Hildegard of Bingen, born in the 11th century, is one of the most important female figures in history. Her visions, writings, and direct communications with God makes her also one of the most mysterious and empowered women of all time.
Since the early 20th century, with feminism and women’s studies on the rise, Hildegard of Bingen has also seen a new popularity. Although considered a saint by many early popes of the Catholic Church, in October of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI gave her the title of Doctor of the Church, a title of the highest esteem for theologians. She is the fourth woman of 35 saints given the title by the Roman Catholic church. She is also recognized as a saint in several Anglican churches, such as the Church of England.
Five Reasons why this dynamic, prolific, and profoundly spiritual person is an empowered woman of mystery and history.
#1 Her Visions
In her writings, Hildegard claims she had her first vision at the age of 3. She referred to it as “The Shade of the Living Light.” By the age of 5, she claims she understood the visions to be a gift from God, one that could not be explained to others. At 42 years of age, Hildegard claimed she received a message from God telling her to write down the visions that continued to come to her. Thus, she embarked on her first theological book entitled “Scivias” or “Know the Ways.”
#2 Her Feminism
Living at a time where the role of women pertained strictly to the household, or in the service of men, would prove difficult for an outspoken woman. Even for an outspoken man, when it came to the church. But Hildegard spoke her mind, and spoke it often. She built two monasteries, embarked on preaching tours, and authorized herself as a theologian through her writings. All things women rarely attempted in her day. She is quoted to say, “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.” This can be interpreted as a belief in equality—at the very least in the spiritual sense.
#3 Her medicine
In addition to her other exceptional qualities, Hildegard was also known as a healer. As a child, she lived enclosed in the Benedictine monastery with an older woman named Jutta, also a visionary. According to records, Hildegard learned many of her skills like reading, writing, gardening, and tending to the sick from Jutta. Later, when she ran her own monastery, she headed the monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary. She learned to diagnose and treat disease with both physical and holistic methods centered on “spiritual healing.”
#4 Her Secret Alphabet
Hildegard created her own alphabet for the language she devised called the Lingua Ignota. A modified form of Latin, the Lignua Ignota contained many made-up, fused, and abridged words. Hildegard also made up words for her lyrics. She wrote over 70 musical compositions, each with its own poetic text. Scholars believe she created the secret alphabet and language to increase solidarity with her nuns.
#5 Her Gift of Music
Hildegard regarded song as the highest form of prayer. She may have learned to play the ten-stringed psaltery, a box shaped instrument that is plucked with the fingers, as a child under the tutelage of Volmar, a Disibod monk, who frequented the monastery. Along with over 70 musical compositions, Hildegard also wrote and composed Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music. Much of her lyrics reflect her reverence for the Virgin Mary and the Saints.
A person born with Hildegard’s talents, skills, and spiritual communion with God and is rare. Some could even say, a mystery. To be noted for those talents, spiritual gifts, and high intellect as a woman was almost impossible in her day and age. The fact that the highest office of the Catholic church recognized this devoted mystic’s message and life’s work proves that she truly was a woman empowered–empowered by her beliefs, her truth, and her faith.
Much of the history of Boudica, the warrior Queen of the Iceni, is shrouded in mystery. The Iceni were an ancient Celtic tribe or kingdom that lay on the eastern shores of England. Sources agree that Boudica was born in AD 25 to a royal family. They also agree that she rose to power and she was named Queen after the death of her husband, Prasutagus. She was probably 18-25 years old at the time. She is most known for her military cunning and prowess as she felled Londinium (now called London) and Verulamium (now called St. Albans) in AD 60 or 61. It is estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 Romans and British were killed by her armies.
Two primary sources have recorded the events of her life. Tacitus, the most important Roman historian of the time, had access to Boudica’s uprising in Britain as his father-in-law, a military tribunal, served there for three years. Cassius Dio, another Roman historian and statesman, also wrote about the life and great battle of Queen Boudica. Cassius Dio published more than 70 volumes of history on Ancient Rome, however, he was born almost 100 years after Boudica’s crusade. The two stories of Boudica have some similarities, but also differ, giving mystery and some ambiguity about the life and times of this empowered woman.
