Happy Birthday!

April 21, 2012

I have always been perhaps excessively proud of having been born in the Sunday of April 21, a day which was marked, throughout history by events I would adore to equal in the future by elevating myself to a status worth being recorded & celebrated. But, as the Brit journalist/novelist Alex Atkinson wittily quoted, ” no news is new news” and one should’ve expected my boasting with each and every coincidental connection I’m able to draw! So cheers for me in the first place!

Then let’s commemorate the other very important events worth mentioning least for broadening one’s general culture:

1. exactly 86 years ago my favorite current monarch, HRH charming Queen Elizabeth II, was brought into this petty world at her maternal grandfather’s London house: 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair. Frankly, I can’t imagine life today without hearing perpetually about the official/charitable/ aristocratic tasks of this amazing woman whose terribly fine taste and the amount of precious jewels exhibited just drive me crazy! Long live Ma’am and may you become the longest governing  (surpassing old king Louis XIV) in a few years so I can tell my future grandson how I attended a historical event!

2. a less known thing for non-Latin countries, Titus Livius (or Livy to native English-speakers), responsible for strict records of Roman chronology and social commentaries, sated that Rome had been founded on 21 April, 753 BC, by the famous couple of twins, battling Romulus and Remus. And that’s good because I’m fascinated by their civilization!

3. young and still athletic Henry VIII (the very one highly popularized in the Tudors, whose six wives achieved legendary magnitude) was ascended the throne of England  on the death of his courageous father, the first Tudor, Henry VII. Since then the faith of the English people was greatly changed…

4. and there remains Max Weber, the eccentric intelligence who created sociology as we know and use it today, putting the basis of political economy, social theory and research.

                                                          HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

That Hamilton Woman

April 17, 2012

Today I was in a totally unexpected Vivien Leigh mood if you take to consideration  I’m spending my time torn between writing the ending of my modern second novel whose characters have not quite the historic depth one might assume and reading biographies of Renoir, Caravaggio, studies of Freud on Leonardo’s behavior and Delacroix’s diary in a very weird combination and order… Either way, I couldn’t resist pausing whatever of the above I was doing at the time to watch a more in-theme “That Hamilton Woman” (1941), an utter delight despite being one of those silver-screen movies still not brought to color.

The atmosphere, the lines, the ornaments, the costumes, every little thing was absolutely charming, “stupendous” as Lady Emma Hamilton (aka Vivien Leigh) tended to exclaim half of the film with her lovely, velvety and extremely joyous voice! And the historic truth was, well, nicely restored to life, especially the central affair which brought the protagonists, Emma and the oh-so brave Lord Nelson (Laurence Olivier) to pitiful ruin. What incurable romance lead the lives of the two heroic lovers to tragedy! I nearly cried when he died in the ship battle in 1805 and couldn’t refrain shedding few tears when, the the end, Emma, now poor, marked by the drama she had passed through, says “there’s no then, there’s no after”. Makes one meditate a little…

Very wittily done!

The  authentic flirt of Emma Hamilton would have undoubtedly approved the representation former “Scarlett O’Hara” gave in her role, remaining probably like in the portrait above, masterpiece executed by painter George Romney whose muse she had fancied to be.

Who do you find more alluring? Dear talented Vivien or the real deal, adulterous yet intelligent and keen Emma?

Perhaps the actress looks more cunning and prone to attract gentlemen today but old Emma is rather sensuous too, although seems to have the face of a porcelain doll little too plum for our tastes…

Certainly this type of woman made history so juicy and interesting! Beauty, passion and some proud vanity can build the most arresting characters!

I’m going to make this post a tad shorter than the others as I’m really very caught up with writing for my seemingly almost finished second novel (hurray!) and badly need to end it once and for all so I can relax before the school starts the week after the other…

The photo above presents the Habsburgs at the Royal Wedding of  Zita Bourbon-Parma with Charles Habsburg-Lorraine  (later Charles I of Austria) at the  Schwarzau castle (near the villa of Zita’s maternal aunt) on 21 October 1911. All around you can see the well dressed aristocrats flaunting family jewels and wearing the iconic coiffure of early 20th century I personally hate as it looks akin a veritable bird nest.

