Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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Whenever possible, but especially in the summer, wealthy New Yorkers like the Leslies repaired to Saratoga. The ostensible attraction was bathing in the springs and drinking the mineral water, but the real business of the long days of June, July, and August was to flirt in the hotels, to gamble in the casinos, to see and be seen on the promenades. When he visited Saratoga in 1870, Henry James noted: “If the men are remarkable, the ladies are wonderful. Saratoga is famous, I believe, as the place of all places in America where women adorn themselves most, or as the place, at least, where the greatest amount of dressing may be seen by the greatest number of people. …”

So much did they enjoy Saratoga that the Leslies decided to build a home there. On ninety-two acres fronting the lake a complex of cottages, coach houses, and conservatories began to rise. One reporter declared that it looked like a “German nobleman’s country estate.” When lnterlaken, as the Leslies called their home, was finished, it seemed constantly to be full of company. Perhaps the most distinguished guest was Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, who (except for a minor king from the Sandwich Islands) was the only reigning member of royalty who had ever visited the United States. He had come in honor of the Gentennial Exposition, and he had been lionized by every newspaperman who interviewed him and citizen who saw him. The Leslies persuaded him and his empress to come to lnterlaken, where they took them on a cruise of the lake in the Leslie steam yacht. Mrs. Leslie chatted with them in Spanish, French, and Italian, and the whole triumphant interlude was, inevitably, reported in the Leslie papers.

But by far the most noticeable of the Leslie guests was Joaquin Miller, known throughout the country as “the poet of the Sierras.” He was a Byronic figure who had lived with the Indians, stolen horses, and practiced law in Idaho. He had been a pony-express rider and a judge in Canyon City, and he had invented so many stories about himself that it was impossible to tell where the truth ended and his imagination took over.

The fame he had achieved as a poet seems to have owed less to his verses than to his commanding presence. Tall, blond, and very handsome, he was given to wearing velvet jackets and embroidered pantaloons trimmed with silver bells. To that he usually added a sombrero, scarves, sashes, high-heeled jackboots, and always, no matter what the occasion, a brace of bowie knives. Beyond that, he claimed to be infatuated with Mrs. Leslie. He wrote a novel called The One Fair Woman whose heroine was supposed to be modelled after her. “How beautiful she was!” he exclaimed. “Ah, howmore than beautiful!”: The rose and sea shell colour of her face and neck, the soft baby complexion, the sweet surprise on her face, the old expression of inquiry and longing, the lips pushed out and pouting full and as longing for love, the mouth half opened as if to ask you the way into some great brave heart where she could enter in and sit down and rest as in some sacred temple.

Overblown as this was, Mrs. Leslie loved it, as indeed she appreciated Miller’s whole overblown personality. She seems to have looked on him as a brave adventurer, too intensely alive to heed dull conventions. He was of a personality type with Lola Montez, and in his preferences for a life embellished and embroidered he also resembled other men with whom Mrs. Leslie would have romances. On and off for more than thirty years Miller and Mrs. Leslie met, often in the most public—and publicity-conscious—ways. They might rendezvous on the piazza of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga; she might drive up to his California mountain home in a carriage with a costumed driver; the two might appear at a ball in New Orleans, Miller in all his bowie knives and Miriam Leslie in all her diamonds. Throughout, Miller’s work and Mrs. Leslie’s enthusiastic reviews of it appeared in the Leslie publications. Frank Leslie.seems never to have been troubled by Miller’s adoration for his wife. Perhaps he simply concluded that any affair conducted with such showmanship must be spectacularly lacking in substance.

Leslie and Miriam continued on their own lavish ways, capping even their extravagances with a trip by rail to California in 1877. Less than ten years after transcontinental rail travel was first possible, they set out on a journey from Grand Central Depot in a handsome Wagner Palace Car. In Chicago the party of twelve, plus Miriam’s tiny terrier, exchanged the Wagner car for an even more luxurious Pullman Hotel Car that had been especially built for the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Accompanied by a chef and a maid, they set out for the West Coast, through thunderstorms, over mountains, across vast expanses of prairie.