Sunday, March 29, 2015

173. Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power

      Short and squat and built like an icebox, with a strong nose and a salient chin, she didn’t reek glamour or beauty, yet the promotion of feminine beauty was her lifelong obsession.  Helena Rubinstein was a shrewd businesswoman and workaholic who cut a striking figure with her high-fashion outfits and layers of jewelry, her dark hair pulled back in a tight chignon, her eyes traced in black, her lips bright red, and an air of dominance.  Clearly, this was a woman to reckon with.

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     “Beauty is power,” she famously said, and her career confirms it amply.  Born Chaja Rubinstein to a Jewish family of modest means in Krakow in Russian Poland in 1872, she was the eldest of eight daughters.  Since there was no son, she was recruited by her parents to help keep the brood in order and so from an early age was assuming responsibility.  And being good at figures, she helped her father, a wholesale food broker, with bookkeeping, and at age 15, when he was sick, filled in for him at a business meeting. 

     But her mother was a great influence, too.  With eight daughters to marry off, she drilled into the girls the importance of minding their appearance, and especially of taking care of one’s hair and skin, a lesson that her eldest thoroughly absorbed.  And since her mother used a homemade face cream, her business-minded eldest began peddling it to the neighbors.

     “I am a merchant,” she explained later.  “To be a good merchant you need a sharp eye.  I know a good thing when I hear it and I like quick decisions.  Take advantage of the situation.  Every situation.  That and hard work.”  A workaholic from the start, she worked eighteen-hour days.  “Lost many a beau,” she later admitted, “and missed the fun of being young.”  But she  also realized that work was her very life, preferable to any marriage her family might have arranged.  “My only recreation is work.”

An ad circa 1905.
     When her father arranged a marriage for her with an elderly widower willing to take her without a dowry, she rebelled.  In 1902, at age 30 and with little money or English, she escaped by making a great leap from Poland to a small outback town in Australia, where an uncle was a shopkeeper.  She had brought 12 pots of her mother’s beauty cream with her and was soon giving them away, then selling them, and asking her mother for more.  When demand outpaced supply, she began making it herself.  Sheep were abundant in the region, providing lanolin, a key ingredient for her products, whose pungent aroma she masked with lavender, pine bark, and water lilies.  Working as a servant and governess and then in Melbourne as a waitress, with some financial help from friends she launched her Crème Valaze (a French-sounding name that she invented), a face cream advertised as having rare herbs “from the Carpathian Mountains” (she was a shrewd, if not scrupulous, marketer); it flew off the shelves.  Having skin often ravaged by the sun, Australian women marveled at her milk-white skin.  This proved a great advertisement for her product, though the whiteness of her skin owed nothing to her cream. 

     Now calling herself Helena Rubinstein, she opened a fashionable salon where, going at glamour as a science, she donned a white lab coat and “diagnosed” the skin problems of clients and “prescribed” an appropriate treatment.  (Her pretensions to medical training, like many of the facts she marshaled, were bogus; she was self-taught.)  She knew she was selling illusion – the illusion of youth and beauty – and the higher the price of the products, the more her customers would want them.  Those products now included soaps, lotions, and cleansers, and in time much more.  Next she expanded her operation to Sydney, and within five years had realized sufficient profits to open a Salon de Beauté Valaze in London.  Australia couldn’t hold her; she wanted the world.

     In London in 1908 she married the Polish-born American journalist Edward William Titus, who became her partner in business.  By him she had two sons – an inconvenience, she later admitted, since her obsession with business left little time for family.  Edward was charming, witty, and urbane,  but, as she soon learned, incapable of fidelity.  In 1912 they moved to Paris, where she opened yet another salon.  Edward helped her meet writers and artists and thus recast herself as a woman of the world.  She was doing well now and gave lavish dinner parties.  But away from business, her perceptions were not always keen; meeting Marcel Proust socially, she shrugged him off because “he smelt of mothballs.”  Her later observation: “How was I to know he was going to be famous?”

