter than they gave her credit for, as the King became more enamored and heaped money and titles such as Madame de Pompadour on her, the more independent she became. He'd also become involved in an unsatisfying affair with his widowed niece.

Soon Emilie and Voltaire realized that they needed each other. Their sexual relationship was over, there was too much water under the bridge for that, but their friendship and love still remained. Soon they were back living at Cirey again and working. Emilie was working on a book that would be called Institutions de Physique (“Lessons in Physics”) a review of new ideas in science and philosophy but it incorporated and sought to reconcile complex ideas from the leading thinkers of the time including Leibniz and Newton. She also began a translation into French of Newton's Principles of Mathematics.

Emilie fell in love in her early 40s with the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert, who was ten years younger than her. The love affair was fraught, Saint-Lambert had been the lover of marquise de Boufflers, the mistress of King Stanislaus of Poland, father-in-law of Louis XV. Emilie had thought that affair was over but she soon discovered that it wasn't. Still she couldn't give him up and she became pregnant. When Voltaire discovered the relationship, he was jealous, despite the fact that he and Emilie were no longer lovers themselves. Emilie convinced him that she took a lover because she knew that Voltaire was getting on in years, and needed his health to complete his work, not spending time making love to her. It seemed to appease him. To still the gossip about whose child she was carrying, Emilie's husband came to Cirey for a few weeks, while Voltaire made a hasty exit.

In a letter to a friend she confided her fears that, because of her age, she would not survive her confinement. During her pregnancy she moved into Stanislaus's suite at Versaille where she doubled her efforts to finish her book on Newton, staying up until 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning. The relationship with Saint-Lambert ended on a sour note when Emilie told him that she was pregnant. Even before that, there were signs that he was using her for advancement and not for love. He was insecure in his talent, aware that he was no poet like Voltaire. Emilie tried to soothe his ego but he knew that she was not impressed with his writing. Emilie bore the child, but died six days later from an embolism at the age of 42 in September of 1749. The child, a daughter, soon died as well.

Voltaire was distraught. "I've lost the half of myself - a soul for which mine was made." Months after her death, his servant Longchamps would find him wandering through the apartments that he had once shared with Emilie in Paris, plaintively calling her name in the dark. Voltaire soon left Paris for Berlin where he was involved in the Academy of Sciences. He helped to prepare Emilie's book for publication. It came out ten years after her death, called The principles of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of Newton," just in time for the return of Halley's comet. Her work contributed to energizing the school of theoretical physics in France. As for Voltaire, he began a long correspondance with Catherine the Great from his villa in Switzerland where he lived after leaving Berlin in 1758. He wrote Candide, which was turned into a Broadway musical in the 1950's. He died in 1778, having outlived Emilie for almost thirty years.

What Emilie and Voltaire shared was rare in the 18th century, or any century for that matter. For two people to find each other both sexually, and intellectually compatible, particularly in an era where intelligence in women wasn't exactly a prize, was a miracle. Despite the travails they went through, Emilie and Voltaire still came back to each other in the end. The strength of their feelings for each other outweighed all the hurt and anger. Although Voltaire was a published playwright and writer both before and after his relationship with Emilie, she spurred him onto new heights and to new ideas. As for Emilie, he gave her the courage and confidence to believe in herself and her work.

Sources and further reading include:
Passionate Minds - David Bodanis, Crown Publishers, 2006
Voltaire in Love - Nancy Mitford

Chateau Cirey - Where Voltaire and his Emilie lived

Monday, February 23, 2009

Flora Fraser Book Signing

Historical biographer Flora Fraser will be discussing her new book tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24
12:30 pm --

Idlewild Books, 12 W. 19th Street (near 5th Ave.), New York, NY. Flora Fraser will discuss her new biography PAULINE BONAPARTE: Venus of Empire.

I will definitely be there. I already have a copy of the book which I will be reviewing on Scandalous Women next week.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hollywood's Golden Couple: Gable and Lombard

It was only supposed to be a simple trip. Carole Lombard had been asked by the President to undertake a war bond drive starting in her home state of Indiana. Roosevelt had been inspired by the bond drive initiated during World War I and who successful stars like Mary Pickford, Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks had been in persuading the public to buy. Indiana had been one the biggest states in war bond sales and it seemed fitting that Carole Lombard should be asked to spearhead the drive.

