Tag Archives: 1890’s

Lillie’s Apologia


‘I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely’.

  • George Bernard Shaw

‘I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America.’

  • Oscar Wilde

Lillie Langtry was a great and unique beauty.  She was considered such a one, in fact, that it became her career.  She was a professional beauty – a profession that could only have been devised during her heyday, the gilded, steely 1880’s. It was a subtle democracy:  a way for society to feast on demure helpings of scandal, and for the tiny rivulets of respectability to trickle into the demimonde.

The PB’s face and form were her invitation – the key to unlock any door, to gain entrance to any party.  Her image was seen daily, on the postcards and photographs that were displayed in shop windows:  desire pressed under glass.  She decorated any room – she gave it cache, and was that new acquisition required by the clever and discerning hostess.

Yet to our eyes, Lillie seems strange, almost coarse-looking.  Her face is broad, with a bone structure that is unsubtle and a profile that is strong and indelicate.  Her eyes are pale and distant.  Her torso is powerful and buxom, disappearing into a waist that is as cinched and twisted as a bound foot.  She seems to our modern sensibilities, graceless and unfeminine.

But we are only looking at a photograph.  Lillie Langtry’s beauty dates to an earlier time – her profile and build were considered classical Greek – ‘Praxitelean’ – her followers likened her to a goddess.  Oscar Wilde proclaimed her “The New Helen of Troy”.  Her Amazonian physicality alienated her from her dainty contemporaries.

Photographs do not share with us her famous coloring; we can only envy those who witnessed it first-hand: the blue eyes; rich, milky skin and auburn hair that set around her neck like bronzed sunlight.

In addition, Lillie’s intelligence set her apart – it set a fine balance, crossing a vast ocean of wit to journey from ribald, to masculine, to a winking modesty.  She was daring, sly and feral.  No photograph would dare show that.

All things considered, she was irresistible.

It is common knowledge – among those who make it a point to know such things – that Lillie Langtry was the first officially recognized mistress of King Edward VII:  an admirer of lovely and witty women.  She became good and lasting friends with his modest but pretty wife, Alexandria.

But Lillie herself had many lovers, as is the wont of a lovely and witty woman.  For her wanderings she has – then as now – been labeled infamous, immodest, a courtesan, a jeweled whore.  But I find this wild labeling, however, to be unfair.

I believe that Lillie was a romantic; she fell in love often, and with great generosity:  as if her latest love would be her last and greatest.  Would we not do the same?  What would we do, what would we give, if we thought we had reached our final love, our final day?

Why, everything.


After The Ball

“After the ball is over,/ After the break of morn –/ After the dancers’ leaving; /After the stars are gone…” The Gilded Age was a golden age of the dance.   Society’s dance, the dance of facades, with its tortuous and subtle steps: the twisted rules of a class that has spent too long looking at its own reflection. Each movement was as ethereal and intricate as frosting on a cake:  dainty, melting and ultimately of little significance. The etiquette of leaving a calling card.  Five changes of dress each day.  “Training” corsets.  Even sitting down was made into a dancer’s sensitive art:  a lady must sit with a slight twist of her hips, so her skirt would twirl about her like a silken froth, instead of crumpling beneath her in a confusion of fabric. A girl would dance for her life:  for a life away from her parents, for her life as a grown woman, for her married life, for a life in her own home.  The opening strains were heard within the dictates of society, its expectations, the lessons of behavior and beauty.  The complexities of the polite world pushed her onto the dance floor, and it felt as firm beneath her feet as an acreage of marble saturated with light and music. But it was in the ballroom where her dreams of womanly success were tried. Thrilled and excited, the graduate – her hair coiled, her waist in pain – was wrapped in bobbin lace and diamante, with a dance card dangling from her wrist, its weight a tiny burden of unfilled promises. Seated with the other students in a bubble of whispers and petticoats, she would wait for an extended hand, for the polite pressure on her gloved arm – for the carefully shielded admiration. Every girl yearned to go to the ball. Her hopes, her desires, her frivolous ambitions ran through her gilded blood, and that starry event was their testing ground. Some would experience it, but others could only imagine it. But this girl, this girl…what of her? The grand balls of the era – Devonshire, Londonderry – attracted journalists, photographers and gossips like any red carpet event would today. And the morning after the ball, their speculations and pictures appeared in newspapers in every city for winsome, forlorn girls to pore over. After The Ball This girl, her sheets a curving, graceful reflection of the gown she didn’t own, reads an account of the ball she didn’t attend. Her eyes are half closed as she merges fact with her fancies. She wanted to see her name amongst the attendees, to read a stranger’s description of her dress, a cloud of nacreous taffeta that sparkled with galaxies of sequins, designed by…Worth? Doucet? Paguin? Redfern? Whom had she always wanted to wear? Her dreams would follow her like a shadow throughout her tightly laced day, as she helped the maid clear the table, as she trimmed the sandwiches for her mother’s tea. But could there be another explanation? Her hair is still wrapped in a fashionable coil, and her shoulders lean at an exhausted, languid tilt. Perhaps she has had only a few hours’ sleep – her journey home lit by the pastel light of a rising dawn. Her shoes pinched, but they hummed with the delicate steps of the waltz, the most desired of all dances. She still felt her partner’s predatory fingers on her waist, as they tried to feel the curves beneath the whalebone and velvet. As she reads the paper, still warm from the iron, she looks for any mention of her:  her lithe dancing, her glistening yellow hair, her tiny waist that swooned into the maze of skirts, the richness of her gown – its cloudy depths.  In a hidden corner of her lace-garlanded room there could be a nest of silver.  Curved with accidental folds, a sculpture of discarded bones and prism-like silk threads, her gown lies where she struggled out of it, chastened by a too-early sun. Did she tear it?  Perhaps.  The maid will deal with it. What type of girl is she? What are her hopes – do they have a chance of fulfillment? Is she reading about her success – or of someone else’s? What does her future hold? It is hard to say. Some girls are just better dancers than others. “Many a heart is aching,/ If you could read them all;/ Many the hopes that have vanished/ After the ball.”

