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
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.
So Miriam and Lola went on tour as the “Montez sisters,” drawing large crowds in Providence, Pittsburgh, and Albany. Their acting skill wasn’t what drew the crowds so much as Lola’s notoriety and, after a while, Miriam’s beauty. One of her admirers was a former Tennessee congressman, a wealthy gentleman who was wedded but who bought Miriam a home in New York nonetheless.
An even more important conquest was Ephraim G. Squier, a muchcredentialed archaeologist who also happened to be president of a railroad. Miriam met him in New York’s Castle Garden Concert Room, and the thirtyseven-year-old Squier was immediately enchanted. He knew little about her background, but when he looked into her large blue eyes and listened to her pleasing conversation, that mattered not at all to him, and the two were married in October, 1857. As the wife of a wealthy and respected man Miriam moved into a tastefully furnished home. She began to travel, she set her hand to French translation, she attended the country’s most exclusive and fashionable events. And that was how she had come to the Lincoln inaugural.
Frank Leslie, the bearded, enterprising man who watched her on that night in 1861, had followed an almost equally circuitous route. He had been born in England as Henry darter, and he had shown an early talent for wood engraving. His father and uncle had little tolerance for such seeming frivolity, however, and they pressured him to join the family’s glove-making business. Young Henry kept on submitting his work to various publications, but to avoid difficulties with his family he did so under the name Frank Leslie.
Finally he decided to take his future in his own hands, and he got a job with the Illustrated London News , a journal that capitalized on the great thirst nineteenth-century audiences had to see the day’s events pictured. When Leslie saw the success of the Illustrated London News , he decided to take its idea to America. In 1848 he moved with his wife and children to New York.
At first he made his way working for others. He persuaded P. T. Barnum to let him illustrate the elaborate programs for Jenny Lind’s midcentury concert tour, and he spent some time on a Barnum-backed newspaper. Then, when he had accumulated a small capital, he went into business for himself, founding in 1854 a monthly fashion magazine for women. Its immediate success prompted Leslie to acquire an already prosperous romantic-story journal and next, in 1855, to establish the Illustrated Newspaper , the publication that epitomized his penchant for sensational subject matter and dramatically detailed illustrations, and became the foundation of his publishing empire. The weekly Illustrated Newspaper was a hodgepodge of miscellany, news items, scandal and crime stories, and exposés of official corruption, all illustrated by woodcuts that were often printed only two weeks after an event—an unheard-of promptitude at the time. By the outset of the Civil War its circulation had reached 164,000, which enabled Leslie to start two more magazines.
For Leslie the outbreak of the war signalled a time of unparalleled opportunity. Americans were eager to know every detail of the war, and from his elegant offices on City Hall Square in New York, Leslie sent out corps of artists to record it for them.
Both Miriam Squier and her husband were drawn into the press and excitement of Leslie’s expanding business. E. G., whose railroad was in something of a bad way, accepted Leslie’s offer to become editor of the Illustrated Newspaper . Miriam took over editorship of Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine . While Squier and Leslie provided the nation with details about twelvepound mountain howitzers and Major General Burnside, Miriam described mantillas and hoop skirts. With such ease did her conversational skill translate into the written word of fashion and romance that within a few years she became editor of a second Leslie publication, and then a third. The belle of the Lincoln inaugural established for women across America styles in bonnets and crinolines, in flirtation and marriage.
Those last subjects must have been increasingly on her mind as the Squiers’ personal lives became more and more entangled with Leslie’s. The three had been living under the same roof ever since E. G., hearing that Leslie had separated from his wife of nineteen years, offered the publisher a room with him and Miriam. Perhaps the only thing more curious than the lack of foresight Squier’s offer showed is that the arrangement lasted for more than a decade.
Exactly whose bedroom opened onto whose during those years would inspire heated arguments after the menage broke up. But while Leslie was living with the Squiers all seemed peaceful, amazingly so considering such episodes as the trio’s trip to Paris for the 1867 Exposition. Leslie, now a powerful and important man, had been named United States commissioner to the exposition, and he and the Squiers set sail for Europe in February, 1867. Newspapers reported that someone on board the ship wired ahead to announce Squier’s impending arrival to old creditors of the archaeologist, so that when the ship landed in Liverpool, he was arrested and thrown into prison. His wife and employer went on to London, and it was two weeks before they bailed him out of jail.