Actually her husband Clark Gable had been originally asked but Gable bowed out due to his fear of public speaking. Lombard willingly stepped up to the plate and Roosevelt thought it grand that a native of Indiana should take the reigns. On January 15, she arrived in the capital Indianapolis by train. Lombard's trip was a great success, she sold $2 million dollars worth of bonds in fifteen hours, and she was eager to get back to Hollywood and Gable. Despite her mother's pleas that the trip was unlucky (her mother was a numerologist and the number 3 which is unlucky kept cropping up), and the toll the long plane ride would take cross country, a whopping 17 hours from Indiana to LA with a stop for refueling in Las Vegas, Carole could not be talked out of it. She insisted that she could sleep when she got back to Los Angeles. They left on Friday, January 17th early in the morning. Unfortunately Carole should have listened to her mother. The plane crashed in the Spring mountains and everyone was lost, including Lombard and her mother.

Gable was devastated when he heard the news. Gable and Lombard had only been married a few years when she died. After a tumultuous courtship, and the struggle over his divorce, they had finally settled into the rhythm of marriage. They had even overcome Gable's inability to resist anything in a skirt. It was not supposed to end this way.

Nobody knew when they first making "No Man of Her Own," that the two stars of the picture would one day be seen as one of the greatest love stories in Hollywood history. The two actors just barely got along. Gable thought of Lombard as a bit of a prima donna, and Lombard didn't want to be just another notch on Gable's belt. She had just married debonair actor William Powell and wasn't looking for an on-set romance. When the movie was over, Carole presented Gable with a large ham with his picture on it.

Flashforward to 1936. Lombard is now divorced from Powell, who remains one of her closest friends. Gable is now seperated from his second wife, Ria Langham Gable, a much older two-time divorcee he married in 1931. Gable and Lombard meet again at ball at the Mayfair Club. They danced several dances and sparks flew, Lombard invited him to an after-party at her house, but he left in a huff when he realized that they weren't going to be alone. Lombard sent him a dove as make-up present. Gable kept inviting Carole out but she was always busy. No way was she going to sit at home waiting for him to call. Smart woman that she was, Lombard played hard to get, something that was new for Gable. After a few minor setbacks, they were soon a couple.

On the surface, they couldn't have been more different. Lombard was born Jane Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 6, 1908 to an upper middle class family. Her parents seperated when she was 6, and her mother moved her and her two brothers to Los Angeles. A tomboy who loved to play the same games as her two older brothers, Lombard was discovered by director Allan Dwan while playing a game of softball. She was cast as the tomboy daughter in a silent film called "A Perfect Crime," when she was only 12. Carole left school at 16 to pursue her career as an actress. She was soon signed to Fox studios but her career was over before it began when she was in a car accident at 18. She and a beau were waiting for the light when their car was rear-ended. Carole hit the windshield. At the hospital, she had to endure 14 stitches without anesthetic because the surgeon told her if they waited it would be worse. While healing, Lombard immersed herself in learning about the filmmaking process from lighting to the camera in order to learn how to minimize the scar on her face. She was soon back making pictures this time with Mack Sennett before she finally ended up at Paramount Pictures.

Gable on the other hand had lived a rougher life. Born in Cadiz, Ohio in February of 1901, Gable's mother died soon after he was born. His father was an oil driller who eschewed anything that smacked of learning. Gable's stepmother encouraged him in school and in pursuing his dreams. When she died, Gable dropped out of highschool and drifted for a few years before he finally had the courage to pursue his dream of acting. His father disowned him thinking that acting was a job for sissies. Gable drifted to the Pacific Northwest where he ended up doing odd jobs for a theater company. It was there he met his first wife Josephine Dillon who took him in hand and taught him how to walk and talk on stage. They married in 1924. Josephine was 11 years older than Clark and was clearly a substitute for the stepmother that he had lost.