Nothing special at first sight: the average gathering of expensive gowns and military decorations habitually exhibited at such events, stiff faces, a picturesque location and a young, circumspect bride.

Then take a look at this particular image:

A melancholic Zita reminding us of Wallis Simpson at her own wedding, a fake smiling Charles making a goof out of himself, tons of nicely arranged flowers, a naughty girl presumably biting her tong despite a cautious Mama ordering her not to… quite the usual.

Wait, what?

On the right side we have a little mimic-surprise!

Most respectable 81-year-old great-uncle of Charles, none other than the haughty Emperor Franz Joseph (known better for his disastrous marriage with the beauteous and highly-popular Sissi), the august figure of all Austria, is making faces at the most peculiar lady (proving to be none other than Infanta Maria Therese of Portugal- thank you Russ for the info) who’s mugging in a tremendously funny way to the delight of future viewers. In between, another noblewoman ( her sister, Infanta Maria Antonia of Portugal) seeming wildly disappointed and completely oblivious to the photographer that immortalizes her distorted features. Crikey! I didn’t ever expect to catch this sort of posture from lofty German royals! It kind of bring them to life, seeing how they weren’t always disdainful and majestic as portrayed in the official paintings available in the museums.

Now I try to guess what thoughts passed their minds at that time…. what do you believe?

Once upon a time in the British Parliament, more precisely in the House of Commons,  the juiciest gossip topic apart the outbreak of a new World War and the perpetual conflicts with Berlin was the enmity between prominent politician Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), then occupying the privileged position of Prime Minister, and the audacious Viscountess Nancy Astor (1879 –1964 ), known to be the first woman sitting as a Member of the Parliament, who, from some reason or another, could not at all live in mutual tolerance.


The two were reputed for a series of sarcastic dialogues whose lines were ping-ponged on the halls of Westminster Palace to the delight of the many accidental witnesses that obviously couldn’t refrain a smile when hearing such virulent interlocutions like the following:

Nancy Astor: Winston, you are drunk.

Winston Churchill: And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning!

Any other lady would’ve slapped him, offended by this type of rudeness which seemed as if taken from Oscar Wilde’s plays, but not our Nancy, no, for she was an adept of intelligent revenge and on numerous times had the chance to retort smartly a mocking proposition to equal the score.

Thus, when the stout Winston attempted to both tease and ridicule her by stating that “having a woman in Parliament is like having one intrude” on him “in the bathroom”, she serenely replied: “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears”, provoking general dissimulated laughter amongst the stiff diplomats, we can imagine, to her satisfaction.

Also, at his impolite question about what disguise  he should wear so that nobody could recognize him at the Astor’s “stupid” masquerade ball, Nancy ironically responded using rhetoric: “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?”

Yet by far my favorite is the immortal exchange of witty words which Consuelo, Duchess of Malborough, registers in her “the Glitter and the Gold” autobiography: “Lady Astor and Winston were actuaded by a strong antipathy one for the other, so much so that one never invited them together, dreading the inevitable explosion bound to occur. It was therefore unfortunate than on one of her visits to Blenheim, when my son was host, Churchill should have chosen to appear. The expected result of their encounter was not long in coming; after a heated argument on some trivial matter Nancy, with a fervor whose sincerity could not be doubted, shouted, ‘If I were you wife I woul poison your coffee!’ Whereupon Winston with equal heat and sincerity answered ‘And if I were your husband I would drink it!’

That’s a first-hand experience I wish I could boast with!

Isn’t it comical?