Mystery #1 Her name.
The warrior Queen has been known by many versions of her name, including Boadicea, the Latin version, and Buddug the Welsh interpretation. Raphael Holinshed, an English Chronicler in the 1500’s, referred to her as Voadicia, and English Poet of the 1500’s, Edmund Spenser, calls her Bunduca from a Jacobean play called Bonduca.
Boudica’s history had been long forgotten until the Victorian era, when her story became popular again. It was then determined that her name comes from the Celtic word “victorious” and that the correct spelling is Boudica. It was said that Queen Victoria of the 19th and 20th century was named after the warrior Queen, thus her rise in popular culture once again.
Mystery #2 Her appearance and dress.
Cassius Dio described Boudica as a tall and imposing woman with tawny (reddish brown) hair that hung to her hips, a “piercing gaze and a harsh voice.” Other reports say her hair was fair, or blond, and hung to her knees. Cassius Dio records that she wore a multi-colored tunic and a heavy cloak fastened with a bronze brooch—typical dress of a wealthy Celtic woman. He also claims she wore a gold torque around her neck. The torque, a metal band of twisted gold strands, worn as a choker, was the symbol of an ancient Celtic warrior chieftain. The torque symbolized a warrior’s readiness to shed blood for the good of his people—and was never worn by women. If this is true, it just goes to show how fierce and empowered this woman appeared to her people.
Mystery #3 Her reason for sacking London.
Tacitus claims that when Boudica’s husband Prasutagus, died, he left his kingdom to his daughters in order to retain Iceni independence from Rome. However, under Roman law when a chief or king died, the estate was left to the emperor. When the Roman procurator, Decianus Catus arrived at Prasutagus’ court to take inventory, Boudica strongly objected and the procurator had her flogged and her daughter’s raped. In revenge, she then set out to destroy the Romans in Britain.
Cassius Dio claims that at Prasutagus’ death resulted in the confiscation of monies and goods from the rich Britons. Also, any loans they had received—many were forced to take out loans from the Romans—were now due.
Mystery #4 Her religion.
Boudica may have been a druid. Before she set out to lead her troops into battle, it is said that the warrior Queen evoked the British goddess of victory, Andraste. She then released a hare from the folds of her cloak and determined by which direction the hare ran, either on the side of the Romans or the side of the Britons, which army would win. When the hare ran in the direction of the Britons, the people cheered. Boudica then raised her hand to heaven and praised Andraste. A demonstration like this gives historians reason to believe she may have had some druidic training.
Mystery #5 Her death.
Boudica, in a fearsome looking chariot with her daughters by her side, led her troops into battle. Tacitus claims she gave a short speech claiming she did not wish to fight as a rich aristocrat who lost everything to the Romans, but as an ordinary person avenging her lost freedom, her battered body, and her raped children. She, as a woman, was resolved to win or die.
She first sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), a Roman colony. When she reached Londinium, she killed everyone who crossed her path–men, women and children. Noble Roman women were stripped and strung up. Their breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths. Then they were impaled on sharp skewers running lengthwise through their bodies. Boudica then went on to Verulamium, slaughtering more people. The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, regrouped his forces and met Boudica head on somewhere in the West Midlands and eventually proved victorious.
According to Tacitus, Boudica poisoned herself to avoid capture, torture, and death at the hands of the Romans, but Cassius Dio claims she later fell ill and died, and was given a glorious funeral.
Given that Dio wrote Boudica’s history almost a century after the battle, it can be said that he read Tacitus and decided to change the story.
Either way, one thing is clear; Boudica was a ferocious leader who set out to avenge her family and her people from the burden of Roman occupation.
The power of words is a wonderful thing. How often do you get lost in a novel and some line or passage knocks the wind out of you and makes you want to read it again . . . and again? Here are some of my favorite passages from some of my favorite novels. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do–and I hope you share some of yours with me!