Soon however, Gable didn't need Dillon anymore as he began to pick up more and more acting work. After a stint doing regional theater in Houston, Gable made his way to New York with his new girlfriend, Ria Langham. Langham picked up where Dillon had left off, this time teaching Gable how to dress and how to mingle with high society. Gable made his Broadway debut in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal which was a great success. It was now time to go back to Hollywood and films. Langham paid for a production of The Last Mile, casting Gable in the role that Spencer Tracy had created on Broadway. The gamble paid off and soon he was signed by MGM, despite his less than stellar looks at the time. Gable needed his teeth capped and he unfortunately looked like a sugar bowl when he was filmed straight on. He grew a moustache which became his signature look and was soon on his way starring in films with heavyweights Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford with whom he would have an on and off affair for the next thirty years. It was a good time for Gable to get started in films. Male stars were thin on the ground since the coming of sound. Gable was masculine in the extreme compared to silent screen stars like Valentino and Ramon Novarro, women swooned, and men wanted to be him.

By 1936, Gable was the King of Hollywood, an Academy Award winning actor for 'It Happened One Night,' and Lombard was the highest paid female actor in films. They were both at the height of their careers. Lombard was unlike any woman that Gable had ever been with. She was the type of woman who looked like a lady but could also be a dame. A real man's woman. Although initially Lombard wanted Gable because he was the King, she soon fell deeply in love with him. She realized that underneath the masculine exterior, he was really a shy little boy.

Still, Lombard's friends warned her about Gable, they felt that he was too high maintenance for Carole. Lombard had a reputation for being a fun-loving and generous woman, who would give the shirt off her back to anyone. She was known for paying for the medical bills of actors who couldn't afford it and never once asked to be repaid. She could also curse like a sailor, a habit that she learned from her brother's who taught her to swear to keep away any suitor who had wandering hands. Practical jokes were her specialty as well, she once showed up at a party in an ambulance dressed in a hospital gown. She was a screwball heroine come to life.

Soon however, her life with Gable became more important to her than her career. Gable slowly weaned her off her entourage of friends and hangers on. Although she still played practical jokes, she became a little less zany Carole Lombard, and the more sophisticated woman she really was. She learned to hunt and fish which Gable's favorite hobbies, becoming so good that she was soon a better shot than Gable! Their relationship had an effect on Gable as well. He learned to be more social, and to be more generous. He had a reputation for stinginess in Hollywood, the leftover from the lean years of his career when he had nothing. The loving couple soon called each other "Ma" and "Pa." Lombard moved to Bel-Air where the couple would have more privacy from the prying eyes of Hollywood and the detectives that Gable's wife had spying on him.

The only flaw in their life together was the fact that he wasn't divorced. The hold-up being that Gable didn't want to have to give up so much money to Ria. After three years together, Carole was getting frustrated. She wanted to marry Gable and start the process of making little Gables. It was finally a Hollywood fan magazine that led to their marriage. Photoplay magazine had written an article called "The Unmarried Couples of Hollywood" profiling couples like Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, Gable and Lombard, and Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin. MGM and Louis B. Mayer hit the roof. It was time for Gable and Lombard to become respectable married people. When Gable complained about how much Ria was soaking him for, Mayer raised his salary from $3,500 to $7,000 a week so that he could afford to get a divorce.

Ria was soon wending her way to Reno to establish residency for a quickie divorce. As soon as it was legal, Gable and Lombard were married in March of 1939. Gable was soon immersed in making Gone with the Wind, a movie that Lombard had hoped to star in with him. When that didn't happen, Lombard decided to take a year off so that they could start a family. They soon ran into problems, Lombard had often suffered from terrible monthly problems, and doctors told her that it would be difficult but not impossible for her to conceive. She had a miscarriage after horseback riding, and she was told to curtail all strenuous athletic activities. Lombard, the feminist, wanted nothing more than to have children, and retire gracefully from the screen, leaving her husband to be the only movie star in the family. This might sound strange coming from a woman who had been supporting herself since her teens, but Lombard sensed that Gable needed to be the big cheese and was happy to accomodate him.

The married Gables were probably even happier than the unmarried couple. They bought a ranch in the San Fernando valley, and spent their time trying to make it profitable. Lombard still accompanied Gable on camping trips. The only fly in the ointment was that Gable couldn't be faithful. Lombard had no problem with the extras, secretaries and flunkies that Gable slept with. She only feared actresses like Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr, women who were more on her level. Carole spent a great deal of time on set when Gable made Honky Tonk woman with Lana Turner keeping an eye on the teenager to make sure that the love scenes were only for the screen.