The Passionate Rooms

All of her perfumed history was kept within the apartment.  Her pretty DNA of delicacy and shamelessness still drew breath in those rooms.  Her life lay fainting, irresistable, beautiful beneath a veneer of sweet dust – the dust of dead flowers, crumbled powder and dried tears.

Curling throughout the room, like a candle’s dying smoke, were words – whispers, entreaties, declarations and secrets.  Invisible filigrees of discussions hung in the air:  the wit, irony and metaphor of a brilliant, hidden society.  This was the world of Marthe de Florian:  the demimondaine who held court here – a beauty who trod the line between courtesan and hostess:  the consummate entertainer.

There were calling cards tucked into carved and rotted drawers – a miniature library of forgotten admirers, of passions kept at a distance.  Yet some were accepted, for there were love letters too: tied with ribbons the color of memory, they harbor rivers of dialogue whose currents have long been still.  

And there was also her portrait.  Familiar, yet reverent, it depicts her nacreous body emerging from a froth of pink taffeta and mousseline, twisted and pushed into the popular ‘S’ silhouette of the 1890’s.  Ruched and ruffled, her gown is a cyclone of color spinning around her figure, breathing light and dark, before it dissolves into a lavender twilight.   One shoulder is exposed – a milky precipice over which a man could look into his doom.

The artist was Giovanni Boldini, a painter whose subjects lived in the sun of the aristocracy as well as others who prowled like cats  in the velvety dark of the demimonde.  This was the ‘half-world’ of artists and actresses, of courtesans and professional beauties; a world dedicated to beauty and pleasure.  These were the languid ones who lived for grace and display, turning their carelessness into an intellectual exercise.

Boldini and de Florian were lovers – it was said that she was his muse.  Perhaps.  Surely Marthe realized that she was given her sculptural body and dramatic face to inspire art and destroy reason. Boldini chose to paint her in profile:  he might have gazed at her in a besotted reverie and saw in that profile the strong Gallic line of nose and chin…the beauty that made a mockery of mere prettiness.  Thus inspired, he rushed to the canvas to paint his love in a swirl of substance and cloud, creating an alchemy of flesh and fabric.

The apartment had been locked and shuttered for 70 years.  Safe with her memories of refined decadence, she has been kept from cynicism and pettiness, from cruelty, from war…from the malice of an ugly world.

But her passionate rooms have been discovered.  The key has been found; the door has been opened.  Her image has been dusted off and sold; her apartment cleaned – no part of her life that can be felt with the senses remains.  Her story has graduated into the imagination.

A Sensation And A Presentation

The Sweetest Voice

She had the sweetest voice.  It was a powerful ocean, with dainty undercurrents -  overcoming her listeners in waves that curled out of her mouth as if it were a shell.  It devoured their aesthetic hunger and mingled with their imagination, until they became a single, unabashed craving.  Her voice was rich and indulgent – yet carried the threat of decay, as did all temptations.

And spinning above her earthy strength, like the twisted and starry paths of a galaxy, were the high notes:  quick and crystalline, the soprano's pure alloys of gold and silver.  Her voice was split into two levels, pushed from her corset by her trained muscles – past the stays and laces, beyond the silhouette of plaster and whalebone.

She toured the great cities of the Victorian era – Paris, London, New York – singing before audiences that teemed with wealth, bristled with longrettes and were coarse with diamonds.  This was a society that carried its beauty with sadness and dignitiy. 

In 1893, she performed in Lohengrin, Wagner's medieval fairytale wrapped in verdant darkness, bursting through ancient forests and heraldry.   The performance was in Covent Garden:  one hundred years earlier the hunting ground of unscrupulous vendors and prostitutes.  Now, these unsavory acres were the site of the newly built Savoy Hotel – where a dinner party was given to celebrate her triumph.