“…The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all, you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river. The point then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.” ~ Ann Patchett, State of Wonder.
“Babe could feel it as he wiped his bat down with a rag. He could feel all their bloodstreams as he stepped to the plate and horse-pawed the dirt with his shoe. This moment, this sun, this sky, this wood and leather and limbs and fingers and agony of waiting to see what would happen was beautiful. More beautiful than women or words or even laughter.” ~ Dennis Lehane, The Given Day
“As was his custom, Augustus drank a fair amount of whiskey as he sat and watched the sun ease out of the day. If he wasn’t tilting the rope-bottomed chair, he was tilting the jug. The days in Lonesome Dove were a blur of heat and as dry as chalk, but mash whiskey took some of the dry away and made Augustus feel nicely misty inside–foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills. He seldom got downright drunk, but he did enjoy feeling misty along about sundown, keeping his mood good with tasteful swigs as the sky to the west began to color up. The whiskey didn’t damage his intellectual powers any, but it did make him more tolerant of the raw sorts he had to live with . . .” ~ Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
“An old man’s palsy overtook his hands and they reached for her face. He kissed her forehead. In that extraordinary and unstoppable act he realized, not without a twinge of pride, that he loved her, and that he, Thomas Stone, was not only capable of love, but that he had loved her for seven years. . . Love so strong, without ebb and flow or crests and troughs, indeed lacking any sort of motion so that it had become invisible to him these seven years, part of the order of things outside his head which he had taken for granted.” ~Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
“And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you–haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul.” ~Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
With all of London’s elite flocking to share time with Mrs. Langtry, she made some famous and influential friends. One of the closest in her circle was the flamboyant and eccentric Irish poet and play-write Oscar Wilde, who deemed her the “New Helen.” He said of her, “Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman.” He also said, “I would have rather discovered Lillie Langtry than America.”
She was also close to the American artist James Whistler and the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her popularity was so unprecedented that it became known as “The Langtry Phenomenon.”Lillie’s most enduring and influential relationship was one she shared with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (“Bertie”) the eldest son of Queen Victoria, later known as King Edward VII. Bertie, married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and father of their six children, had taken several mistresses — all beauties of the London social set. When the Prince heard Mrs. Langtry would attend a dinner party given by his friend Sir Allen Young, he made sure to instruct the host to have Mrs. Langtry seated next to him. Her husband was to be seated at the other end of the table. From the moment he met her, the Prince made it clear that if he attended any event, Mrs. Langtry must be invited.
The love affair began. The Prince was so enamored of Lillie that he flaunted their relationship in public and even presented her to his mother, Queen Victoria. He soon went so far as to buy a plot of land at Bournemouth’s East Cliff and told her to design a home to serve as their private “love nest.” Lillie took on the project with great enthusiasm. She added many touches that advertised their fondness for one another. One of the most interesting was a statement prominently displayed over the fireplace mantel that read, “They say what they say? Let them say.”
The Prince and Mrs. Langtry entertained friends at “The Red House” often, and upon the guest’s arrival they would be welcomed with the greeting, “and yours my friends,” meaning the home was theirs too. The house is still standing and has become The Langtry Manor Hotel. It is a favorite venue for weddings.
Princess Alexandra accepted her husband’s “friendship” with Lillie graciously. Such was Lillie’s charm and likability that the two women became friends. Later, after the Prince, then King Edward VII, passed away, Alexandra reportedly returned all the love letters Lillie had sent him.
As all things eventually come to an end, the relationship between Lillie and the Prince cooled when during a masquerade ball, Lillie came dressed in the same costume as the Prince. After the Prince chastised Lillie for showing a lack of decorum and respect, she poured ice down his back in front of all the guests. Needless to say, she not only fell out of favor with the Prince, but with all of London society.
Things at home were also in a state of disrepair. Edward Langtry, Lillie’s husband, had trouble keeping up with his socially demanding wife, and spent less and less time fishing and sailing and more and more time drinking. He was also falling into a financial hole with his spending on yachts and Lillie spending on her lifestyle. The relationship and their finances were in shambles.