Gable and Lombard were entering their third year of marriage when Lombard headed to Indiana that January of 1942. By this time, their relationship was in its sixth year which was like twenty years for people outside the Hollywood dreamland. When Lombard's plane crashed that cold January day, the life went out of Clark Gable. He immediately joined the army Air Corps as a private, and volunteered for the most dangerous missions during the war. He left the army with the rank of Captain. He kept Lombard's room at their ranch house like a shrine, changing nothing. Always a heavy drinker, now he drank even more. At one point he was drinking a fifth of scotch a day.

For the rest of his life, he tried to find a substitute for Lombard. He married Lady Sylvia Ashley, the widow of Douglas Fairbanks senior. But Lady Sylvia couldn't cope with the ghost of Lombard, although she tried to turn herself into a Lombard clone. When that marriage went south after three years, Gable swore he would never marry again, but in 1955, he married Kay Spreckels, a former actress and Lombard look-a-like. Like Lombard, she was sassy and not afraid to speak her mind to Gable. Spreckels had been in love with Gable for years, and had no problem dealing with Lombard's ghost.

They were married for almost 6 years when Gable had his fatal heart attack after filming The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, two lost and desperate souls. His only son, John Clark Gable was born several months after his death. Gable was buried next to his beloved Carole.


Gable's Women - Jane Ellen Wayne
Gable and Lombard - Warren G. Harris
Clark Gable - David Brent
Carole Lombard - Wes D. Gehring

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Scandalous Movie Casting: Bonnie Parker

Anyone who reads the tabloids or watches the infotainment shows has probably heard that Hilary Duff has been cast as Bonnie Parker in a new movie about Bonnie & Clyde. Well when Faye Dunaway, the star of the 60's classic Bonnie & Clyde, heard the news she told a reporter "Couldn't they have found a real actress?"

Not to comment on Hilary Duff's acting chops but if you look at pictures of Bonnie Parker like the one on the left, she looks a lot more like Hilary Duff than Faye Dunaway. Bonnie Parker was tiny, barely five feet tall and skinny. And she was seriously young while she was robbing those banks. She died at the age of 24 in a hail of bullets. My concern is more about the director's comment that Bonnie Parker will never shoot a gun in her movie. Uh, seriously? What's that in her hand? It looks like a gun to me and she looks like she knows how to use it.

Seriously, Bonnie wasn't just sitting in the car, doing her nails while Clyde and his brother Buck were robbing banks, people.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson

I'm guest blogging today over at The Risky Regencies about the love affair of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Please stop by and join me! It's my first time guest blogging and I'm a little nervous.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Scandalous Women is 'Excessively Diverting'!

Vic at Jane Austen's World just tagged me with The Excessively Diverting Blog Award. I'm so excited and pleased. Now it is my turn to share the love with some other worthy blogs.

Recipients, please claim your award by copying the HTML code of the Excessively Diverting Blog Award badge, posting it on your blog, listing the name of the person who nominated you, and linking to their blog. Then nominate seven other blogs that you feel meet or exceed the standards set forth. Nominees may place the Excessively Diverting badge in their side bar and enjoy the appreciation of their fellow blogger for recognition of their talent.

Okay, it was really hard to choose but these are my seven most diverting blogs on the Internet. Most of them are history heavy but I have a few that aren't.

History Undressed - One of the most entertaining blogs on the net. Eliza Knight writes about a different aspect of history from clothing to enduring myths every week.

Reading the Past - A blog giving you the best of the most recent historical fiction.

History Hoydens - A group blog featuring historical fiction writers, Lauren Willig, Tracy Grant, Pamela Rosenthal among others.

Raucous Royals - One of the best and funniest blogs on Royalty on the Internet

The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century and Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century

My50's Year - One woman's quest to live the life of a 1950's housewife for a year

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Catherine the Great and Potemkin

SWF, 44, CEO of large multinational corporation, smart, witty, loves horseback riding, palace coups, and expanding into foreign territories, seeks SWM, must be fleshy, charismatic, and willing to take orders. War heroes always welcome. Applicant should have 'enormous assets.' Must like hot saunas, long walks, talking late into the night about rights of man, and the greatness of 'Mother Russia.' No puny weaklings or drunken sadists need apply. Successful applicant will receive many rewards, including thousands of rubles, country estates, and titles.

By the time Catherine the Great (1729-1796) met Grigori Potemkin in 1772, she had been Empress of Russia for 9 years. Born Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine had been chosen to be her cousin Karl Ulrich's (the future Peter III) bride at the age of 15, probably because the Empress Elizabeth felt that she would be biddable and grateful for having been rescued from osbcurity.