I might have just been exceedingly serendipitous when I stumbled across J. S. Sargent’s magnificent portraits a few years ago through my Belle Epoque research I’m sure I’ve bored you all with the past posts,  and couldn’t escape the fascination they still exert, approximatively a century after the beautiful people depicted in these immortal masterpieces  have been buried in the proximity of their luxurious manors. Some of the women, especially, disperse a charm most enthralling, a fascination perfectly transmitted through the brush strokes Sargent was mastering so proficient that his contemporaries made him the fines portraitist of Edwardian Era, with access to the upper echelons where women shone like gems in the wrapping of Parisian attires and the mild light of Murano chandeliers, demanding their beauty painted into eternity.

Now, not even half the ladies whose figures filled Sargent’s canvases were genuine belles worth wasting oil on, which you can see browsing through any random album, but our Johnny had the amazing luck of having been solicited by art patrons actually prone to inspire and Lady Helen Vincent,Viscountess D’Abernon, was amongst them.

Tall, graceful, with a nacre complexion and haughty allure enhanced by a slender neck which brought her the elegant nickname of  “Swan”, Helen was a fortunate socialite specimen that successfully mixed pulchritude with superior intelligence, traits widely appreciated in the London high-society yet rarely truly authentic. I was intrigued the moment I laid eyes on Helen’s image at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, and couldn’t forebear (because, between brackets, I made a rule of never really resisting temptations) gathering more information related to her life, marriage, status within the exclusivist cliques formed by the Edwardian aristocrats. And after a few happy research sessions, that’s what I came to know:

Helen Venetia Duncombe (1866–1954), daughter of William Duncombe, 1st Earl of Feversham, of Ryedale and Mabel Violet Graham, was educated to become a great professional beauty like her elder sister, Hermione Wilhelmina, future Duchess of Leinster, considered a ravishing creature in the tight circles the girls were allowed to frequent as minors. As most damsels born within a good English family, she received careful education and could boast having had a jolly childhood relished at maximum, which is boringly common if described in a biography.

The inciting part of her life commences when the oddly 24 year old Helen, at an age when most unmarried women were considered mocking failures, engaged the handsome diplomat Sir Edgar Vincent, then governor of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in Constantinople, uniting their destinies in a ceremony jokingly called “Swan and Edgar” wedding, on September 24, 1890 . In contrast with other betrothals, this was a fortunate match as the parties shared same interests in arts, admiring the English heritage and loving the agitated public life most peers find tiring. Plus Edgar was far from being the standard affluent boorish husband traditionalist parents target: at 33, he looked more like an ambitious lion hunting for opportunities to enrich his blooming political career than like your average devout father I bet Helen would’ve made a cuckold soon, from lack of occupation. It was an unusual chemistry between the two.

Supported by Edgar who was smart enough to realize how his wife’s fame would add to his own, Helen proved to have immense potential to be “the most celebrated hostess of her age”, “Every Woman’s Encyclopedia”  describing her as “the very antithesis of the athletic society lady of to-day, for she neither hunts, shoots, plays golf, or drives a motor. Her only strenuous recreation is skating, and she has the reputation of being one of the most skilful and graceful skaters in society to-day. Gardening, however, is her chief recreation, and at Esher Place, her delightful home in Surrey, the grounds have been enormously improved under her direction.” No wonder she was encouraged to expose herself more often and associate with the Souls, U.K.’ s most fashionable salon where domain eminences like Henry James, Lord Curzon, Edith Wharton, Arthur Balfour or Margot Asquith brainstormed, enjoying one another’s company . Witty and cultivated, ”by reason of her outstanding beauty, intelligence and charm, one of the most resplendent figures”, Helen definitely blended in that set.