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lillie realized she needed work and turned to a great love of hers, the theater. Her friends, including Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, encouraged her to try her charms on the stage. Although not incredibly talented, Lillie’s outgoing attitude, intelligence and sparkling wit made people love her once again. Her acting career blossomed, and she gained more popularity than ever. A great lover of theater himself, the Prince again became enchanted with Lillie and came to many of her performances. It was clear he had forgiven her. Until his death in 1910, they remained great friends.
In 1879 Lillie began an affair with Prince Louis of Battenburg, the nephew of the Prince of Wales. At the same time, she also embarked on a relationship with Arthur Clarence Jones, a childhood friend from Jersey. In 1880, she became pregnant. The only known fact of the paternity of the child was that it was not Langtry’s husband. She insisted the child was Prince Louis’. Many others believed the father was Arthur Jones. When Louis confessed to his family his relationship with Mrs. Langtry and the birth of their child, he was assigned to one of Her Majesty’s warships. Bertie, still fond of Lillie, gave her some money, and she moved to Paris with Arthur Jones. In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie. Lillie’s mother raised the girl and she would be known in public as Lillie’s niece. Jeanne Marie did not learn the truth about her parentage until her wedding day in 1902. The news put a strain on Lillie and Jeanne Marie’s relationship that would last the rest of Lillie’s life.
In 1881 Lillie announced that her theater company was to tour the United States. When she arrived in New York, hundreds of soon-to-be fans who had heard of the English beauty greeted her. Her first performance was a total sellout, and she donated much of the proceeds to charity, further endearing her to the American audience. Disaster struck when the theater burned to the ground. The only thing that remained standing was a sign depicting Lillie’s name. Undaunted, Lillie viewed the mishap as a foretelling of better things to come. She moved her company to another theater and continued to play to full houses and drew attention wherever she went. Having fallen in love with America, she repeated her tours to the U. S. several times.
Lillie always had many ardent suitors at home and abroad. One of her most prominent American suitors was Freddie Gephard, a wealthy New York industrialist who showered her with gifts, including a private railway car he named ”Lalee.” Lillie used the private railcar to travel across America on her theater tours. Gephard was also a horse breeder and well known on the racing circuit. Lillie’s early love of horses prompted her to breed thoroughbreds. She purchased a 6,500 acre ranch in Lake Country, California, next door to Freddie Gephard’s ranch.
Another American admirer, Judge Roy Bean of Texas, had fallen in love with one Lillie’s many pictures. In honor of her he renamed his bar/courthouse “The Jersey Lilly Saloon.” Bean never met Lillie, but had a town named for her, Langtry, Texas. By the time she could visit the town, Bean had passed away.
During her stay in America Lillie endorsed many American products and set up several companies, including a winery. Lillie had become a millionaire in her own right. But, disaster reared its ugly head again. While being transported across country, fourteen of Lillie’s race horses were killed after the train derailed.
After picking up the pieces again and having toured America for six years, Lillie longed to return to England. It was during this time she took up with George Alexander Baird, a millionaire, amateur jockey and pugilist. She also purchased more race horses and wanted them to compete, but the Jockey Club in London forbade women owners. Never one to be told “no”, Lillie registered as “Mr. Jersey.” Her horse Merman won the Cesarewitch and Ascot Gold Cup, the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Club Cup. Her relationship with Baird ended when he died in 1893.
After many years of asking Edward for a divorce and his constant refusals, Lillie became an American citizen and could finally secure a divorce. A few years later, Edward, destitute and a hopeless alcoholic, was committed to an insane asylum and died.
In 1899, Lillie finally settled down and married Hugo de Bathe, a wealthy race horse owner fifteen years her junior. Upon the death of his father, Hugo inherited a baronetcy and Lillie became Lady de Bathe. Now middle aged, Lillie’s fame had not diminished. She still dressed in the latest fashions and was still in demand for portraits and photographs. She was the lessee and manager of London’s Imperial Theater and acted in plays well into her seventies. She starred in one U.S. film called The Crossways. She owned and raced horses and owned thousands of acres in property. In her golden years, Lilly lived in Monaco at her cliff top Villa named “Le Lys” where she became a prize winning gardener.