Married at 16, Catherine's marriage was unconsummated for seven years. Her husband Peter, a puny, ineffectual weakling, who preferred playing with toy soldiers, chose one ugly hunch-backed mistress after another, making Catherine the laughing stock of the Russian court. Finally the Empress Elizabeth threw up her hands in frustration and suggested through intermediaries that Catherine take a lover, going on the theory that a child by any father was better than none. Catherine was seduced by ladies man Sergei Salytkov who became the father of her son, the future Tsar Paul.

Catherine soon took other lovers, including Stanislaus Poniaktowski, the future King of Poland, but it was Gregory Orlov, and his brothers who helped Catherine seize the throne. Catherine bore a son by Orlov, but he soon began cheating on her, throwing his weight around, and sulking when she spent too much time ruling her vast Empire. She was grateful to him for putting her on the throne, Orlov was now boring her, and she'd replaced him with other lovers but no one had that something-something that would leave her feeling satisfied. Orlov had also betrayed her by falling in love with his young cousin. Catherine gave him her blessing along with a substantial sum, and welcomed the young woman to court.

When Potemkin (1739-1791) arrived in St. Petersburg, he was like a breath of fresh air to Catherine. He was tall, broad shoulders, fleshy with sensual lips. He wore his hair long and unpowdered, not classically handsome, he was also blind in one eye, refusing to wear an eye patch. Charismatic and intelligent, he had an enormous personality as well as an enormous, well you know what I mean (rumor has it that Catherine had a plaster cast made of her lover's appendage that was kept in the Hermitage Museum for years. However, if it existed, it is now lost. Perhaps it will turn up one day like Napoleon's penis). Women threw themselves at him, and men wanted to be like him. Catherine took one look at him and said "Mama like."

Like Orlov, Potemkin didn't come from the nobility, his father was a minor army officer. Born in the Ukraine, Potemkin studied at the University of Moscow before joining the Chevalier Guard. He'd been one of the officers who had participated in the palace coup that put Catherine firmly on the throne of Russia. On becoming reacquainted, they immediately became lovers. He urged Catherine to get rid of her current lover and focus all her attention on him. Catherine was soon besotted with her lover, nicknaming him 'Grisha.' She would leave little notes for him, some sexual and some political. "There is not a cell in my whole body that does not yearn for you, oh infidel!" read one. Another day she wrote, "Beloved, I will do as you order, should I come to your room, or will you come to mine?"

"Oh Monsieur Potemkin! By what sorcery have you managed to turn a head which is generally regarded as one of the best in Europe!" The lovers met at night in the palace sauna where they took their meals. It was here that they ate, made love, and made plans for the Empire. Catherine was so besotted with her new lover that she may even have married him in a morganatic marriage. There was precedence for it. The Empress Elizabeth married her favorite. Her correspondance supports this theory, she was soon referring to him in letters as 'my dear husband,' and signing herself 'your devoted wife.'

In Potemkin, Catherine had found her ideal lover. He had prodigious energy and intellect. Not only was he intelligent but he was also a musician, architect and a poet. He was also ambitious and it was this ambition that changed the nature of their relationship. Although Catherine had heaped more honors on her lover, even having him made a Prince, than ever Gregory Orlov received, Potemkin was not satisfied. Not even having been made a member of her secret council and a vice president of the council of war was enough. He wanted real power, but there could only be one Emperor and Catherine already had that role.

Potemkin began to act outrageously, flaunting his relationship with the Empress. He would show up at council meetings in his bathrobe, walk around without underwear, eat radishes during meetings. Despite his behavior, Catherine relied on him completely. He was her other half, her Marc Antony. They fought as often as they made lover. Of course, Potemkin's relationship with the Empress inspired jealousy and hatred among her courtiers who couldn't understand how the Empress could favor this coarse and crude giant.