     The outbreak of World War I put a damper on business, so in 1915 she and her husband moved to the U.S., still neutral, opening a cosmetics salon, the Maison de Beauté de Valaze, on East 49th Street in New York, the first of what would become a chain nationwide.  And her timing was good: American women were wrenching free of Victorian mores, taking charge of their lives, and demanding the vote.  So Rubinstein urged them to take charge of their appearance, too.  “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”  Whereas in Victorian times noticeable makeup had been worn only by actresses (always morally suspect) or prostitutes, she promoted the notion that it was the means whereby respectable women could improve their appearance.  Hers was a democratic vision: beauty was obtainable by all.  But the U.S. was a challenge, since immediately upon arrival she observed that American women had purple noses and gray lips, and faces chalk-white from “terrible” powder.  “I recognized that the United States could be my life’s work.”

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The competition: Elizabeth Arden, 1939.
     In New York began a keen competition with that other great lady of cosmetics, Canadian-born Elizabeth Arden; there was no love lost between them.  Both knew the importance of marketing, and the value of celebrity endorsements, overpricing, and the use of pseudoscience in skin care.  “She tries to get me in every way she can,” said Rubinstein of her rival.  When their paths crossed at social events, they made a point of not speaking.  And when Arden hired away some of Rubinstein’s sales force, Rubinstein in retaliation hired Arden’s divorced husband, Thomas Lewis: “Imagine the secrets he must know!”

     In 1917 Rubinstein took on the manufacturing and distribution of her products.  She was a pioneer in selling her products in department stores, in herself giving training to the clerks, and in hiring women as traveling sales representatives to demonstrate her products in local stores.  To her army of employees, whom she ruled demandingly, she was simply “Madame.”  In 1928 – again her timing was remarkable – she sold her American business to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million.  Just one year later came the crash, followed by the Depression.  She then bought back the grossly undervalued stock for less than $1 million and in time saw its value soar. 

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Theda Bara, heavy with mascara, 1921.
But would this work today?
     Possessing a seemingly infallible instinct for what women would buy and how to present it to them, she built a brand long before business schools taught marketing.  “I could have made a fortune selling paper clips!” she asserted, and was probably right.  She soon had salons and outlets in many U.S. cities, and in the 1920s she went to Hollywood to instruct film stars Pola Negri and Theda Bara in the use of mascara, which emphasized their eyes and enhanced their image as “vamps.”

     By the late 1930s her seven-floor spa at 715 Fifth Avenue included a gym, a restaurant, sumptuous displays of art, rugs by painter Joan Miró, and classrooms where women received instruction in facial care.  There was also a private residence, likewise sumptuously furnished, on an upper floor.  And to launch a new scent called Heaven Sent, she had hundreds of pink and blue balloons float down onto Fifth Avenue, with a sample attached and a message announcing this gift from heaven.

     Having divorced her philandering first husband the year before, in 1938 Rubinstein, now 66 and a multimillionaire, married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, age 43, whose chief attractions were good looks and a dubious claim to Georgian nobility.  A dedicated social climber, Rubinstein may have seen the marriage as a marketing tool that let her present herself as Helena, Princess Gourielli.  In any event, she named a line of male cosmetics for him. 

     Frugal in many ways, Rubinstein would walk from her Park Avenue apartment to her office on Fifth Avenue wearing a fur coat but carrying a brown-bag lunch.  She pinched pennies yet spent royally on clothing from the top Parisian couturiers, and on furniture and art.  Her private art collection included paintings by Renoir, de Chirico, Modigliani, Chagall, Utrillo, Matisse, and Picasso, Rouault tapestries, and portraits of herself by Picasso (sketches only), Marie Laurencin, Raoul Dufy, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and others.  But she also went further afield, buying what she liked without help from an adviser, and so acquired African and Oceanic art before it caught on, as well as Russian icons, American glass, artifacts, rugs, both fine and junk jewelry, and miniature rooms with objects made of ivory, silver, crystal, mahogany, and pewter that she loved to show off to visitors, especially children.