From the boisterous tomboy of Jersey, Lillie Langtry became a historical icon. Her beauty was only surpassed by her superior wit and intelligence, charm and graciousness. From the moment she entered London society both men and women, from royalty to commoners, admired and idolized Lillie for half a century. She was loved abroad just as much. The Jersey Lilly was a woman before her time and was unstoppable in her quest for a full, exciting and fulfilling life.
In honor of the occasion, I will be reposting some of my previous articles about women who’ve helped pave the way for empowered women everywhere. Here is a two part article I published in June of 2012 about Lillie Langtry, also known as The Jersey Lilly–a social climbing powerhouse who rocked Victorian England. Her popularity was so immense it became termed, “The Langtry Phenomenon.”
Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry, a Victorian beauty, caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Bretton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. One asked Lillie’s father for her hand, but the Reverend turned him down as Lillie was only fifteen years old. She paid the suitors no mind preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father also insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as the boys and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
When it became known that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, Lillie decided it was time to leave Jersey and wanted to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874 when at twenty years old she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler. He took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But, married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie alone in their grand house with no one for company except servants, to go on his sailing and fishing excursions.
Despondent and unhappy Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her soul source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
After the move Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident. She went home to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she wore a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions – even soirees and balls — in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception given by her father’s friend and fellow Jerseyman, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, in Lownes Square. Many of the guests became enchanted with the Jersey beauty who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up and coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant best seller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties. Thrilled with the success of the postcards, Miles begged Lillie to honor him with a formal sitting. The resulting portrait was immensely popular and purchased by England’s Prince Leopold.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar Langtry held a Guernsey Lilly, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait, A Jersey Lilly. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition Lilly was always referred to as “The Jersey Lilly.”
The ethereal beauty, Olive Thomas, is the inspiration for one of the secondary characters in my novel, Grace in the Wings, a Daphne du Maurier unpublished contest winner. The novel is the first book in a mystery series that is currently being shopped by my agent for purchase.
Sophia Michelle is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace Michelle. Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage. She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star. When Sophia is murdered, Grace is devastated and sets out to discover who killer her sister.
Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school to help support the family. At 16 she married Bernard Krush Thomas. The marriage lasted two years. After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store. In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Having caught the public’s attention, and the eye of the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, Olive was hired to perform in his wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before Olive had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, a show at one of Ziegfeld’s favored venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel. The Frolic catered primarily to well-known male patrons. The girls’ costumes, often just a few strategically arranged balloons, allowed amusement for the gentlemen who would pop the balloons with their cigars. The beauty of Olive Thomas became legendary and she was pursued by a number of wealthy men. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”
Known for her beauty, Olive was also known for her wild ways. That free spiritedness became more pronounced when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family. Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless. She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.
Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”
The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties. For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty. There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.
The relationship with Pickford could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920. After a long night of dancing, drinking, and drugs, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room. Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!” According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drank from a bottle of something marked “poison”. After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died. The autopsy stated that she died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.
Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career. She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures. She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.
In my last blog post “Returning to the Past,” https://karibovee.com/returning-to-the-past/ I wrote about attending the San Francisco Writer’s Conference last week. I came across this post that I wrote after my first SFWC and visit to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in 2014. I hope you enjoy it!
First Posted February 21, 2014
A stay at the Mark Hopkins would not be complete without a visit to its penthouse bar, the Top of The Mark. While at the San Francisco Writer’s conference at the hotel, two of my writer friends and I decided to take in the views while sipping our wine and talking shop. Two of my favorite pastimes!
In 1939, George Smith, owner of the Mark Hopkins converted the large 11 room penthouse suite on the hotel’s 19th floor into a cocktail lounge. Famed San Francisco journalist Herb Caen wrote that while it was being built, Smith said to his colleagues, “I don’t know what to call the top of the Mark.” They told him, “That’s it.” He asked, “What’s it?” They replied, “The Top of the Mark,” and that’s how the now famous bar got its name.