Finally their differences began to pull them apart. While Catherine was extremely disciplined, going to bed early at night, spending hours working on state papers, Potemkin was erratic. He would work for many hours straight only to collapse exhausted. He'd like to work hard and to play hard. He also chafed under Catherine's constant emotional and physical demands. He would tease Catherine by refusing to make love to her, keeping her waiting for him at night, and not showing up. Catherine finally realized that in order to keep him, she would have to let him go. However, Potemkin was smart, he decided to personally choose his successor in Catherine's bed. Someone who would not replace him in the Empresse's right-hand man. Candidates were vetted by him and then taken to bed by Catherine's friend, the Countess Bruce to assess their bedroom potential. Only then were they delivered to Catherine.

Potemkin left St. Petersburg to govern various provinces for Catherine, reporting his progress to her. He still advised her but at a distance, when he came to St. Petersburg they still slept together but it was with the familiarity of old lovers. In 1783, he ended up in the Crimea, where he could play absolute ruler. He invited foreign colonists to come and take up residence, founding new cities such as Sebastopol, and Odessa. He built the Black Sea fleet which he used to defeat the Turks, adding more territory to Russia. He was an enlightened ruler who tolerated many faiths.

In the Crimea, he lived like a Sultan with a harem, walking around in loose trousers and caftans. He had a hundred and twenty piece orchestra that played at all hours of the day and night. A great showman, he would throw huge banquets, spending thousands of rubles at a time. He was known as 'Serenissimus, the Prince of Princes,' the most brilliant statesman in Russia since Peter the Great. Still, like most successful men, Potemkin grew bored. Having achieved all his ambitions, he wondered what there was left to conquer. Still he kept up a running correspondance with Catherine, giving her advice. In 1787, he invited Catherine to see the greatness that he had created out of nothing. Seeing him in his element made Catherine realize that none of her other lovers could touch Potemkin for greatness.

Potemkin died in 1791 on his way from St. Petersburg to make peace with the Turks. He never made it. He died on the side of the road, on a mattress, suffering from malarial fever and liver failure. When Catherine heard the news, she sobbed, "Whom shall I rely on now? Prince Potemkin has played me a cruel turn by dying! It is on me on whom the burden now falls."

Although Catherine would continue to have lovers up until the day she died, none stood taller than Potemkin in her life and soul. He was the great love of her life, the only love greater was her love for Russia.

Sources include:

Great Catherine - Carrolly Erickson
Sex with the Queen - Eleanor Herman, Harper Perennial, 2006
Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner - Simon Sebag Montefiore, Vintage Books (2005)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Scandalous Movie Review: Impromptu

Impromptu (1991), directed by James Lapine

Judy Davis - George Sand
Hugh Grant - Frédéric Chopin
Mandy Patinkin - Alfred de Musset

Bernadette Peters - Marie D'Agoult
Julian Sands - Franz Liszt
Ralph Brown - Eugène Delacroix
Georges Corraface - Felicien Mallefille
Anton Rodgers- Duke D'Antan
Emma Thompson - Duchess D'Antan
Anna Massey - George Sand's Mother

Since getting divorced, the successful and notorious writer of sensational romance novels George Sand, has been working on her memoirs. On her way to visit her friend the Countess Marie d'Agoult and her lover Liszt, she hears Chopin's music and falls in love.

In her romantic pursuit of the sensitive Chopin, George is advised by Marie that she must act like a man pursuing a woman, though she is also advised to avoid damaging his health by not pursuing him at all. With this advice Sand is betrayed by Marie who steals a letter that George writes to Chopin and signs her own name.

Sand meets Chopin in the French countryside at the house of the Duchess d'Antan, a foolish aspiring socialite who invites artists from Paris to her salon in order to feel cosmopolitan. Sand invites herself, not knowing that several of her former lovers are also in attendance. A small play is written by Alfred de Musset satirizing the aristocracy, Chopin protests, de Musset bellows and a fireplace explosion ensues. Eventually Sand wins over Chopin when she proves that she wrote the letter, reciting its words to him passionately, and giving him a copy of her memoir in which the text of the letter appears.

Chopin is then challenged to a duel by one of Sand's ex-lovers. He faints during the face-off. Sand finishes the duel for him and nurses him back to health in the countryside, solidifying their relationship. Near the end of the movie, Sand and Chopin dedicate a volume of music to the countess, although this only suggests that she has had an affair with Chopin, causing a falling-out with her lover Liszt. Sand and Chopin depart for Majorca, relieved to escape the competitive nature of artistic alliances and jealousies in Paris.