The head chef Auguste Escoffier knew this prima donna well and intented to a create a dressert to honor her voice, how delicious it must have tasted in the air, its richness melting in the heat.  So the dessert began with ice cream.  Then, to match her earthiness, her divine science, he topped it with fruit – the essential quantities of the seasons.  In this case Escoffier chose summer's champion:  the peach.  Finally, to symbolize her soaring notes, the invisible filigrees, he topped his dessert with spun sugar.  He called his creation, Peach Melba.

A dessert commands the meal – it is its highlight; it is what the attendees desire most…it is the diva's dish.  So it was only right that the sweet voice of Nellie Melba would make a sweet dish famous, that it would make a meal immortal:  gathering applause as she did on the stage over a century ago.

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Beyond The Skin

"I believe neither in what I touch nor what I see.  I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel."

What happened when the invisible needles pierced your eyelids and sewed them shut?  Did your vision reach beyond that monstrous embroidery?  What happened when your fingers, your hands, your skin, dissolved into powder?  Did the living dust reassemble in another dimension?  Did you dream of definitions, images, descriptions that were wrapped in a chrysalis?  Were you only able to paint the silhouettes of embryonic butterflies? 

Gustave Moreau was a Symbolist painter:  for him, implication hid behind curtains that shifted color like a borealis.  These fabrics of life, these meanings that rode metaphors like horses beneath the amending oceans and stirred visions like a slotted spoon in a glass of green poison were caught and laid onto canvases of obsession, decadence and voluptuous oblivion.

In 1895, when Verlaine lay fainting in the slums, when Wilde was convicted and condemned, when Beardsley began his final, dying year, Moreau painted Jupiter and Semele – a myth of realism's hidden betrayal.  Jupiter had taken Semele, a mortal, as a lover.  His jealous wife, Juno, set aside her cloaks – bloody with the sacrifices laid at her feet – and disguising herself as a nurse, befriended Semele, pretending not to believe her guilty secret.  Has she never seen her lover on his throne, surrounded by light and falling stars?

Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in all his glory.  When he refused, she persisted – until he agreed.  But mortals cannot look upon Jupiter without perishing.  Moreau chose the moment when Semele was consumed by his splendor and fell back, white and collapsing, about to explode into shards of ivory.

Jupiter, however, is a tattooed icon alive in an ecstatic jungle:  flowers swim in the melting air, columns of architecture tremble as fruit and vines choke them like jeweled parasittes.  Gardens of offerings gild his throne of embossed marble and seethe down the pleasurable stone.  Beneath him goddesses with towering wings built into their ribs bow their heads.  The eagle of Jupiter arches its limbs like the shadows of blades slashing into the drizzling, dazzling light.  Close by is Pan, mourning in the shadows, weeping for a denizen of his beloved earth.  Finally, there are the creatures of the Underworld; a frieze of woe, glimmering through the thick shadows – rubies, sapphires and opals folded into Hades' black velvet sleeve.

Moreau's painting is a thick, indulgent tapestry.  Colors drip from molten glass.  Patterns are so delicate, it seems as if he pressed pieces of lace into the hot, teeming paint.  It is a tactile, passionate vision:  a river embedded in gems that wink from the mud, whose source can never be found.

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Aubrey Speaks With Aubrey

I can see your fingers – elongated, they cradle your arch, aquiline face.  Your wasted wrists are swimming inside your starched and buttoned shirt cuffs.  Your hands are muscular and alive with creative possibilities.  Fingers, wrists, hands…all with the ability to grasp a gilded pen annoited with ink and guide it along rich and threaded paper.  The slightest turn can make a line curl, thicken, weep, sculpt…and bring to life the shocking images cavorting in your brain.

Om 1896 you were in Paris, a pallid dandy.  You had no money.  Your lungs were shredded; and every cough threatened another delicate stream of your life's blood.  You experimented with hashish.  But you would drink only milk.

And still you were creating images that broke my heart:

Bursting from your pen I can see unbridled festoons of baroque madness.  Lines boiled within every fold of taffeta, every false extravagant curl, every floating gown, every statuesque feather.  Lines are gouged into the curtains like nails tearing into flesh.

Grotesques, fairies, eunuchs, angels and satanic familiars pour into one another in this underworld:  they confront, they argue, they leer…they give in to the basest instincts of the human spleen.  Some are sexless, some brandish their sexuality like weapons, and run roughshod over their opponents.  Thighs and bosoms are lush and white – but there are faces that are wizened and harsh, and profiles that are sharp and fierce.  Bodies are decorated, winged, veiled:  beautiful and horrible.

They all swim in a sea of drapery.  These are creatures that look like 18th century carvings brought to life by your whirlwind affectations.  They move beneath huge, jeweled tassels, beside rows of candles; they grow amongst poisonous flowers and threaten garnished urns. 

When I first saw your drawings, I had to look away – I had to hide.  It was because the purest beauty and perfection, lying inside me unanswered and unrealized, when brought to light will hurt like a white, unbearable heat.

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Saving Face

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.

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