The Top of the Mark features gigantic glass panels that were designed to withstand the seacoast’s gales which can reach up to 125 miles an hour. The panels also offer a breathtaking 360 degree panoramic view. Visitors from all over the world come to enjoy the lounge whether or not they stay in the hotel. It is perfect for special events like birthdays, anniversaries, retirement parties or just to celebrate the end of the day — which shouldn’t be too difficult as the bar offers a menu of over 100 different martinis.
During World War II, San Francisco was a stop off point for soldiers going out to war in the Pacific. Servicemen would gather to share a farewell drink and take in the sunset before shipping out. A tradition of the “squadron bottle” was started. A serviceman would buy a bottle of spirits and leave it with the bartender so the next visiting soldiers from his unit could enjoy a free drink upon their return. The only rule was that whomever had the last sip must buy the next bottle.
When it came time for the soldiers to depart, their families would gather in the lounge’s northwest corner where they could watch their loved ones in their ships sail out to sea beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. This corner became known as “Weeper’s Corner.”
Today, hopefully, there is not much sorrow associated with the lounge, only relaxation and celebration. If you are ever in San Francisco, a visit to the Top of the Mark should definitely climb to the top of your to-do list! I guarantee you won’t regret it.
In 2014, I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference for the first time and I have returned every year since. It never disappoints and is always an amazing experience. In addition to the numerous informative workshops, lively panels, and opportunities to network with fellow writers and esteemed professionals, the conference is held at the beautiful Mark Hopkins Hotel in the Nob Hill area. Heaven for a history enthusiast who loves to travel back in time.
From the site Historical Hotels of America: “The Mark Hopkins Hotel was and continues to be part of San Francisco’s rich and colorful history. Royalty, statesmen, political personalities and celebrities with backgrounds as diverse as the places they come from have stayed at the Mark Hopkins since it opened, including five American presidents and heads of state from around the world. Locals and visitors alike come to visit the Top of the Mark, the 19th-floor sky-lounge atop the hotel, with its panoramic views of the ever-changing San Francisco Bay Area landscape.” (http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/intercontinental-mark-hopkins-hotel/history.php)
Many celebrities and politicians have visited and continue to visit the Mark Hopkins Hotel. While here last year for the conference, my critique parter and I made use of the elegant Nob Hill Club Restaurant in the hotel to work on our manuscripts. Immersed in our novels with our heads bent over our computers, we became distracted when Governor Jerry Brown came into the restaurant and sat with a colleague at the table next to us. In the past, the Mark Hopkins’ guests have included US. Presidents, statesman, international royalty, and Hollywood celebrities. The history page on the hotel’s website mentions a frequent guest long ago, the actor John Barrymore, who often brought his pet monkey, Clementine. “Clementine was less welcome at the hotel after she climbed the curtains in Barrymore’s suite, shredding the brocade as she went.” (http://www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com/history.aspx)
The history of the hotel is as fascinating as its guests. One of four founders of the Central Pacific railroad, Mark Hopkins dreamed of building his wife Mary a grand home. When he saw the panoramic views atop the Nob Hill area, he’d found the ideal location. He built a 40 room gothic beauty which he named “Hotel de Hopkins.” The mansion was indeed grand, complete with spires and gables and one of the largest in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, he died before its completion in 1878.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Mary become enamored with Edward T. Searles, an interior designer from the East coast, thirty years her junior. The two married and moved into the mansion upon its completion. Their bliss was not to last and Mary died in 1891. She left the $70 million estate to Searles. Two years later, he donated “Hotel de Hopkins” to the San Francisco Art Association and they converted the palace-like mansion into a school and museum.
In 1906, the epic San Francisco earthquake demolished many of the beautiful historic buildings in the Nob Hill area. The Hopkins mansion survived only to be destroyed by fires caused by the quake. All that remained were the chimney stacks, the granite retaining wall and a 500,000 gallon cistern full of water. With the remaining solid foundation, the Art Association reconstructed a more modest building on the site.
