An Empire Of Women

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THE CELEBRATION began even before the opening gavel of the First American Woman’s League Convention. As the thousand arriving delegates made their way out Delmar Boulevard to University City, a new suburb of St. Louis, storefronts hung with flags and bunting greeted them. Trolleys, wagons, and even a railroad train made a kind of procession to a camp of gay circus tents, complete with a hospital. The delegates had come for what they believed would be a turning point in the lives of American women.

For three mild June days of 1910, even the erratic St. Louis weather seemed docile. The events of the Convention unfolded with convincing effect. Promenading in a spacious aisle between rows of tents, listening to speeches, singing, the visitors absorbed an elusive atmosphere, half carnival, half army bivouac. Hearts stirred, spirits lifted, and hope spread among the assembly, mostly women from small towns and villages, more from the Midwest than the two coasts. The good cheer was almost universal, for the delegates had fallen under the complex influence of a master of the grand gesture.

Edward Gardner Lewis had conceived the American Woman’s League at one of the many low points in his career. An entrepreneur and promoter of remarkable resilience and imagination, he had suffered a series of setbacks. His combative nature had immediately seized on the one resource that still might save him. The million or more readers of his The Woman’s Magazine and Woman’s Farm Journal had often proved their loyalty and fortitude. Now Lewis determined to transform them from mere subscribers into an organized power, with himself as their leader, and to match his purposes with theirs.

Lewis had always loved risks. Born in 1869, the son of an influential Episcopal minister from Connecticut, he launched his first unsuccessful project before he had outgrown knee pants. It was a newspaper, which Lewis wrote, printed, and sold from his father’s rectory. It failed, and he had to sell his billy goat to repay subscribers. At Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he promoted first cigars, then a cure for the evils of tobacco, which he had developed himself. During the years after he left Trinity (without a degree), he hawked watches and patent medicines across a territory that stretched all the way to Memphis. At every stop he eagerly poured out more money for advertising than he took in from his customers. It was a perilous course, and one that never became profitable.

By the time Lewis arrived in St. Louis, just before the boom preceding the 1904 World’s Fair, he was ready for a change. He had married Mabel Wellington of Baltimore; Mabel was sickly, and Lewis had found himself in desperate need of money. In St. Louis he unearthed a nearly defunct advertising circular that vainly paraded as a magazine. Perhaps the title appealed to him: The Winner . He bought it for credit and promises and finally began collecting the kind of money he previously had been spending. When The Winner became The Woman’s Magazine , Lewis was on his way. He had found the appropriate audience for his kind of enthusiasm.

Lewis’s detractors often harked back to these early days to prove his craftiness and expediency. The women who gathered at University City in 1910 saw something entirely different, for beyond the tents where they slept, Lewis had created a remarkable stage set as headquarters for his publishing empire.

On a scruffy hillside overlooking a racetrack and a summer theater, he had superimposed a system of boulevards and plazas with the proportions of Beaux-Arts Paris. Bordering them he had constructed an impressive phalanx of monuments, each made grander by its splendid isolation. Lewis had copied an Egyptian temple to house his bank and a lavish, miniature Versailles for his People’s University; had erected two massive limestone pillars topped with a male and a female lion to guard his new “residence section"; and had built a domed, octagonal tower garlanded with flowers and angels as headquarters for his publishing company. With as much modesty as he could summon, he had accepted the office of mayor over a town he mostly owned himself. The place inspired confidence. No one had protested when he called one of his latest, and most unpredictable, periodicals The Woman’s National Daily . In Lewis s mind it was the country’s only daily paper for women, even though it appeared once a week.