     She got into real estate, too.  Having at first lived over the shops selling her products, when business expanded she moved into apartments.  “So I bought the apartments.  Next I bought the buildings.  Then I bought the neighboring buildings.  Why not?  Real estate is a good thing to have.”  In 1941, when her bid for an apartment at 625 Park Avenue was turned down because of anti-Semitism, she bought the whole building and established herself in a 26-room triplex penthouse with wrap-around terraces and lavishly decorated rooms, including one with three walls with murals by her friend Dali.  The furnishings reflected gusto, if not taste, with Victorian chairs covered in purple and magenta velvet, Chinese pearl-inlaid coffee tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, six-foot-tall blue opaline vases, life-size Easter Island sculptures, African masks, and walls crammed with paintings.  Admittedly, connoisseurs might criticize Madame for a lack of discernment; she confessed to buying in bulk.
     And 625 Park Avenue wasn’t her only pied-à-terre by a long shot.  She had residences in London and Paris, and two country homes in France – one near Paris and one in the Midi -- and a third in Greenwich, Connecticut. They were all crammed with art and objects reflecting her assertive taste, and the staff were trained to welcome her at a moment’s notice.

     When the U.S. entered World War II, there were those who suggested that beauty and cosmetics were now irrelevant, a notion at which she scoffed.  A canny patriot, she partnered with the Army to provide the GI’s with smartly packaged sunburn cream and camouflage makeup.

     When her second husband died of a heart attack in 1955, she mourned him deeply.  In May 1964 thieves broke into her Park Avenue apartment, posing as deliverymen bringing roses.  They tied up her butler at gunpoint and then confronted her in her bedroom.  Or perhaps, at age 93, she confronted them.  Having secreted the keys to her safe deep in her bosom, she watched as the intruders emptied her purse, which contained some handfuls of paper, a powder compact, five twenty-dollar bills, and a pair of diamond earrings worth $40,000.  When they upended the purse, the earrings rolled away and Madame covered them with a Kleenex.  Having tied her to a chair, the thieves departed with the hundred dollars in cash.  When her butler freed her, she had him put the roses in the refrigerator, in case they had visitors that day.  Since the thieves must have spent forty dollars for the roses, she calculated that their profit was a mere sixty dollars.

     Even in her early 90s she was helping run her business from her Lucite bed with built-in fluorescent lighting.  She herself died of a heart attack in 1965 at age 94, her business worth billions, and is buried beside her second husband in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens.  Again, good timing: she got out before the “natural look” came in, before feminists denounced makeup as a stratagem to appeal to the gaze of males.  When her enormous estate was auctioned off by Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1966, the catalog ran to six volumes.  Her company, Helena Rubinstein, Inc., was sold to Colgate Palmolive in 1973, and is now owned by the French cosmetics conglomerate L’Oréal.  Published in 1966, her autobiography My Life for Beauty is a mix of fact and fiction.

     And who then bought her fabled 26-room penthouse at 625 Park Avenue?  Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, a cosmetics competitor whom she had dismissed with scorn as a copycat, calling him “the nail man.”  Madame must have turned over in her Mount Olivet grave.

     Coming soon:  Money.  What is it?  (You'd be surprised.)  When did we first get dollar bills, and why?  The fascination of gold.  Did you know that 40% of the world's gold is right here in Manhattan, buried deep and lodged on bedrock?  And whose is it?  What opinion did historical Christianity and Ma Perkins share about bankers?  And to round things off, a glance at one of the world's greatest tightwads and one of the greatest spendthrifts, both active right here in New York.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


Sunday, March 22, 2015

172. Aristocracy: Are a Few of Us Better Than the Rest of Us?

     “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So states the opening of the Declaration of Independence, though it would be nice to include the women, too.  Which would seem to squelch any notion of aristocracy right from the start.  And the Constitution: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state” (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8).  Clearly, the newly established United States of America was a democratic nation that  wanted no truck with titles of nobility or, by extension, with any class-based society ruled by an aristocracy.  And we held the very concept of monarchy in contempt, as witnessed by the Declaration’s long litany of complaints against King George III, whose arbitrary and unjust actions prompted our fight for independence.