Intrepid, vain, after all a requirement of the 19th century lady, gorgeous, a veritable trendsetter, three visions upon Helen survived to our days, two more flattering than the latter, all written by aristocrats of most illustrious origin. Thus, the third Aga Khan,Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah (1877 –  1957), an influential statesman schooled at Cambridge, said Lady Vincent was “the most beautiful woman I ever knew, utterly unspoilt, simple, selfless, gay, brave and kind’’ whilst the notable British architect Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944) scornfully characterized her as “a lovely Easter egg with nothing inside, terribly dilettante and altogether superficial”. A third opinion comes from the keen Duchess of Malborough who, in a great autobiographical work titled “the Glitter and the Gold”,  gives several accounts of Lady Helen’s persona: “she was generally considered the most beautiful. Her skin was transparently white and she used make-up to enhance her ethereal appearance. Hers was not a classical beauty. It was the haughty carriage of a tall figure, the poise of her proud head, the arrogance of her up-tilted nose, the blue haze of her eyes, that made her the acknowledged queen.” And because the Belle Epoque was a period of decadence marked by duality, some truth may lie equally in the previous quotes for Helen was, let’s admit, not the most brilliant mind existent.

Nonetheless, she was a pleasurable companion and had numerous links to Buckingham throughout her life as well as acquaintances in the Parliament where Sir Edgar entered as a member in 1899, habitually dining with diplomatic giants like Winston Churchill and Curzon, which delighted her husband who was in plain financial ascension as a banker and ambassador.  Furthermore, her close relations with lesbian Princesse Edmond de Polignac made a fervent subject of gossip.

Lady Vincent was the ultimate Edwardian elite, very posh, demanded at all respectable luncheons to entertain the prominent gentlemen, so, when, in 1904, Sargent, who had a propensity for the misty lagoons of Italy since his nomad youth, met her in Venice, the city her named destined, it would be outrageous of one not to suspect that a portrait subsequently emerged, delineated in the sumptuous chambers of the Vincents’ Palazzo Giustiniani on the Grand Canal. Sir Edgar, particularly, being an avid patro, chairman on the royal commissions on National Museums/ Galleries etc, an arts frenzied person on short, was very fond of this painting which remained with them until Helen’s death.

Ultimately, it was this particular work that kept Helen in the front row of historical personalities the past century …

But the Vincents’ life was not always cheerful and peaceful: in 1914, the refined world they knew disintegrated to ashes due to World War One during which Helen, indeed a brave spirit, refused to follow the example of most blue-blooded women and hide in the safety of a gray, boring country-house, instead choosing to train as a nurse anaesthetist and help treat over 10,000 patients wounded in uncountable battles.  This while Sir Lutyens (remember him?) was designing commemorative monuments.

Finally, when the ordeal came to an end, the newly created 1st Baron d’Abernon, Sir Edgar, took his wife to Berlin, where he had been appointed British Ambassador to the Weimar Republic from 1923 to 1926. Familiar with the protocol, she had also accompanied him as he served on the Interallied Mission to Poland in the early 20’s.

In this period, Helen kept a diary of the incidents and happenings, ordinary or not, they witnessed during their stay there, later published under the title “Red Cross and Berlin Embassy, 1915-1926: Extracts from the Diaries of Viscountess D’Abernon”. These outline a keen intellect and precision scarcely encountered in a female and makes me contest her proclivity for poetry or any sort of romantic ambiguousness.

She was a chic, clever woman and let us not forget, simply beautiful. Bearing the name of the notorious Homeric heroine that brought Troy to destruction, Helen was reported to still be appealing in her 50’s: “ravissante, un laurier-rose, un volubilis matinal, des yeux bleus sous des cheveux à peine teintés de gris, un Reynolds refait par Whistler” (“lovely, an oleander of morning glory, blue eyes under hair just tinged with gray, a Reynolds restored by Whistler”), having  ” no nationality, she belongs to the dream worlds of Shelley and D’Annunzio: she is the guardian Lady of Shelley’s ‘Sensitiva’, the vision of the lily”.

No girl would mind such compliments, you know!

Back to the subject:

The genteel Sir Edgar unfortunately died of hypostatic pneumonia and Parkinson’s disease at Hove in November 1941, his staunch wife ensuing 13 years afterwords.

They were buried to the west of the church near Stoke d’Abernon manor.