This movie is one of my favorites. It is light and bubbly like the best champagne. Judy Davis is superb as George Sand, trying to juggle old lovers while trying to pursue Chopin. George Sand is described as being largely temperamental, rashly creative, fiery and opinionated - George pushed the limits in all kinds of ways, and Davis perfectly captures those qualities. The scene where she arrives downstairs for dinner at the house party dressed in the Polish national colors, and her first meeting with Chopin where she is laying under the piano listening to his music are two of my favorites. The revelation to me with this movie is Hugh Grant. After years of seeing him play either cads or stuttering leads in romantic comedies, it is surprising to see that he can actually act as well as do a credible Polish accent. Everyone in the film is well cast from Emma Thompson as aspiring socialite (by way of Mayfair) and Anton Rodgers as her husband to Julian Sands as Liszt (whatever happened to his career).

But is the film historically accurate? Well partly. By the time George Sand met Chopin, she had married at 21, had two children, left her husband for another man, and embarked on her writng career. Although the film claims that she was divorced from her husband, she was not. Divorce was not easy to achieve in 19th century France. She'd had a two year affair with Alfred de Musset which ended badly the year before she met Chopin. de Musset tells Chopin at one point in the film that Sand is frigid, which apparently was true. She was chronically short of money, since the money she received from her husband for support, was not enough to support her lifestyle. It was one of the reasons that she turned to writing for a living. And she did dress like a man because she found it easier to get around as a woman alone.

Chopin and George Sand actually met at party at Marie d'Agoult's home, and Chopin was initially repulsed by Sand at first. He told Ferdinand Hiller, "What a repulsive woman Sand is! But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it." Sand did write a letter but not to Chopin, to a mutual friend of theirs. It was thirty-two pages and it, George debated whether or not to end a current affair for Chopin and whether or not Chopin was involved with someone else. If he were, she didn't want to interfere. The film is not clear what year it is, but Chopin and George Sand met in 1836 and by 1837, they were involved. The film seems to take place over a longer period of time since Marie manages to have two more children during the course of the film. Chopin did dedicate his second set of Etudes to Marie but probably not to make Liszt jealous. Marie was also divorced by the time Chopin and Sand met, unlike in the film, where she claims that she cannot get a divorce. There is a scene in the film where Sand picks up a miniature of a woman who Chopin says that he was engaged. Her name was Maria Wodzińska, and the engagement was called off because of his ill health.

What the film does capture so well is the personality of the major players which is the reason why it seems entirely reasonable that the whole episode could have happened. Although it seems as if the house party is a whose who of artistic Paris, they were all really friends. Delacroix painted George Sand and Chopin together. It is interesting that most of the films involving their relationship make it seem that Sand was so much older than Chopin when it reality she was only 6 years his senior. Davis and Hugh Grant seem much closer to the ages of the actual people they are portraying. It is interesting to watch Chopin become intrigued with George inspite of himself.

Chopin and George Sand were together for ten years, only splitting up two years before his death. They spent a great deal of time at Nohant, her country estate. Here Chopin could concentrate on his music which he couldn't do in Paris. The final rupture came when Chopin sided with her daughter Solange against Sand, who wanted her daughter to marry someone else. The relationship was also marred by Chopin's ill health. Sand found herself constantly playing nursemaid to her lover which eventually began to bore her. Through manipulation, Sand attempted to isolate Chopin in Majorca which caused him ill health which led to his death.

Chopin died in 1849 and is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris. Sand lived on for another 28 years before dying in 1876.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Love Gone Wrong: Butchery on Bond Street

On the morning of January 31st, 1857, dentist Harvey Burdell was found brutally murdered in his surgery at his home at 31 Bond Street in New York City. The prime suspect was Emma Cunningham, a 39 year old widow with five children who had been serving as the landlady of the boarding house that Burdell ran out of his home.

This is the basis for Benjamin Feldman's excellent book Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics & The Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-Bellum New York. The case filled the newspapers throughout the inquest and the murder trial of Emma Cunningham for the murder of her lover. She was eventually acquitted but the case brought to light the unsavory underbelly of middle-class life in New York.