In 1925, George D. Smith, a mining engineer and hotel investor purchased the Art Association building and then demolished it. He had grander plans for the panoramic hill top area. He built a large, luxurious hotel combining French and Spanish aesthetics and he graciously named it after the original site owner, Mark Hopkins.
In December of 1926, the Mark Hopkins Hotel held it’s grand opening to the delight of San Franciscans who were immensely proud of its architectural perfection and luxurious accommodations. At the time and still today, the hotel is seen as representative of the best there is in modern hostelry.
A trip to San Francisco is not complete without a visit to The Mark Hopkins Hotel. While I enjoy visiting the city itself, and participating in this comprehensive and worthwhile conference, the experience is made all the richer by enjoying the timeless elegance of this stately hotel.
One of the best things about being in a book club, aside from the wine and good conversation, is reading books you may not have picked up yourself, or books you didn’t even known about. I am fortunate enough to be in a book club with some of the brightest women I know who are all very well read and have brought some outstanding reads to share. The last book we read was Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, about Beryl Markham. I was a bit surprised that I hadn’t yet heard of the book, or of Beryl Markham, because she is exactly the type of empowered woman I like to read (and write) about.
Circling the Sun is historical fiction based on the life of Beryl Markham, a British woman who grew up in Africa in the early 1900’s, became the first woman race-horse trainer in Kenya, and also the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She also wrote a memoir about her aviation adventures called West with the Night. Pretty amazing, right? Surprisingly, this fascinating woman’s history lived in obscurity until her rediscovery in the early 1980’s.
In 1905, Beryl’s father Charles Clutterbuck, a prominent race horse trainer in England, moved four-year-old Beryl, her older brother Dickie, and her mother Agnes to colonial British East Africa. There he purchased a farm in Njoro, near Kenya, to breed and train race horses. Beryl’s mother had difficulty adjusting to their new life and shortly after arriving in Africa, took the couple’s son and returned to England, leaving Beryl with her father. As an adult, Beryl often made it clear that she’d never really forgiven her mother for the abandonment, but also spoke of taking immense pleasure in growing up in the freedom of the wild African landscape, with the children of the village of Njoro as playmates.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Beryl had a knack for working with horses, and became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya at the age of 19. Her success at the track, as well as her determination, grit, and beauty led to Beryl’s renown among Africa’s bohemian and eccentric European social circle, known as the Happy Valley Set. Beryl married three times and had a son named Gervase with her second husband, Mansfield Markham, who moved Beryl to London before their son was born. When the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate, Beryl longed to return to Africa, but Markham would not let her take the young Gervase because of serious health issues.
In addition to two other marriages, Beryl had numerous affairs, including an openly public affair in 1929 with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, son of George V. She also became enmeshed in a love triangle between her friend, the Danish writer Karen Blixen, and famous big game hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen, who lived in Kenya to manage her family’s coffee farm outside of Nairobi, would later become famous for her novel Out of Africa, which she wrote under the penname Isak Dinesen.
During her affair with Hatton, Beryl became infatuated with flying and began taking flying lessons with British pilot Tom Campbell Black. After Denys was killed piloting his own plane, Beryl sought solace in her flying lessons and also in her flight instructor, starting a long term affair with Campbell Black which ultimately led to her divorce from Mansfield Markham.
For a short period of time, Beryl worked as a bush pilot for safari companies, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to the parties on the ground. Never satisfied with mediocrity, Beryl decided to set a flying record of traveling solo non-stop from Europe to New York. No one had ever succeeded the westward flight, and many died trying. She set off from Abingdon, England in September of 1936. Twenty hours into her flight, her plane’s fuel tanks froze causing her to make a crash landing in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had fallen short of her goal, but she became the first woman and first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west.