Alas, the marvelous couple passed away childless, therefore being the last of their line.

I’ve been trying to avoid the subject since I started to write on this blog regarding various interesting and undoubtedly eccentric historical characters but it clearly seems that my resolution wasn’t meant to be accomplished: I just have to tell you about my utter obsession with the fair Empress Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie of Austria you most likely know under her familiar nickname also used as the title of the Romy Schneider adapted biographic movie and for the popular cartoon, Sissi.


As a child I was tremendously mesmerized by the richness of the ancient Greek Pantheon whose artful reflection could be admired in the two major literary works of pre-christian times, Homer’s  “Iliad” and “Odyssey” which were, coincidentally, as I was to find later on,  Sissi’s favorite reads (we also shared the same infatuation with the legendary Achilles). No wonder I instantly fell in love with her character once I happened to catch some further information related to the Bavarian beauteous royalty depicted galore in the epoch novels I had barely begun to relish. We’ve so much in common despite being a century apart, from stylistic tastes to the hair color (chestnut with golden tints)  and the day we were born in (Sunday…) that I couldn’t refrain avidly searching for more juicy anecdotes, stories, journals, poems and news papers columns to complete the figure I grew to contemplate daily, wondering how she did certain things the rigid court etiquette imposed at the same time  managing to accumulate enough strenght for protecting her libertine and bohemian spirit from the obligations required as the consort of Austria’s Emperor, Franz Joseph. Her gowns were pure refinement and her habits awoke uncountable rumors amongst the high society smug chaps hence it was near to impossible my not being enchanted by Sissi. The more I found, the eager I became to stumble across new dimensions of her personality and learn fresh facts connected with her bizarre propensities the whole of Vienna and even Europe gossiped about. Enigmatic, a bit tragic, non-conformist: what is not to love?

Alas, a single post would never incorporate  half of her deliciously vivid life, lyric works and, overall, persona so I’ll confine to discussing miscellaneous customs the Empress of Loneliness was renowned for throughout Europe and even parts of the other continents which couldn’t have been spared of her vitriolic existence.

Today I thought of apportioning you urban myths (surprisingly often true) relating Sissi’s flabbergasting pulchritude which alas defined the great woman in the eyes of most of her contemporaries and share some of her beauty obsessions which made the main topic of countless fashion magazines that were actual gospels for the wannabe socialite ladies in the 19th century.

One could correctly state that Sissi’s characteristic trait, concealing a high intellect and amazing linguistic capacities (she was fluent in 8 modern languages plus ancient Greek and the traditional Latin), was  her unnatural appearance, the only thing with which she could fearlessly confront the world, concomitantly preserving her sensible ego and draw the benevolent attention of large masses of adorers. Her striking silhouette and the incredible long hair framing her vixen face were, in fact, the first factors to contribute to Franz Joseph’s shallow infatuation with a girl (she had barely turned 16 the summer they properly met) whom  his mother, controlling Archduchess Sophie, thoroughly disapproved as she had had elected Sissi’s elder sister, Duchess Helene, to become her obedient daughter-in-law, the future Empress of Austria, a position requiring virtues the shrewd Archduchess pretended not to find in the childish Sissi. And perhaps she was right in the end, Sissi proving to be most incompatible with her newly acquired title, but this opens a whole other topic I don’t aim to debate here.

So Sissi was an animated piece of jewel possessing a profuse appeal: no wonder the mob worshiped her from day one, especially the Hungarians identifying their need of emancipation with her rebel attitude.

Enhancing her native handsomeness, she dissimulated a most sensitive core, faster gaining the endorsement of those who condemned the girl for not being subdued by the protocol (except the Archduchess- she was the average eternally displeased mother-in-law).

Tall (she had 172 cm, more than her husband despite being pictured smaller in the official portraits not to emasculate him), slender to superlative, her tight leather corsets diminishing a wasp waist Sissi managed to keep until death, moment when she was sixty,  the Empress’s hallmark was categorically the Rapunzel-like brass hair inherited from the majority of the female ancestors in the Wittelsbach family. She could complain of it giving her headaches but it totally worth it, I think.