     Yet Martha Washington, our first First Lady, in holding weekly receptions on Fridays for members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and people of the community (meaning New York and then Philadelphia, for Washington D.C. had not yet been invented), presided with dignity and formality to the point of being criticized by some as imitating the rituals and fashions of the abhorred British crown.  Worse still, perhaps, she was addressed by many as “Lady Washington,” and by some as “Our Lady Presidentress.”  Later prints and paintings, showing her at these events,  present her in dazzling gowns and with an air of majesty worthy of Marie Antoinette before the Revolution.  All of which does smack just a little of monarchy, though in fairness to Martha it should be remembered that she did this out of a feeling of duty, a feeling that she owed it to her husband.  She really preferred the quiet domestic life of Mount Vernon, from which she and George had been plucked by his election, and to which they would return at the end of his second term.  As First Lady, she would tell her niece, she felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”  Which, come to think of it, sounds rather like the British royals today.

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Martha Washington, on the raised platform, presiding over the President's reception.
Or is this Versailles?  An 1861 print.

     The partisan politics of the 1790s pitted the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, against the Democratic-Republicans (forerunners of the Democratic Party of today), led by Thomas Jefferson.  The Federalists, who were backed by bankers and businessmen and wanted a strong national government, at first prevailed.  Far from embracing the great masses of the citizenry, they were leery of them, and when the French Revolution sent riotous mobs parading through the streets – sometimes with the heads of victims impaled on spikes – they recoiled in horror.  So it was logical enough that they wanted better relations with Great Britain, the enemy of revolutionary France, even if we had fought a long war to wrest our independence from its king.  Right from the start, then, there were elements of U.S. society that looked on aristocratic, class-ridden Britain with something less than hostility or scorn. 

     Meanwhile the Democratic-Republicans opposed the Federalists in every way, saw yeoman farmers, not merchants and bankers, as the ideal citizens of a republic, supported the new French republic before its excesses became evident, and accused the Federalists, when they signed a treaty with Britain, of selling out republican values to British monarchy.  In this early brouhaha – a very partisan brouhaha, probably even surpassing today’s brouhaha in venom -- the Federalists were sometimes called aristocrats or monocrats or Tories (a term also designating the colonists loyal to Britain in the Revolution), while they labeled their opponents not just Republicans or Whigs, but also Jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, and worse.  Which does suggest that, from the very beginning, this new democracy had mixed feelings about aristocracy vs. democracy, the few vs. the many.

     But wasn’t aristocracy – a landed aristocracy – implanted in the country long since, especially in and around New York City and in the Hudson Valley?  Back in the seventeenth century the Dutch West India Company, the founder of New Amsterdam (later New York City), granted title to large tracts of land to landholders called patroons, so as to encourage colonization and settlement.  The patroons enjoyed many rights and privileges, such as appointing local officials, creating civil and criminal courts, and holding land in perpetuity.  So if their tenant farmers had a gripe against their manorial landlord and went to court, the court was a tool of the patroon, who was like a little king in his own domain.  If the patroons weren’t a new class of landed aristocracy, who was?  And when the English took over from the Dutch in 1664, they continued the patroon system and themselves granted large tracts of land, called manors.

Kiliaen van Rensselaer.  Not a yeoman farmer.
     The largest of the patroonships was Rensselaerswyck, granted to the Dutch merchant Kiliaen van Rensselaer in 1630, comprising most of Albany and Rensselaer counties and parts of two others – a huge estate the was kept intact by his descendants until the death of the last patroon, Stephen Rensselaer III, in 1839.  Following Stephen’s death the estate’s 3,000 tenant farmers, resenting their subjection to a landlord living in semi-feudal splendor, launched an anti-rent rebellion against Stephen’s heirs that soon became a statewide revolt against the whole system of leasehold tenure.  When the anti-renters got support from the legislature and courts, the various Rensselaer heirs sold out their interests in the late 1840s and this particular  patroonship was ended once and for all.

     Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest corner of the Bronx is named for Stephanus Van Cortlandt, another patroon and the first native-born mayor of New York, who in 1697 received from King William III of England the grant of an 86,000-acre estate in Westchester County.  Stephanus’s family did all right for themselves: one sister married a Van Rensselaer, and another married Frederick Phillipse, whose vast manorial estate stretched from the Bronx north to the Croton River in Westchester County.  Preserved in Van Cortlandt Park today is the Van Cortlandt House (now a museum), a handsome three-story Georgian house built for a Van Cortlandt descendant in 1748 – the oldest building in the Bronx.  The Van Cortlandt family occupied the park now named for them until they sold it to the city in 1888.

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The Van Cortlandt House.  Not a palace, but they lived well.
Robert Swanson

     I could go on, citing other patroons who received grants of land in New York State, but it should be obvious by now that there existed a landed aristocracy that intermarried and had great influence in public affairs, serving as alderman or mayor or governor while always presiding as lord of the manor.  In 1775, on the very eve of the Revolution, the British authorities redefined “patroonship” as “estate” and took away the patroons’  jurisdictional privileges, an act that so alienated the ethnic Dutch population that they sided with the independence movement when war broke out.  But after the war the newly formed New York State government refused to overturn the law.

     And in New York City?  Obviously, no huge estates there with tenant farmers paying rent – or refusing to do so – to any lords of the manor; there just wasn’t room.  But there was even so what could be called an aristocracy, the oldest, quietest, and most exclusive of whom were the Old Knickerbockers, descendants of the old Dutch families of the region, with names like Van Rensselaer, Stuyvesant, Bleecker, Van Cortlandt, and Roosevelt.  (“Knickerbockers” also designates the baggy knee trousers, or knickers, that the early Dutch male settlers wore.)  The Knickerbockers impressed others as being refined but clannish, quietly proud of the gilt-framed portraits of ancestors on their walls, but not too bright.

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An old print showing New Amsterdam, circa 1642.  The Dutchman in knickerbockers is
clearly in charge.  But who's doing all the work?

     Not quite on a par with the Old Knickerbockers were descendants of early English settlers who had amassed fortunes here, and also, in smaller numbers, descendants of Huguenots, French Protestants who had fled persecution in Catholic France and come here long before the Revolution.  These families intermarried and often provided mayors and governors, since public service was considered an obligation of the elite, though by no means a career.       
     All the old families guarded their position quietly but determinedly, and looked with scorn on any pushy New Money folks who aspired to join their ranks.  So in New York City, as in the state and the nation, if all citizens were created equal, some were more equal than others.

     But change was coming.  The election of 1828 brought Andrew Jackson to the White House, the first president born west of the Appalachians.  So ended the long reign of the Virginia Dynasty and the Adamses, father and son, who until then had monopolized the White House.  To celebrate Old Hickory’s election, well-wishers from the West poured into the capital and behaved boisterously and drunkenly at the first presidential reception: a shocking display of the boorish manners that would soon so offend the English visitor Mrs. Trollope, and that exasperated even Jackson himself, who is said to have escaped through a window.  The crowd left only when bowls of liquor and punch were placed on the front lawn of the White House.  The “Peepul” had triumphed, albeit at the cost of a demolished reception hall and several thousand dollars in broken china.  Aristocracy, if such there was, was now on the defensive.

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Fernando Wood, trying to look a bit Napoleonic.
His enemies called him the King of Dock Rats.