Emma Cunningham had been born Emma Hempstead in Brooklyn, New York on August 15, 1818. Her father had a small business as a rope-maker for the shipyards. Emma was the oldest of three daughters, and she had ambitions far behind the little neighborhood in which she lived. Her parents were devout Methodists which meant that anything that smacked of worldiness was discouraged including the making of money for profit, dancing, drinking, and vanity. Emma could see the lights of Manhattan from the waterfront and she longed to be either a part of Manhattan society or even Brooklyn for that matter. At the age of 19, she married George Cunningham, the son of a local brewer, who was 21 years her senior. The Cunningham family were upper middle class and Presbyterian. When Emma married George not only had she moved up in the world, but her relationship with her family was severed.

For a brief time things were good in the Cunningham household. They were even able to move into Manhattan in the fashionable Union Square area for several years. But George Cunningham soon suffered a series of financial reversals that slid the Cunningham family back down the economic ladder. Soon they were back in Brooklyn, but not in the fashionable area of the Heights. Emma gave birth to three daughters, but George was determined to have a son, despite the fact that he could barely support the three children that they already had. Soon two sons were added to the family. George, like many others, left for California to see his fortune, but he was back after a year. He died in 1853 leaving Emma $10,000, which wasn't enough after death duties, to support herself and her children. Finding a job that pay her enough to feed herself and 5 children was an impossibility. With no help from her family, Emma realized that her only hope of supporting herself and her children was to marry again. She had decided to move back into Manhattan, realizing that she would not be able to find a husband living in Brooklyn.

She spend two fruitless years in Manhattan before she met Burdell. While she met many single men, finding one willing to take on 5 children was another story. It is unclear when or how Emma made the acquaintance of Harvey Burdell. Soon they were keeping company, and Emma accompanied Burdell to Saratoga for the summer season. By the end of the summer, Emma was pregnant, and their relationship began to fall apart. Instead of marrying her, Burdell forced Emma to have an abortion. He allowed her to move into his home to run the boarding house but he refused to marry her. To add insult to injury, he began conducting an affair with a younger cousin who had just gotten a divorce. Emma also suspected that the prostitutes who gave for dental appointments were not just getting their teeth checked out.

Emma had once again made another poor choice in a man. Burdell turned out to be nothing more than a sociopath, and a swindler. Somehow, he had gotten the idea that Emma had money, that she was a wealthy widow just looking for a little fun, not looking for a baby daddy. The relationship quickly turned sour and bitter on both sides. The final straw apparently occurred when Burdell decided to sell his house, and evict Emma.

Butchery on Bond Street is more than just a true-crime book. It is a social history of ante-bellum New York, as the city became the leading economic and social center that dominated the country for more than a century. It also details the rise of the press and scandal sheets as they fought to tell the story of what happened that fateful night. The press attention to this crime rivals that given to the OJ Simpson trial over a hundred years later. Newsboys would fight to be the ones to get to sell the papers. And it wasn't just the press, the appetite for the sensationalistic aspects of the trial was heavy. Quickie novellas about the case appeared seemingly overnight.

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Emma Cunningham. One is constantly reminded in the book of just how few choices women had in the 19th century. One Emma threw her lot in with Harvey Burdell, she'd basically made herself ineligible for marriage to anyone else in that social class. Too many people had seen them together in Saratoga. She'd moved into his home under the guise of running the boarding house. She became increasingly desperate as she could see Burdell slipping away. It doesn't excuse her behavior if indeed she was the one to murder Burdell.

Emma was acquitted of the murder, but she then tried to stake a claim to Burdell's estate by insisting that not only were they married but that she was carrying his child. She was so desperate that she tried to buy a baby to pass of as her own (shades of daytime drama!). She was brought up on charges for fraud but was acquitted of those two. She then fades into obscurity over the next thirty, surfacing occasionally. She finally passed away in February of 1887. She is buried in Green-wood Cemetary in Brooklyn as is Harvey Burdell.

Feldman does a good job of recreating the world that Emma and Burdell occupied. If I have one quibble it is that he tends to jump from one subject to another and it can get a bit confusing at times. Still he provides a fascinating glimpse into a lost world and a tantalizing bit of New York history.

Butchery on Bond Street - Benjamin Feldman, 2007, New York Wanderer Press.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Great Historical Romance Month

February means Romance with a capital R here on Scandalous Women. This month, I'll be taking a look at great historical romances that scandalized the world.

Catherine the Great and Potemkin

Emilie de Chatelet and Voltaire

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson

George Sand and Chopin

Plus Love Gone Wrong: The Butcher of Bond Street