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Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
Miriam Follin had a penchant for diamonds, the demimonde, and the dramatic. She also possessed the business acumen to become one of America’s leading publishers in the nineteenth century
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
As a successful businesswoman Mrs. Leslie began to build a new kind of reputation. A “commercial Joan of Arc,” one newspaper called her. But still she cultivated her old romantic image. When she undertook a crosscountry lecture tour, it was to talk about “Royal Leaders of Society.” She changed her gown for every audience, she had the spotlights especially arranged to make her diamonds shimmer, and she recited Joaquin Miller’s poetry, undoubtedly to remind those listening of her fabled affair with that “Byron of the Rockies.”
Another of her talked-about liaisons was with the Marquis de Leuville, a fellow of extreme costumes and extravagant behavior whom the French newspaper Gil Bias had called “chief of the aesthetes.” He sported tight trousers, a corseted waist, padded shoulders, and puffed hair. He wrote poems to Mrs. Leslie and shot her name into a board at Coney Island. The marquis walked with a slight limp as a consequence, Mrs. Leslie said, of a duel.
However modish such manners and dress may have seemed to Mrs. Leslie, they were too much for some members of the American press. De Leuville couldn’t walk normally, The Journalist maintained, simply because the heels on his boots were so high. Another story reported that the marquis and Mrs. Leslie walking down the street created such a spectacle as inevitably to attract crowds of staring street urchins and curious cabdrivers, to all of whom the happy couple were oblivious. Certain reports that the marquis was the son of a London tailor and had once been married to Madame Tussaud’s daughter were also gleefully given out.
After an engagement of three years Mrs. Leslie broke up with the marquis and took up with a Russian prince. One day as she and the prince were driving in Hyde Park the jealous de Leuville attacked their carriage with his whip, an event that finally resulted in both gentlemen’s arrest and considerable notoriety for Mrs. Leslie. Although she never received either of them again, the marquis remained loyal to her in his dramatic fashion, rushing off to Paris to duel for her when a French reporter was unkind. The prince then sailed out of her life—on a sea of press rumors that he was really a celebrated Russian forger.
Like these liaisons, Mrs. Leslie’s last marriage revealed her attraction to a certain “aesthetic” life-style that came into vogue in the nineteenth century’s last decade, chiefly in artistic and intellectual circles in Europe. The aesthetes valued intense emotion and dramatic poses; they scorned what they saw as the safe, dull values of the bourgeoisie; they made themselves easy targets for sharpshooters whose norms were those of common sense and the middle class.
At the center of this cult was the Wilde family, whom Mrs. Leslie had come to admire greatly on her frequent trips to London. Lady Wilde, who called herself Speranza and who claimed to be descended from Dante, presided over Saturday afternoon salons that became the rage of aesthetic London. Guests were led into a receiving room where all the shades were pulled and the gas jets were shaded with red. In the center the tall and imposing Lady Wilde received, looking like an aged Gypsy in her voluminous clothes and massive jewelry. Her son Oscar, possibly even more outlandish than she, usually stood with his arm draped over the mantel. His habit was to wear heliotrope waistcoats, tight artificial curls, and a huge sunflower.
Mrs. Leslie told a reporter for the New York Tribune that she hoped to become in America “what Lady Wilde is in London,” and she set about the task in her sumptuous apartments at the Gerlach. They were decorated in a suitably exotic air with Spanish flags, Japanese ornaments, Turkish curtains, and Venetian mirrors. There were not-so-subtle indications of deep spiritual feelings, touched with just the slightest hint of darker longings. A golden crucifix was mounted on crimson plush at the head of Mrs. Leslie’s bed. On a bedside stand were a Catholic prayer book and a small silver revolver. On Thursday evenings Mrs. Leslie began to receive artists, poets, and writers.
In 1891, when she was fifty-five years old, Mrs. Leslie suddenly married the one unattached Wilde son, thirty-nine-year-old Willie. “Well, the people of New York wanted a surprise,” she told a reporter, “and we have given it to them.” She added that her affection for Lady Wilde also figured prominently in the marriage.