It took a whole day to wash it appropriately in the wanted essence of cognac and egg once every two weeks, being forced to cancel any formal obligation, and the routine care of her abundant mane lasted least 3 hours, quite a prone to bizarre ceremonial.

Than again, organizing her beauty ritual was the sole thing she could control in her otherwise oppressed early life, under the Archduchess’s directives,  and continued as a rule during her later years. The rigorousness with which she practiced it only reflected a subliminal will to put some order in her chaotic existence and thus Sissi, often restless to the point of hyperactivity, very impatient, gathered the determination to sit passive at her “table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth”, “shrouded in a laced peignoir” to let the hairdresser Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik  create her famous ornate hairstyles. She recognized: “I’m the slave of my hair.”

And because exclusively magic could satisfy her aesthetic exigencies, Fanny had to resort to tricks: knowing the Empress scolded her for each and every hair that fell out throughout the combing, braiding and pinning Sissi’s rich tresses, she stuck it to an adhesive band hidden in her apron, bypassing the rage of her mistress when she was supposed to present it in a special bowl at the counting. Well, that’s an obsession and it isn’t as if Sissi could spare herself from fallen hair by numbering it!

Contrary to the popular myths, she even tasked Feifaluk with tweezing gray hairs away  but in her last months Sissi was reported to still have plentiful locks, “though streaked with silver threads”, a not so insignificant achievement.

Franz Joseph had the following paintings of his wife hanging in his private chambers at Hofburg Palace and it’s obvious he never ceased to be fascinated with the enigmatic Sissi despite being conventionally separated. They show her dramatic curls at their finest.

Yet this wasn’t the single thing she tended.

Devotee of natural looks, the refined Sissi disapproved cosmetics Parisians were mad to use galore, preferring instead tonics and nightly facial masks made of silk (presumably against wrinkles), raw veal to moisturize the skin or crushed strawberries. The favorite creme, ” Céleste”, was compounded from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater but she didn’t prized it as much as the previous treatments. Pretty wacko, right?

Wait till I tell you how she refused to part her lips while speaking because she found her teeth too yellow and deteriorated to be exposed!

Furthermore, for maintaining the hourglass figure she slept with cloths soaked in either violet- or cider-vinegar above her hips,  taking both a shower every morning and an olive oil bath in the evening , luxuries only the affluent people could permit. Unfortunately, these harsh cures caused several major health issues decades later, aggravating her arthritis and nervous anorexia which forced Sissi to search milder climates, a perfect pretext to stay well away from Vienna and implicitly her husband. In the benefit of her beauty, she traveled with 40 tons of baggage and 90 servants, not at all a negligible quantity. As a matter of fact, haunted by the prospect of getting old and ugly, she would have done a lot more.

After age 32, Sissi vehemently rejected to pose for portraits, believing  her fetching image had begun to fade and the world should remember her young, vivid. Ironically, she remained gorgeous yet another 20 to 30 years, information attained from eyewitnesses and the few photographs taken without her approval while she was strolling down crowded boulevards, her face screened by parasols or leather fans.

That’s what she said with her own sensuous mouth: “When I’ll grow old I shall retire definitively from public life for nothing is more horrible than watching how you gradually  transform into an utter mummy, ending up crawling like a worm- absolutely dreadful! One day I’ll cover my face with a veil and nobody, not even my closest friends, will be able to gaze upon me.”

She kept her promise.

The photo above depicts her exactly as she wished: her hair is dressed elaborately to reassemble a coronet to “get rid of the other one” (the Imperial crown), her attire is simple but majestic and the look in her piercing, melancholic eyes just seizes the audience.

Her efforts to preserve this ephemeral pulchritude paid off eventually and I can’t help to stare at Sissi in silent marvel.

Don’t you?

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