E. G. had noticed Leslie sending a dispatch from aboard the ship, but he hadn’t thought much about it at the time, and if his suspicions bothered him afterward, he kept it to himself. When Leslie and Mrs. Squier did come up with his bond, the three continued on their trip as though nothing especially untoward had occurred. When they got to Paris, Leslie began to work on his commissioner’s report, E. G. organized various activities for the Americans at the exposition, and Miriam wandered from shop to bazaar so she could report to her female readers on the very latest in European fashion.
The trio lived together (they even moved from house to house together), worked together, and travelled together. As Squier would tell it later, he was miserable in the background role assigned him by Leslie and his wife. He noted Miriam wearing diamonds he hadn’t seen before and watched her going out in carriages with Leslie and attending the theatre with him, while he, Squier, was “put on one side and spent a dog’s life.” But if Squier was a martyr, he was a willing one. If he was victimized, it was with remarkable ease. At one point he left his wife and Leslie in New York for a whole year while he went exploring in Peru. And when Leslie’s estranged wife charged Miriam Squier and Leslie with adultery, Squier blandly denied the accusation. It was made, he said, “with malicious intent to disturb my domestic peace and break up the close, friendly and business relations existing between myself and Mr. Frank Leslie”
The society in which the trio moved probably helps explain both Squier’s acquiescence and how the ménage managed to endure for so long. However much Victorian morality might have permeated the rest of the nation, in the ebullience of post-Civil WarNew York purity and chastity were distinctly out of fashion. After the theatre, in Taylor’s and Delmonico’s, affairs were carried on openly. The city’s demimonde thrived, with welloff prostitutes living in the best houses, wearing the finest dresses, skillfully cultivating all the manners of polite society. A certain taste for the bohemian came into style, and with it the line between the demimonde and sophisticated New Yorkers shifted and faded all the more.
The Leslie-Squier ménage à trois fitted into this background; nonetheless when Frank Leslie and his estranged wife were finally divorced, the trio’s days were numbered. Miriam Squier decided to join with Leslie in a more regular union, and, as E. G. later explained it, she set out in a most premeditated way to disencumber herself of her husband. She arranged a party at a “disreputable” house and invited several New York courtesans, E. G. said. It was not, apparently, a very unusual event, for E. G. notes no surprise at her having arranged such a gathering. But this time a couple of Leslie artists were on hand—sent there, E. G. said, to sketch him should he be caught in a compromising position. Whether their presence was in fact so calculated isn’t clear, but when Miriam Squier sued for divorce shortly after, two Leslie artists testified about Squier’s unseemly performance that night with a girl named Gypsy.
Within a month of the time her divorce was final, the thirty-eightyear-old Miriam Squier and the fiftythree-year-old Frank Leslie were married. Within a month of the marriage E. G. was committed to a madhouse on Long Island. It was a sequence that provided excellent grist for contemporary gossip mills, particularly when it turned out that Miriam’s first husband, the jeweler’s clerk, also ended his days in an asylum. Many accounts credited Miriam with E. G.’s mad vagaries, but his brother, who had him committed, said she was not the cause of his madness. With something less than charity, he suggested she was one of its symptoms.
Miriam and her new husband threw themselves into the extravagant New York social whirl. There were thousands in New York who, like the Leslies, had become rich with the war, and they spent their wealth as vigorously as they had acquired it, on shining carriages, sleek horses, handsome brownstones, Paris gowns, and dazzling diamonds. At a reception in Albany given by Governor Tilden for William Cullen Bryant, crowds of sumptuously gowned women turned out, and in the midst of them Miriam Leslie and her jewels shone most brightly.
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.
As they travelled the artists in the retinue made sketches for the readers of the Illustrated Newspaper , sketches that today provide a valuable record of the nineteenth-century West. Mrs. Leslie kept notes on the trip; later she turrted them into a book full of intriguing glimpses of the developing frontier—and her reactions to it. She declared Cheyenne a “fresh and vigorous experience,” with its rough-clad men, its well-stocked jewelry shops, and McDaniels Theatre, a painted, frescoed playhouse where one could drink, gamble, or watch what the proprietor insisted on calling a “great moral show.” The party was impressed with Denver’s roads. Mrs. Leslie declared them as hard and dry as the drives of Central Park. The group was enchanted with Colorado scenery, from the misshapen sandstone towers of the Garden of the Gods to the lofty eminence of Pike’s Peak.