In 1942 Beryl publisher her memoir, West of the Night, an autobiographical account of her many adventures on the ground and in the air. The book did not sell well and quickly went out of print. In 1982, George Gutekunst, a restauranteur, stumbled upon a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s letters, one of which mentioned Beryl Markham’s memoir, and Beryl herself, in interesting terms. “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.” This backhanded compliment so struck Gutekunst that he read the book. Enamored with it, he championed it to a California publishing house, North Point Press, and the book was re-issued in 1983. Beryl, at age 83, still resided in Africa, and quite impressively, still worked training race horses. The re-issue of West with the Night became an instant best-seller and allowed for Beryl, who lived in near-poverty conditions, to retire and enjoy a little fame. She died three years later.
If you haven’t yet picked up Circling the Sun, or West with the Night, I highly recommend them. Better yet, if you aren’t in a book club, these two books are a great way to start. Get some friends together, have some good wine, good food, and good conversation about a woman who lived life just as she wanted.
My father traveled a lot for business when I was a child. This created a great deal of anxiety for me as I feared the plane would go down and I would never see him again. To ease my angst, he always told me he would bring me something from his trip. It worked because instead of worrying about my father, I had something else to think about. Of course I prayed every night he was gone that he would come home safe and sound, but I would go to sleep with positive thoughts on what he would bring me when he returned. To my delight, it was usually a book. One of my favorites was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This may have started my life-long passion and love of horses and writing, something that I am sure my father did not intend, but that he and my mother ended up wholly supporting during my youth and beyond.
I was so young when I read the book that some of the lessons it provided were forgotten. We also moved several times during my growing up years and my copy of it must have gotten lost along the way. It wasn’t until I started researching books about horses that I happened upon Black Beauty again. I’ve just ordered a new copy and look forward to scouring it from cover to cover.
Here are some interesting facts about Anna Sewell and her book:
Anna Sewell spent six years writing the book. It was published in 1877 when she was 57 years old, 5 months before her death.
It was her first and last book.
It was an instant best-seller and has to date sold 50 million copies.
A signed first edition sold for $18,133 in 2015. The copy she signed for her mother sold in 2006 for $50,693.
Anna’s mother Mary Wright Sewell was a best-selling author.
Anna and her family were Quakers and believed in kindness to animals.
Black Beauty was the very first novel ever published written in an animal’s point of view.
It was based on her childhood horse, Bess. The Sewell’s considered Bess one of the family—not a very common philosophy in those days.
Anna’s ankles were injured in an accident at age 14 and she never regained full use of her legs again. She spent much of her time in a horse-drawn carriage where she thought about the plight of the working horse.
The book was never intended for children, but for adults to reconsider the treatment of horses.
Sewell’s description of the “check rein” or “bearing rein” caused its demise in Victorian England. The “check” or “bearing” rein is a rein extending from the bridle to the harness of a driving cart that is used to pull the horse’s head up and back. In Victorian times it was fashionable to have this rein pulled tight, causing an unnatural backward bend in the horses’ neck, making it difficult to pull correctly and even to breathe. This caused detrimental effects to the horse and many had to be retired early or actually died from the effects. There are varying opinions on the use of “check reins” still today. Natural horsemanship adheres to the idea of a horse being able to move “naturally” without any bodily limiting devices.
The social practices regarding the use of horses in Black Beauty also inspired legislation in many states of the U.S. during the Victorian period that would condemn abusive practices towards animals.
The novel has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its influence on social outrage and protest action in society.
It has inspired many other books concerning animal cruelty.
We live in a time when in order to be a successful author, one must be incredibly prolific. Anna Sewell never had the opportunity to be prolific, but Black Beauty, her one and only novel, did the job. More than just a story about a horse in Victorian England, the novel is about treating all of God’s creatures with kindness, empathy and respect. A theme we can all relate to and want to read about.
I rarely worry about my dad going down in a plane anymore. Time and age have added other, different concerns for both of us, but my dad still gives me books. And rarely a birthday or Christmas goes by without me giving him one in return. It is something we have always shared. If you haven’t come up with a new year’s resolution yet, maybe you should consider giving loved ones a good book on gift giving occasions or just because. Maybe one of the classics like Black Beauty.