Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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Riflemen lined the roofs along the parade route. Cavalry squads patrolled the intersections. Rumors of armed mobs and assassination swept through Washington, D.C., that cold, angry March of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration; and even though that afternoon’s parade and swearing-in ceremony went peacefully enough, the entire city was caught up in a somber, uneasy mood hard to dispel.

That night inaugural ball-goers tried to recapture the gay good spirits that had marked other inaugurations. The wooden ballroom behind the District of Columbia’s city hall was festooned with red, white, and blue muslin. Under the brilliant and flickering light of five huge gas chandeliers, the crowd danced enthusiastically to the tunes played by a forty-five-piece band. When the new President arrived at eleven, they gathered around him, all trying to shake his hand, until he finally led them off into the supper room, where they feasted on oysters, chicken, and champagne.

The reporter for the New York Herald observed that the melancholy knowledge of almost certain war ahead never was forgotten at the ball. If one looked closely, he said, underneath the gay music and festive chatter were sadness and apprehension, doubt and suspicion. But Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper disagreed sharply. It declared the ball “an affair of brilliance, fashion, and hilarity that made it hard to imagine that the country was on the downward plunge into war.”

Leslie’s no doubt saw it that way because Frank Leslie was falling in love. She was married and he was married, but no matter; Miriam Squier was one of the most gorgeous women he had ever seen. In her décolleté gown of white and cherry-red satin she was, to Leslie’s eyes, totally enchanting. She wore opals and diamonds to set off her fair complexion and golden curls. She was fluent in several foreign languages—and in absolute command of the decade’s stylized charm.

As he watched her Leslie might have guessed that she would be the fashion arbiter for her generation, but not even his fertile imagination could have encompassed the whole range of her career. With steely determination and an eye sharp to detect the main chance, she would cross continents and oceans. With remarkable affinity for the outlandish as well as with genuine talent for significant accomplishment, she would leave behind audiences as frequently outraged as admiring. She would be part of the century’s most notorious ménage à trois , and she would take lovers who seemed the product of some overwrought novelist’s pen. But she would also rescue Frank Leslie’s publishing empire from ruin one day and then go on to run it with a genius even he couldn’t match. At the end of her life she would align herself with Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. Decades later the belle of the Lincoln inaugural would finance the final drive for female suffrage.

But far from being able to comprehend her future that night in 1861, Leslie couldn’t even have begun to guess at her past. She had been born Miriam Florence Follin in the Vieux Carré district of New Orleans in 1836. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings, since her parents seem not to have been married and the family’s income was as erratic as her handsome, cultured .father. He wandered about the country failing in one business after another and writing his daughter that she should study her French and German, her Latin and Spanish, that she should cultivate her feminine charms.

By the time she was seventeen, Miriam was charming enough, but not entirely prudent. In New York, where the Follins had moved, she fell in with a young jeweler’s clerk, who sometimes let her wear diamonds from the store where he worked. So entangled did the two become that Miriam’s mother, Susan Follin, had the clerk arrested on charges of seduction. She demanded that he marry her daughter, and so, after being threatened with jail, he did. But no children were born to them, they separated, and a few years later the marriage was annulled.

Miriam’s chance to move from these minor dramas to a larger stage first came by way of her half brother Noel. While she was learning about love and diamonds he was seeking his fortune in the California goldfields. He found no gold, but he did run across the glittering, captivating Lola Montez.

By the time Noel met her, the blueeyed Lola’s love affairs were notorious around the world. Liszt and Dumas had fallen under her spell, as had the king of Bavaria—much to his regret, since Lola ended up costing him his throne. She was a strong and volatile personality, given to attacking those who angered her with a bullwhip. The infatuated Follin was no match for her, and some months after they met, he committed suicide. Lola was stricken with guilt. She went to New York and threw herself at Susan Follin’s feet, screaming “I have killed your son! I have killed your son!” By way of making it up to the Follins she offered to take the twenty-one-year-old Miriam on the stage with her.