But what most fascinated Mrs. Leslie were the Mormons, and more particularly their polygamy. One of Brigham Young’s multiple wives had recently—and noisily—left his fold, so Mormon marriage habits were in the forefront of many American minds. But Mrs. Leslie was especially interested, perhaps because of her personal history, and she made inquiries about polygamy to practically every person she encountered in Utah. Finally her persistence carried her to Brigham Young himself.
As Mrs. Leslie reported it, Young started out the interview perfunctorily enough with comments on the weather, to which she countered, “Do you suppose, Mr. President, that I came all the way to Salt Lake City to hear it was a fine day?”
“I’m sure you need not, my dear,” Mrs. Leslie reported the seventy-sixyear-old Young’s response, “for it must be fine weather wherever you are.”
Although she herself had shared a home with two men, Mrs. Leslie simply could not understand how women could share a husband. Didn’t they compete with one another? she wanted to know. Didn’t they “use every effort of mind, body, and soul to attract and retain his love, admiration, and attention?”
Polygamy required a certain type of woman, Young replied, according to Mrs. Leslie’s report, a type of woman far different from herself. “Fortunately,” the Lion of the Lord is supposed to have said, “there are not many of [your] mind among us.”
San Francisco appealed to Mrs. Leslie’s love for both the splendid and the bohemian. She and her husband stayed at the Palace Hotel (in a suite lately occupied by Emperor Dom Pedro), and they went through the opium dens of Chinatown. Their California stay included a visit to Senator Sharon’s Belmont estate, dinner at Governor Stanford’s palatial home, and a tour of Yosemite.
After the most elegant of California civilization and the most awesome of its natural wonders, the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where the party stopped on the way back, was a great disappointment. It was an arid, dusty place, Mrs. Leslie reported, with forty-nine gambling saloons and one church. “To call a place dreary, desolate, homeless, uncomfortable, and wicked is a good deal,” she wrote, “but to call it God forsaken is a good deal more, and in a tolerably large experience of this world’s wonders, we never found a place better deserving the title than Virginia City.”
But the disappointment of Virginia City was nothing compared to what awaited the Leslies back in New York. Almost as soon as they returned, their publishing empire began collapsing in financial ruin. Their personal extravagance accounted for many of the huge debts, but Leslie was professionally extravagant too. He was given to starting new periodicals at the drop of a hat. Miriam Leslie said she hated for him to come down to breakfast because she never knew when he might announce a new one. He had probably also overinvested in staff and equipment, and an accounting showed him to be more than three hundred thousand dollars in debt. His property was assigned, and Leslie was given three years to satisfy his creditors.
Added to this misfortune was a blow delivered by the citizens of Virginia City, Nevada. Outraged at Mrs. Leslie’s account of their town in the book she wrote about the California trip, they set out to gain revenge by printing the full history of her life. “Our Female Slanderer,” read the headlines in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise , “A Life Drama of Crime and Licentiousness.” So detailed was the account of Mrs. Leslie and the jeweler’s clerk, Lola Montez, and the congressman, so bitter the story of the ménage à trois , that it was clear Squier had penetrated the clouds of his madness long enough to tell a few tales on his ex-wife.
And then Frank Leslie became ill with a neck cancer and died, leaving his forty-three-year-old widow to cope with debts, attacks on her reputation, and, inevitably, lawsuits from potential heirs who felt they deserved whatever of the publishing empire remained. On the face of it one would not have thought the odds very good on her being able to come out of the situation successfully. Although she had gained fame and influence as the editor of three of Leslie’s many magazines, the talent she had revealed in those jobs chiefly consisted of an ability to give the frothy topics of the Lady’s Magazine and the Lady’s Journal a tone of importance. She could make details of fashion resound with cosmic implications.