     In burgeoning New York City the situation was aggravated by the heavy influx of Irish fleeing famine in Ireland in the late 1840s.  They were turbulent, poor, and Roman Catholic, traits not likely to endear them to the Wasp majority, least of all the self-styled elite who up till then had governed the city.  The election of Fernando (“Fernandy”) Wood as mayor in 1854 marked the advent of the full-time professional politician, and the Tammany machine was already organizing the Irish as a massive block of voters (“Vote early and often”) who could swing an election.  The so-called New York aristocracy withdrew in disgust from politics, abandoning it to Tammany and its grubby cohorts, except for occasional reform movements like the one that ousted Boss Tweed and his cronies.  But those movements rarely lasted.  As the Tammany spokesman George Washington Plunkitt observed, “Reformers are like morning glories, they wilt by noon.  But Tammany’s a fine old oak.”

     Even as Tammany took over the political scene, another aristocracy was appearing, one based on money.  Entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor, the fur king, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate, amassed fortunes that let their descendants distance themselves from the grubby details of business and fortune-making, and aspire to social preeminence.  They were the real snobs of the day, being newly arrived, with the Astors looking down on the Vanderbilts, and the Vanderbilts looking down on others, while the Old Knickerbockers quietly looked down on them all.  Taking a hint from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line, “Build thee more stately mansions,” they did just that, rearing up palaces like the Vanderbilts’ French chateau-style residences on Fifth Avenue, Jay Gould’s Gothic castle at Lyndhurst on the Hudson (acquired by him, but built by a predecessor), and a slew of palatial residences at Newport, Rhode Island.  The old elite had been tasteful and discreet, but the parvenus now coming to the fore lived more blatantly: if you had money, you wanted the world to know it, and an imposing residence was a fine way to display your millions.

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Lyndhurst, Jay Gould's Gothic castle and family retreat.  To ward off enemies, the Mephistopheles
of Wall Street had armed guards posted around the clock.

     Meanwhile Americans of every stripe and hue nourished an abiding fascination with the very aristocracy and monarchy of Europe that they had rejected so emphatically from the outset.  When the young Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII of England, came to the U.S. in 1860, he was greeted and feted with enthusiasm.  In New York there was a grand ball at the Academy of Music that everyone who was anyone managed to attend, the jam so great that the floor collapsed beneath them, though with no injury to anyone.  When Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, the fourth son of Czar Alexander II, came for an extensive tour in 1871, the city honored him with balls and receptions and a torchlight parade of the firemen, before he visited other cities and, as a climax of his American tour, hunted buffalo in Nebraska in the company of Buffalo Bill Cody and several hundred Sioux recruited for the occasion.  Clearly, Americans were in love with not just aristocracy but monarchy, as long as they weren’t the ones being ruled.

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The Grand Duke kills a buffalo with a pistol shot.  But soon, thanks to overhunting, there
wouldn't be any buffalo to hunt.

Jennie Jerome.  Lord Randolph had good taste.
     Could Americans aspire even further?  Could they become members of European aristocracies?  The answer wasn’t long in coming.  Jenny Jerome, the daughter of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome, married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, the result being Winston Churchill.  Widowed, she would catch the roving eye of the Prince of Wales, Victoria's son and the future Edward VII.  (Any good-looking woman of the proper rank was apt to catch his eye.)

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Anna Gould, date unknown.  But
she was obviously doing well.
     And Anna Gould, the daughter of New York financier Jay Gould (called by some the Mephistopheles of Wall Street) married a titled Frenchman in 1895 and so became the Comtesse de Castellane; that she had inherited millions from her father was perhaps not irrelevant.  Then, in Paris in 1906, after her high-living hubby had gone through half her fortune, she divorced him on grounds of infidelity (and there were plenty of grounds) – an event that the satirical magazine Puck celebrated hilariously.  Not that she and her millions were in any way out of the marital market.  In 1908 she married her ex’s cousin, a titled nobleman of the illustrious house of Talleyrand-Périgord, thus becoming the Marquise de Talleyrand Périgord, Duchesse de Sagan.  This marriage – and the title that came with it -- stuck.

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Puck's take on Anna Gould's 1906 divorce, which resembles a wedding ceremony.  Preceded by her two attorneys, she arrives in black, carrying a bouquet of incriminating affidavits, her train carried by her young son.  Behind her, instead of bridesmaids, come a bevy of saucy corespondents.  In front of the judge's bench, the elegantly attired husband has swooned and is supported by his counsel.

