Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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Willie Wilde was a handsome figure of a man, more than six feet tall and blessed with penetrating wit. But he may also have been among history’s laziest human beings, and there was enough of the puritan in Mrs. Leslie for her to find that most irritating. She had counted on using Willie’s journalistic talent in her publishing enterprise, but he had other plans, most of which included champagne and dry Russian cigarettes. He liked to arise about noon, dawdle at a club like The Lambs until four or so, drive around Central Park for a while after that, and then, about 7 P.M. , finally to get down to the serious business of the day. Just how sore a point this behavior was with his wife was apparent in an interview she gave a few months after they were married. She insisted that the reporter not call her Mrs. Wilde, explaining, in Willie’s presence, that “I have agreed to be called by my husband’s name when by dint of industry and perseverance he makes a name in the world of American journalism as I have.” She concluded the interview with a tongueonly-slightly-in-cheek comment: “I really think I should have married Oscar.”

Less than six months from her wedding day with Wilde, Mrs. Leslie had had enough. She took Willie to London and left him with his mother. Then she returned home and hegan divorce action. Although she named a “Madame Carmen” as correspondent in the suit, she told the press that her fourth husband’s main problem had been his insistence on trying to lead a London club life in New York.

Underlying these obvious irritations seems to have been a feeling that marriage required a powerful and capable male so that the woman could be submissive and dependent. In a book she wrote about this time, Mrs. Leslie worried that “the coming woman” would be a hybrid creature “who is to perform all the man’s duties, as well as her own, and so fill the sphere of both sexes, that man will become a mere unimportant detail of creation, and, in time, be eliminated altogether.” If things went as they should, however, woman “will, to the end of the chapter, love and marry … or feel rather sorry and humiliated if no man asks her to do so; and she will never, ah, never! under whatever circumstances, lose that delight in submission of her own will and her own judgment to that of the man she has crowned her king.”

That was undeniably one side of her, the side that took cold baths for her complexion every morning and corseted her figure into astounding proportions, the side that spent a fortune on her wardrobe and jewelry and untold hours figuring out the strategies for getting and keeping a man. But she was also a successful and decidedly unsubmissive publisher, and just howmuch talent and understanding she had in this almost all-male business was re-emphasized in her sixty-second year. She had leased out her interest in the various Leslie publications, and without her guidance they declined. Circulations fell and debts grew, and in 1898 she took control again. She rejuvenated the business, especially Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly , cutting its price and brightening its contents until six months later its circulation and advertising put it in the ranks of the most successful periodicals.

For a woman of such abilities the ideas of the burgeoning feminist movement had to have some appeal. And so the other side of Mrs. Leslie spoke out. She wrote a book and told her readers the story of Lilith, Adam’s equal, whom Allah replaced with Eve, Adam’s subject. “I am afraid I am a Lilith,” she wrote, “for I never have been able to train myself into that meek and mild admiration of man as a master that Eve and her daughters so sweetly exhibit. …” Women must, she went on, “emancipate themselves in the best meaning of the word from the swaddling bands and chains of roses that have fettered their limbs hitherto.”

But to the end Mrs. Leslie defied being categorized. She might join suffrage associations and drop notes to Susan B. Anthony, but she still moved easily between that world and a world where all the old romantic notions prevailed. She returned from one of her European trips with a new name. She was to be known henceforth, she told the world, as the Baroness de Bazus. And she returned from another of her voyages, this one in her seventieth year, with a noble fiancé. But the Count Villaverde Ia Alta, who was also seventy, died before the marriage. Until her death she wore hanging from her belt a gold key he had given her.

When Mrs. Leslie died in September, 1914, at the age of seventy-eight, however, her final act put her in the ranks of the suffragists. She bequeathed the bulk of her vast estate to Carrie Chapman Catt so that Mrs. Catt could use it in the campaign to get the vote for women. For those who remembered all her husbands and notoriety, the will came as a shock. For those who had seen themselves as her possible heirs, it came as an inexplicable outrage, particularly when it became known that the bequest was worth close to two million dollars. The newspapers were full of claims that Mrs. Leslie had been insane in her last years. Those who thought she had unjustly overlooked them unearthed the old scandals in hopes of discrediting her. In the end the contest over the will cost the Leslie estate close to a million dollars.