But in her years with the Leslie publishing house she had learned the details of how that large and complex organization functioned. With an eye long trained in detecting where opportunity might or might not lie, she saw its weaknesses and its potential. She pared the list of Leslie publications, and she pared her life-style, moving into a utilitarian flat and working from eight in the morning until eight at night. She designed a decorative cover for the Illustrated Newspaper , bettered the quality of its printing stock, improved the quality of woodcut printing, and sought out new writers. She won her lawsuits in the courts and found ways to satisfy her creditors. When they demanded an immediate fifty thousand dollars, she used her diamonds as security and managed to borrow the necessary amount.
On a Saturday morning in 1881 a disappointed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, shot President James A. Garfield in a Washington, B.C., railway station, and Mrs. Leslie saw her chance to wipe out the last of the Leslie debts. As soon as she heard rumors of the shooting, she sent artists off to Washington. One of them returned with sketches on Saturday’s midnight train, and by working her staff through the long weekend Mrs. Leslie managed to get the story engraved, set, printed, and on the streets before the competition. By Tuesday morning Leslie readers had their fully illustrated accounts, and she had netted fifty thousand dollars from a single journalistic coup.
When Garfield died two months later, Mrs. Leslie stopped the presses to ensure that her readers would get a fast account. She was far-sighted enough to have large quantities of Leslie papers for sale in Cleveland, where final services for the President were held. She was cold-eyed enough to give her readers the kind of sensational pictures they wanted. The Leslie papers not only showed doctors performing a post-mortem on the slain President, they also pictured the morticians at work embalming his body. The Illustrated Newspaper ’s, circulation, which had fallen to around thirty thousand, climbed to the two hundred thousand mark.
Miriam Leslie also went to court and had her name legally changed to Frank Leslie. Sometimes she explained that it was one of her husband’s deathbed wishes; but as biographer Madeleine Stern has pointed out, when it was convenient, Mrs. Leslie could remember his uttering a truly astounding number of deathbed wishes, considering that the man died of a choking ailment. A son of Frank Leslie’s involved in rival publishing ventures provided a hard, pragmatic reason for the name change. The son tried to capitalize on his father’s name, and by making herself “Frank Leslie” Miriam strengthened the claim that the trademark was hers, solely and absolutely.
With the hindsight of a century one has to wonder if the action wasn’t also symbolic. As her success with the publishing business proved, she was a bright, capable woman, but most of her achievements before she took over Leslie’s business had been ancillary: most of them had depended on her winning and keeping the affections of various men. Now she had arrived where that was no longer necessary, and the name change made that clear. She was no caretaker for Frank Leslie’s enterprises; she was in fact Frank Leslie.
Her publishing house continued to flourish. The four-story iron and marble building at the corner of Park Place and College Place was jammed with artists, engravers, and editors, with electrotype machines and presses. Altogether they consumed seventeen tons of paper a week and a sea of ink. Even after Mrs. Leslie pared down the list of publications, the house put out four weeklies and three monthlies with an aggregate circulation for a single edition of a quarter million copies. Each publication had a separate editor, but Mrs. Leslie oversaw them all, shifting the house’s resources from one publication to another as the need arose. No contract was made without her approval, and no checks were paid without her signature; nor did visitors often leave the establishment without meeting its “living head and presiding genius,” as Leslie’s Popular Monthly referred to her.
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.
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.
But a million dollars remained, and it was sufficient to alter significantly the course of history. Mrs. Leslie’s money was quite enough to give the suffrage movement renewed impetus. It was used to set up a publicity bureau, to finance historical and statistical research, and to put out a women’s magazine. During the hectic days of the First World War, when the Nineteenth Amendment was being proposed and ratified, such projects helped keep the suffrage issue in the forefront. When the vote was won, suffragists credited Mrs. Leslie with having advanced the hour of victory.
That she financed the final suffrage drive is not surprising when viewed against the background of her business achievements. From what she had done with the Leslie publications, she knew about female equality, even in areas that society regarded as male preserves. Against a larger hackground, however, it would be oversimple to see her will only that way. If a single thread connects the diverse parts of her story, it is her idea that one should live in ways as intensely romantic as any novel, poem, or play. The skills she learned on the stage as Minnie Monte? she expanded and cultivated when she was Miriam Squier, when she was Frank Leslie, and when she was the Baroness de Bazus. Gi and gestures became a way of life with her, as did the spotlights of publicity and the satisfactions of center stage. Her final act needs to be fitted into that framework too, for certainly it rounded out her performance with a fittingly dramatic conclusion.