Modern sensibilities sometimes deal too lightly with the past. When modern eyes look at the famous faces from a hundred years ago, they narrow in puzzlement. People shake their heads at Lillie Langtry's pale eyes and masculine nose; they look askance at the feathery and shallow prettiness of Daisy Pless. Consuelo Vanderbilt's swanlike neck and dark eyebrows emphasize her grace and loneliness, butnothing more. Yet their splendor lit up The Gilded Age.
Place their portraits in any contemporary window, and no one would be tempted to step in and ask who they were. The romance of their lives cannot penetrate the sepia ink of their photographs. Their dramas are caught within a frame, suffocating under glass. They remain stoic birds; posed and poised.
No one understands what all the fuss was about.
But I know of one face that has traveled well. In the mid-1890's the eyes of kings and of University rogues traveled over her figure as she danced the ballet, paused on demi-point and flew across the stage like a dark-haired spirit. Their perusal slowed at her tiny waist and then stopoped at her remarkable face.
This face was drawn in the softest of ovals with a clear, wide forehead. The landscape that traveled from cheek to lip was a gentle progression. Her large, black eyes were deeply set – so that the shadows accentuated their cloudless whites. Her strong, dark eyebrows added charm to her face – the type of charm you would find in an overly-serious child.
Cleopatra Diane de Merode – Cleo – was one of the most reknown beauties in Paris, a city fairly bubbling with light, ornament and vogue. At eight, she entered the Opera School of Dance; at eleven she was dancing professionally. Then, when she was thirteen – ini 1884, when all the salons were buzzing about Madame X's bare shoulder and blue-white skin – she was given a part in 'Choryhee'. She devised a new hairstyle for her role – ropes of braids curled like a nest of complaisant snakes, forming a bun at the nape of her neck. The excitable city embraced her new look, and she came to focus in many a jeweled opera glass, angled downwards from the balconies, held by discerning courtesans, contessas and chaparones.
In 1896 she was dancing for the Ballet of the Opera of Bordeaux. It was there that she was first noticed by 61 year-old Leopold II, King of Belgium. Married, the father of illegitimate children, disappointed suitor for Mrs. Langtry's affections, he was in in France on secret political matters, and turned to the Paris theater as an excuse for his presence.
But the pretty ballerina turned a feigned excuse to real interest; after the performance she received a bouquet of roses: a dozen scarlet petitions, with the thorns more eloquent than the petals.
The King's attachment became the talk of Paris. The affair was a sensation. Coffeehouses and salons echoed with whispers – scandalized and delighted – about 'Cleopold' and his little dancer.
There was one problem: the affair never happened. Cleo appealed to the French government for an official statement declaring that there had been no liason, nothing beyond the gift of an armful of roses, by then dead and dry. But her reputation in Paris was destroyed – her name would forever by linked with the future murderer of the Congo Free State.
She continued to dance; her beauty continued to entrance: her fame continued in Hamburg, Berlin, St. Petersburg (she was the first female to dance with a male dance partner in the Russian Ballet), Budapest and New York. But her shame drove her away from the city she loved. She never returned.