"…the ballroom was filled with fashion's throng,
It shone with a thousand lights;
And there was a woman who passed along,
The fairest of all the sights…"
Every decade has its own peculiar type of celebrity. oracles, courtesans, alchemists, carnival freaks…for better or worse they commanded our attention. Many of these have vanished. For instance, I haven't encountered lately anyone claiming they can turn base metal into gold.
One particular type of luminary has always fascinated me. She was beautiful. She had style. She was witty. She was discreet. She was married. And if not born into society, these qualities would soon draw her upwards into that rarified galaxy.
She was called a "PB" or "Professional Beauty": a woman whose face was her fame. She was an English phenomenon; and the idol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their photographs were displayed in shop windows for a couple pennies each: to be bought by envious and adoring factory girls or ladies wanting to see how Georgiana was curling her hair, or what hat Mrs. Langtry was wearing this season.
A PB was a necessary decoration – any party or ball needed to have at least one, holding court, laughing delicately, making sure that the overeager gentlemen would hold her gloved hand while dancing, and not touch her bare arm. She wouldn't have to reciprocate with a party of her won – her presence was payment enough, making her hostess famous, for at least that one season.
She would never have to pay for a dress. She would only have to murmur the designer's name that evening, and the next morning his salon would be inundated with ladies demanding that same gown, the same color, the same neckline. She was worth – literally – 100 paying customers. She was a walking – no a gliding – advertisement. Trussed into cuirass-like corsets, weighed down with velvets and brocades, glittering with beads, sequins and jewels, navigating complex bustles, she was fashion's creation – made to be stared at.
Once a lady was recognized as a PB, a comfortable life was guaranteed – for herself and her husband. The PB was always married. Her husband was either too blind to notice the notoriety his wife had gained, or was too greedy to mind, and let himself be drawn into society's echelon, riding on the train of his wife's ruinously expensive Worth gown. Or would it be Poiret this evening?
Where did she get the money? The jewels? The carefully sealed letters?
A Professional Beauty was a realist. Sometimes the gifts did come with a price. Nearly every PB would eventually become the King's mistress. Edward (as Prince and King) had an eye for a pretty face – especially one that came with a husband, and hopefully children. If she came with such convenient baggage, any pregnancy would easly be fobbed off onto the – possibly very surprised – husband.
Those were the rules. It was how the game was played.
Lillie Langtry was the Prince's first publicly recognized mistress. She wasn't hidden away in seclusion, a 'kept' woman. She was even introduced to his beautiful wife, Alix – they got on excellently well together.
Her appearances caused near riots. People stood on chairs, ladies jostled each other to get a better look at her classic profile, at her lovely rich chestnut-colored hair.
Georgiana, Lady Dudley, also created an uproar. Huge crowds would gather on Rotten Row as soon as her carriage would come into view. Invariably Georgiana, referred to in many memoirs of the time as the 'most beautiful woman I ever saw' would be seen holding a brown Holland umbrella over her elderly, unfaithful husband.
Frances, Countess of Warwick, was Edward VII's mistress for 9 years. Nicknamed 'Daisy', she was the inspiration for the popular song, "Bicycle Built For Two" ('Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true…') She wore emeralds to match her eyes.
In the end, she was reduced to selling her love letters to the King.
Jennie, lady randolph Churchill, was dashing and outspoken – a typical American, charming English society. She was one of the Yankee 'Buccaneers": rich American girls invading England in search of a title to marry. She was the mother of Winston Churchill and shocked society mothers with the unrestrained affection she showered upon her son, in a time when the parent was only an occasional visitor to the nursery. Her husband reputedly died of syphilis.
'Patsy' Cornwallis-West was one of the Prince's private guests invited to his coronation. She and the other special ladies were the occupants of what was dubbed "the King's Loose Box." She was wild, flippant and "mad": with a preference for descending the stairs balanced on a tea-tray. The King might have been the father of her son – who would later become Jennie Churchill's second husband. (Which brings up one of society's axioms: NEVER comment on a likeness)
So how did it all end?
I began this post with the opening verse of a popular ballad from the turn of the 20th century. I'll end it with the final verse:
"…when sunset adorned the west;
And looked at the people who'd come to grieve
For loved ones now laid at rest.
A tall marble monument marked the grave
Of one who'd been fashion's queen;
And I thought, 'She is happier here at rest,
Than to have people say when seen.'"
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