     As international social climbing went, Anna Gould’s ascent was remarkable.  But as a Wall Streeter once observed, if you aim for the stars, you get chorus girls; if you aim for chorus girls, you get nothing.  Admittedly, a very male-oriented observation, but the message applies to both sexes: aim high, very high.  How about majesty?  Well, that took a little longer.  In 1956, movie star Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in what was called “the wedding of the century,” thus becoming Princess Grace.  Not bad, but let’s face it, Monaco, however pretty, is a pretty small place.  Could an American woman aim even higher?

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Prince Rainier and Princess Grace arriving at the White House
for a luncheon in 1961.

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Wallis Simpson, 1936.
     It had already happened.  In 1934 Wallis Simpson (born Wallis Warfield), a divorced woman, had become the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, who, still unmarried at age 40, was charmed by her very American ways, her domineering manner and irreverence toward his exalted position – a liaison that the British court and government found increasingly worrisome.  Matters came to a head when, at his father’s death in January 1936, Edward became King Edward VIII of Great Britain.  A prolonged crisis followed, since the new king was determined to marry the woman he loved, and divorced women – she would soon divorce her second husband as well – were not welcome at the Court of Saint James.  So in December of that year the Edward abdicated, so as to marry Wallis Warfield, who after the marriage became the Duchess of Windsor.

     Wallis Warfield’s success fascinated Americans as much as it dismayed and angered the Brits, among whom the Prince of Wales had been especially popular.  But not all Americans approved.  A friend of mine told how, at an early age, he heard his matriarchal grandmother announce to his mother at the time of the abdication, “He has abandoned the ship of state for a tramp steamer!” 

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President Nixon greeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1970.

     Was there any truth to the matriarch’s allegation?  There were rumors of other lovers, but they were rumors only.  One critic described the Duchess as “charismatic, electric, and compulsively ambitious.”  In 1936, having become the adored favorite of the most eligible bachelor in the world, she was surely the most famous woman in the world, and no doubt the object of envy.  Ostracized by the British court, she and her husband had little left to do but become, in the words of some, social parasites, gadding about from one international gala to another and risking boredom; no wonder they embraced chubby Elsa Maxwell, party-giver extraordinaire (post #170), even if Elsa and the Duchess at one time had a tiff.  Famous for saying, “A  woman can’t be too rich or too thin” (and she achieved both), the Duchess is also quoted as having said, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” 

     Yes, we are still fascinated by monarchy, as seen in actress Helen Mirren’s brilliant portrayals of Elizabeth II on stage and screen, but maybe aristocracy and monarchy aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  Maybe we commoners should thank our lucky stars that we aren’t onstage constantly, aren’t besieged by paparazzi, don’t have to flee them and risk dying in a high-speed auto accident like Princess Di and her Egyptian boyfriend in Paris in 1997.  Maybe we can live quietly and contentedly, glorying in our snug obscurity. 

     A new scam:  I get lots of junk phone calls.  Sometimes it's Bridget offering something (I hang up), sometimes it's "Congratulations!  You have been chosen--" (I hang up), or "This is an important message about your--" (I hang up), and so on.  Bridget and the others -- all recorded messages -- have phoned at least twenty or thirty times.  And sometimes, when I answer, there's no one on the line.  But the other day I got a new recorded message: "Iona [or some such name] has been trying to reach you; this is the last call.  Iona is suing you because--," at which point I hung up.  Lawsuits aren't announced in this fashion.  But some who get this phone call may well panic, stay on the line for more information, and be tricked into contacting Iona (or whomever) to avoid trouble, thus making themselves vulnerable to some kind of fraud.  Beware of Iona and her ilk; hang up at once.

     Coming soon:  "Beauty is power" and the short, squat little Jewish lady who said it and made it happen, and ended up a billionaire in the process.  They don't make 'em like that any more.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder