Tag Archives: WOMEN IN HISTORY

Olive Thomas

Women in Show Business History – Olive Thomas, Tragic Beauty

Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. To help support her family, she left school at 15 years of age.  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, Jr., 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.”

Olive ThomasKnown 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.

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Repost from March 14, 2017

painting Grace O'Malley

Irish Women in History – Grace O’Malley, Lady Pirate

Her Irish name is Gráinne Ní Mháille, and she is known as one of the most tenacious female pirates of the Emerald Isle.

Born of a noble family in 1530, Grace took over the lordship of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland after the death of her father, despite having a brother. Not much is known of her childhood, but it is thought that she grew up at her family’s residence on Clare Island. She was most likely formally educated, as were all noble children of her time, and it is known that she spoke fluent Latin.

Grace O'Malley and menIn 1546, Grace married the heir to the O’Flaherty title, giving her more wealth and power. Her husband, Dónal an Chogaidh had aspirations of one day ruling all of Connacht, the area now known as Connemara. When her husband was killed in an ambush while hunting, Grace returned to her own lands on Clare Island where she established her principal residence. It is believed she took a shipwrecked sailor as her lover. He too was killed, and seeking revenge, Grace attacked the castle of Doona in Blacksod Bay, home to the murderers of her lover the MacMahons of Ballyvoy. She tracked them down and killed them on the nearby island of Cahir. The act earned her the nickname, “Dark Lady of Doona.”

Grace remarried, this time to “Iron Richard” Bourke, the 18thlord of Mac William Lochtar. But, she was still not done with the MacMahons. When she sailed for Ballyvoy this time, she attacked Doona Castle again, but this time took it as her own.

English might steadily grew in 16th Century Ireland, weakening O’Malley’s power. In 1593, her sons and half-brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, on the grounds that O’Malley was responsible for ‘nursing’ the Irish rebellions that had occurred for more than forty years.

O’Malley sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I to release them. She showed up at Greenwich Palace dressed in her finest gown and met with the English monarch surrounded by English guards. When the guards searched O’Malley’s person, they found a dagger hidden in her dress. O’Malley stated she carried it for her own safety. Elizabeth nodded her approval, and let O’Malley approach her.

O'Malley and Elizabeth
sites.google.com

Refusing to acknowledge Elizabeth as the Queen of Ireland, O’Malley did not bow upon meeting the sovereign. Despite the affront, the two had a lively discussion in Latin, and came to an agreement. The prisoners were released, Bingham was removed from his position in Ireland, and O’Malley was to stop supporting Irish rebellions. However, some of O’Malley’s other requests remained unmet, and when Bingham returned to Ireland, Grace returned to supporting the Irish rebellions during the Nine Years War.

The date of her death is not known, but historians speculated it was in 1603, the same year of Elizabeth I’s death.

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Maria Edgeworth

Irish Women in History – Maria Edgeworth, the Irish Jane Austen

A prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adult and children’s literature, Maria Edgeworth was instrumental in the evolution of the novel in Europe. Many of her works featured the plight of the Irish, women’s issues, politics, and education. A contemporary of Jane Austen, she was also a friend and correspondent of famed literary and economic writers Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo.

In her early childhood years, Maria spent most of her time with her mother and her mother’s family in Oxfordshire, England. When her mother passed away when she was five, Maria’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth married her aunt, (her mother’s sister) and the family moved to Edgeworth’s estate, Edgeworthstown in County Longford, Ireland.

While attending school in London, Maria, at 14 years old, became afflicted with an eye infection. Her father sent for her to return to Ireland, and Maria engaged in helping her father and step-mother with the raising of her younger siblings.

Home-tutored by her father in the study of law, Irish economics and politics, science, and literature, Maria showed much promise as an intellect. She also assisted her father in managing the estate where she would live and write for the rest of her life. Observing the details of daily Irish life, and collaborating academically with her father, Maria procured extensive material for her future novels. Her aunt on her father’s side, Margaret Ruxton of Black Castle encouraged Maria’s writings and supplied her with inspirational material such as the works of Anne Radcliffe and William Godwin.

After the death of his third wife, Richard married Frances Beaufort, a woman one year younger than 30-year-old Maria, and the two women became life-long friends. The family took to extensive traveling, and Maria began her writing in earnest. Her novels celebrated Irish culture and also highlighted the gradual anglicanization of feudal Irish society. In her novels, Maria also articulated education as the key to both individual and national improvement. She believed boy and girls should be educated equally and together, and that women should only marry whom they choose, or not at all.

Maria older yearsMaria was also passionate about Catholic Emancipation, agricultural reform, and improving the living standards of the poor. During the Irish Potato Famine she worked for the relief of the Irish peasants. Her efforts became well-known, and she even procured help and gifts for the poor of Ireland from America.

After her father’s death in 1817, Maria edited his memoirs and then added to them her biographical comments. She wrote until her own death in her eighties.

Even though her works were often criticized for being too moralistic, Maria soldiered on, becoming a prolific author, a defender of women and children, and an early innovator of the literary novel.

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pencil drawing catherine hayes

Irish Women in History – Catherine Hayes, The Victorian Pop Star

Catherine Hayes (not to be confused with the murderess of the same name) was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818. Abandoned by her musician father at age 5, Catherine grew up in poverty with her mother and younger sister.

 While singing in the garden one day, the purity of twenty-year-old Catherine’s voice was heard by Edmund Knox, the Church of Ireland’s bishop of Limerick. Impressed by the quality of her voice, he helped to arrange funding to send the girl for vocal training. She and her mother traveled to Dublin where she studied under Antonio Sapio.

In her first appearance, she performed a duet with Sapio at a charitable fundraiser singing O’er Shepherd Pipe from the opera Joan of Arc. That first performance started a whirlwind tour and Hayes traveled to Milan, Marseilles, Vienna, and Venice for the next several years. In June of 1849 she sang for Queen Victoria and 500 of her esteemed guests at Buckingham Palace. So taken by the young soprano, the queen requested an encore. Loyal to the Irish cause, Catherine opted to sing the beautiful Irish rebellion song Kathleen Mavoureen.

 In 1851, Hayes toured America, performing in New York, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, several cities in the American South, and over 40 other locations. The famed showman P.T. Barnum sponsored Hayes’ tour of California, and billed her as “The Swan of Erin.”

With her popularity at its height, Hayes fees to perform averaged around £650 per month, which is equivalent to $84,000 today. When she visited the well-to-do, yet semi-civilized California gold miners in their camps they bid up to £1150 ($167,000) to hear her sing. California had fallen in love with the Swan of Erin. They not only paid top dollar to attend one of her performances, they named a street after her – Kate Hayes Street—in Grass Valley.

Popular and loved across the globe, some historians have dubbed Miss Hayes the “Madonna” of her time.

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Dale Evans

Horsewomen in History – Dale Evans and What You Might Not Know About Her

She had four different names.

Born Lucille Wood Smith,  her parents soon changed her name to Frances Octavia Smith. When she started her radio career, she took the name, Marion Lee. In 1930 she changed her name to Dale Evans.

She was way ahead of her time—in more ways than you think.

Evans started her singing career at seven years of age singing gospel solos at church. Bright and more advanced than her classmates, she skipped several grades. She fell in love with Thomas Frederick Fox and married him at 14 years of age. The couple had a child, Thomas Fox, Jr. when she was 15, and she divorced Fox when she was 16.

She raised her son as her “younger brother.”

Back in the day, it wouldn’t do for a woman’s career, especially one is show business to be a mother, much less a young mother. In 1945, after her marriage to R. Dale Butts, Evans acknowledged Thomas as her son.

She appeared in a movie with John Wayne, Old Oklahoma. 

guideposts.com

Evans got her start in radio as a young woman. Her voice and movie star looks led to Hollywood where she signed a contract with 20thCentury pictures. Evans then went on to sign with Republic pictures where she appeared in more movies including The Cowboy and The Senorita. Dale met her fourth and final husband Roy Rogers on the set of that movie.

She never liked being typecast in Westerns.

Evans wanted to appear in musicals. She somewhat got her wish; she appeared in a multitude of musical Westerns.

She didn’t learn to ride until she was 30 years of age.

People assumed because she was from Texas, she knew how to handle and ride horses. She did not until she met Rogers and he taught her to ride on the set of their first movie together. Later in their television show, her favorite side-kick, besides Roy, was her faithful horse–a buckskin quarterhorse named Buttermilk.

 

She was passionate about children and children’s causes.

Dale and Roy had one child together, Robin Elizabeth, who died from Downs Syndrome before the age of two. Besides her son Thomas, Evans and Roy had four more children but adopted them. She and Roy spent endless hours and much of their fortune in devotion to children, especially those “at risk.” They also developed the Happy Trails Children’s Foundation.

She experienced extreme joy and extreme heartache regarding her children.

A devoted Christian and loving person, Evans opened her heart and her home to four adopted children. Having lost her first child to Downs Syndrome, the heartache continued when Debbie, her adopted Korean daughter died at age 12 in a bus accident, and her adopted son, Sandy, died while serving in the army in Germany.

She was incredibly creative and prolific.

With Roy Rogers alone she appeared in 28 feature films. She and Roy produced over 100 episodes of their television show. A devout Christian, Evans wrote and published over 20 inspirational books. And, a talented songwriter, Evans wrote many songs including the theme of their television show, “Happy Trails.”

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This post was first published on Kari Bovee’s Equus Plus blog on April 5, 2018

Horsewomen in History – Velma Bronn Johnston

Velma Bronn Johnston knew more about pain and suffering than most of us.

Born to Joseph Bronn and Gertrude Clay in 1912, Velma, at eleven years of age contracted polio and was confined to a cast and hospitalization for several months. The disease left her physically disfigured, and the subject of ridiculing and cruelty by her schoolmates. Velma consoled herself with writing and drawing and taking care of the many animals on her parents’ ranch, the Double Lazy Heart Ranch in Reno, Nevada.

Velma had a particular love of horses, as did her father, who, as an infant came to the West with his parents in a covered wagon. It is said that during the during the arduous journey across the desert, his mother, for whatever reason, could not provide milk for him, so resorted to feeding him the milk of a Mustang mare–an act that saved his life. Later in life, Joseph Bronn, to help support his growing family and keep his ranch in operation, ran a freighting service. Many of the horses he used to pull the wagons were Mustangs.

While many of her peers made fun of Velma for her disfigurement, Charlie Johnston, a neighbor, became smitten with her. The two married and eventually took over Velma’s father’s ranch. To make extra money, Velma took a job as a secretary to insurance executive Gordon Harris and worked for him for the next forty years. Unable to have children of their own, Velma and Charlie also opened their home and ranch to many of Nevada’s youth, where they taught them how to ranch and care for animals.

One day, in 1950 while driving either to or from work, (accounts vary) Velma was following a stock trailer and noticed blood oozing from the bottom of the doors. She followed the truck and found out that the wild horses inside were on their way to a slaughterhouse. The blood came from a young foal who was being trampled to death by the frightened older horses.

During that time period, wild horses, many of them Mustangs, were captured and slaughtered for pet food. Their capture consisted of rounding them up with airplanes, and then once they were in a more cohesive group, trucks would chase them and the men hanging out of the windows or in the bed of the truck would lasso them to the ground. Horses who were more difficult to rope, were sometimes “hamstringed,” or shot in the back of the legs, rendering them unable to run. Then, the perpetrators crammed the frightened animals into stock trailers and took them to the slaughterhouse.

Velma’s witnessing of the gruesome scene as she traveled to or from work instigated her lifelong pursuit to stop the cruelty toward Nevada’s wild horses.

Wild Horse Annie with her dog and horse
Wild Horse Annie with her dog and horse. (Wikipedia)

She began in the early 1950’s and succeeded with the 1955 bill in the Nevada State Legislature that banned aircraft and land vehicles from capturing wild animals on state lands. It was then she earned her nickname, “Wild Horse Annie.” But, Velma had a long way to go. She became a passionate speaker and made it her mission to save wild horses and burros throughout the nation. In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law.

She also established wild horse refuges in the southwest. During the rest of her lifetime, she kept vigilant watch over America’s wild horses and called to task anyone who did not obey the laws she helped put into place. Wild Horse Annie worked hard to promote the idea that wild horses and Burros were “integral to the landscape” and seen as “living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West.” She came up against many who wanted to silence her, and some even threatened her life, but Velma soldiered on.

After the death of her husband, Annie lived out the rest of her life with her mother. She died at age 65 in 1977 from cancer.

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

This post was first published on Kari Bovee’s Equus Plus blog on March, 22, 2018

Esther Howland Valentine

Esther Howland – Of Love and Letters

Esther Howland, at age 19, never thought when she received an expensive European paper Valentine from a business associate of her father’s, that she would one day be known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.” 

Esther Howland
mtholyoke.edu

Beautifully decorated with ornate cut-out paper flowers, a lace border, and a small envelope in the center containing a love note, the Valentine card touched Esther in a way that was probably not intended. Whether or not the business associate attempted to court her, or if she accepted his affection, is unknown, but because of Esther’s entrepreneurial spirit, she soon became the first person in history to mass produce what we know today as the Valentine card.

Born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Edward Howland, the owner of a successful book and stationary store, and her mother of the same name, Esther Howard, an author, young Esther seemed destined to have a career in the arts and letters. 

After receiving the Valentine from her father’s colleague, Esther liked the idea so much, she asked her father to order the appropriate materials, and she set out to make her own cards. She made about 12-15 prototypes. Her brother, a salesman for their father’s company, added the dozen samples to his inventory and took them on his next sales trip. He returned with more than $5,000 in advanced sales for the charming Valentines. 

Esther Howland Valentine
wikipedia.com

Overwhelmed with the order, Esther recruited friends and neighbors to create one of the first known assembly-lines in business history. She was able to fulfill the orders, and her business was born. Her products, known for their original beauty, and innovative romantic messages, were available for a wide range of prices. More elaborate cards including gilded lace, ribbon, hidden doors, and interior envelopes that allowed for locks of hair or engagement rings, sold for up to fifty dollars. Simpler cards could be purchased for as little a five cents. 

As with any successful venture, there soon appeared competitors vying for a spot in the lucrative Valentine’s Day card market. To distinguish herself from the rest, Esther had her cards made with the stamp of a red letter H on the back of her cards, along with the letters N.E.V. Co, which stood for the name of her business, the New England Valentine Company. It wasn’t long before Esther was having her staff make Christmas cards, New Years cards, Birthday cards, and May baskets.

In 1879, Esther’s company outgrew her home operation, and she moved the business to a factory building. In that same year, she published the “Valentine Verse Book.” The book contained over 130 Valentine verses printed in different colored inks, that could be cut out and pasted to a Valentine card, or adhered over a card’s existing message. 

In 1880, after a tremendous career, Esther sold her company in order to take care of her ill father.  Fifteen years later, in 1904, she fractured her leg and was bedridden. She died within the year. 

Esther, an empowered woman and entrepreneur, saw the seedling of an incredible idea, and then grew it into her own field of flowers, setting an example for women of her era and beyond. She provided a simple yet beautiful way for people to meaningfully express their love and devotion to one another, and she will always be known as the Mother of the American Valentine.

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

 
Cleo

Dancer, Model, Muse – Cléo de Mérode

She trained at the Paris Opera Ballet at seven years old, made her professional debut at age eleven, became a fashion icon at sixteen, and was muse to some of the most notable artists and photographers of all time—but who was this woman?

Someone destined for greatness from the beginning.

Her parents, the Austrian landscape painter Karl von-Merode–who claimed to be of noble ancestry–and a former Viennese actress, must have know their daughter would rise to fame and notoriety by giving her the name of one of the most powerful women in history.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born in France, either in Paris, Bordeaux, or Bairritz in 1875. At an early age, she showed an aptitude for dance and her mother, who must have been the original “stage mom,” had her audition for the Paris Opera Ballet at seven. She trained and performed with the company at age eleven. Her talent was only outshined by her beauty, and artists clamored to have her sit for them. By the age of thirteen, French greats Edgar Degas and Jean-louis had painted her.

Cleo de MerodeAlready the toast of the Paris dance scene by the time she’d fully matured, Cleo also became a fashion icon known for her trademark hairstyle–parted down the middle and fastened into a low chignon at the base of her neck– and her impossibly tiny waistline. Before long, Cleo was the most photographed woman in France, perhaps even all of Europe. Her image appeared on postcards and playing cards, and were much sought after as collectables. She was also depicted in statuary at the waxworks Musee Grevin, owned by famous caricaturist Alfred Grevin, in his “Behind the Scenes at the Opera” exhibit. She was the late 19th  century’s European “it girl” before she was twenty years of age.

In 1895 Cleo had the honor of sitting for the renown artist, Toulous-Lautrec. A year later, the sculptor Alexandre Falguire unveiled a sculpture that would start and onslaught of scandalous and sensational press for young Cleo. He’d cast the sculpture of her in the nude. Shocked, Cleo set out to make sure the public knew she had not posed for the sculpture sans clothing, by sending a note stating as much to the editor of Le Gaulois, the French daily newspaper. Unable to bear people seeing her with the “horrid bare statue in their minds,” she retreated out of the public eye for a time. 

However, the people of Paris were hungry for news of the beautiful Cleo, so they made up their own. It was soon bantered around Paris that the reason she wore her hair in the low chignon was to hide the fact that she had no ears. To dispel that rumor, Cleo came out into the light of day again, this time wearing her hair back off her face, or up on top of her head to show the world she indeed, had ears. 

But, the most salacious rumor about Cleo came out later that year. King Leopold II of Belgiam, aged 61, who had several mistresses, came to Paris for political reasons, but mentioned he’d come to see Cleo perform at the Opera Ballet. Rumors abounded that he was completely head-over-heels about the twenty-two year old dancing sensation. Stories were told of gifts of jewelry, and an apartment in the most fashionable part of Paris, solely for the purpose of romantic trysts. 

In reality, Cleo lived with her mother in a modest apartment, but Paris would not be satisfied without their scandals. Cleo and her mother, both practicing Catholics, could not bear the rumors of her relationship with the King (which stayed with her forever) and left Paris for St. Petersburg, Russia where she again danced her way into the hearts of the populace, including the Russian nobility, dukes and princes.

Cleo in costumeBolstered with confidence from her fame in Russia, Cleo returned to Paris and accepted an invitation to be the first ballet dancer to perform at the Folies-Bergere- for a more than generous salary. Her restored confidence brought her even more popularity, and she was again the toast of Paris. In 1897 Cleo decided to spread her dancing wings and traveled to the United States with her “mom-ager” in tow, and played for a month in New York City. Although the press was not kind, stating that she could not dance or act, her short stay in the United States was worth the trouble as she made over $9,000, which in today’s money would be over $58,000.

Unable to prevent public scrutiny, Cleo decided to embrace it. Her mother died in 1899, when Cleo was twenty-four years old. Now alone, Cleo had to manage her own career, and instead of hiding from the press, she invited them into her world. Reporters sat in on her meetings with theater managers and directors, and watched her rehearse for her roles. Her insight into fame, her talent, and her beauty resulted in her becoming an international star in adulthood. She performed across Europe and the United States, and adopted the dancing styles of the places where she toured. In 1904, she toured the Scandanavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When she returned to Paris, she turned over 3000 love letters to the editor of Le Figaro for publication.

Later in life, Cleo reduced her performance schedule and when not dancing spent her time pursuing her other artistic talents. An accomplished pianist, she spent time in solitude playing music, but never for the public, and she also took up sculpting. She crafted figurines of dancers, shepherds and shepherdess, which she sold for additional income.

In her early 50’s, Cleo retired from performing and moved to a villa in the seaside town of Biarritz where she pursued a career as a dance instructor. She worked into her eighties and died in Paris in 1966. 

Although she never married, Cleo was rumored to be engaged at various times to a Russian count, an American millionaire, a wealthy land owner, a Polish aristocrat, and of course, King Leopold. The rumors of her affair with Leopold are still alive today, but most accounts provide little proof. Cleo herself claimed to have only been involved with two men in her life, one who died of typhoid fever, and another who left her for another woman.  

While the rumors of her affairs linger, so does the legacy of Cleopatra Diane de Merode. She inspired many artists with her beauty, including her fellow countryman Gustav Klimt, whose primary artistic focus was the female form and female sexuality. Whether or not she had a relationship with the artist is unclear, but in 2006, a film titled Klimt starring John Malkovich, highlights Klimt’s relationship with a young beauty named Lea de Castro, whose character is inspired by the one and only Cleo de Merode. 

Sources: Stagebeauty.com, Wikipedia.com, Frenchsampler.com

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

Glamour shot - Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker – Entertainer, French Resistance Agent, and Activist

 

Born in 1907, Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine, as she was later called, was destined to be an entertainer. Born  to dancer Carrie McDonald and possibly Eddie Carson, (her father’s true identity has never been confirmed) who was also in show business, Josephine made her first appearance on stage at the age of one when the couple brought her onstage during the finale of their act.

After Carson abandoned McDonald and her young daughter, Carson took in laundry to help make ends meet. She soon married Arthur Martin, a kind but perpetually unemployed man. Josephine, at age 8 took work as a live in domestic for wealthy white families to help her mother put food on the table. After being abused by one of the women she worked for, Josephine left and made money on the streets of St. Louis as a street corner dancer. She married at age 13. The marriage lasted less than a year, and Josephine joined a street performance group called the Jones Family Band. Josephine, a naturally skilled dancer, added comedy to the troop’s act by acting silly and clumsy, but then crushing her dance routines at the finale.

At 15, Josephine married Willie Baker. Again, unhappy in marriage she divorced him four years later when her vaudeville troop decided to leave St. Louis for the bright lights of New York City. Josephine and the troop performed at the Plantation Club, and in successful Broadway reviews like Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, often in blackface.

Josephine’s distaste for conventional married life, and her ardent desire to become an entertainer, pained her mother, and the relationship between the two women became permanently strained. 

Josephine Baker Banana skirtAs she became more popular in New York City, Josephine was soon offered an opportunity to tour in Paris, France. She opened in La Revue Nègre at age 19 at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees, where she enjoyed instant success. The French loved her provocative dancing and singing in her barely-there costumes, and word spread about the beautiful and funny ingenue. After a tour of Europe, Josephine returned to France to star in the Folies Bergère. Wearing only a thong strung with a skirt of fake bananas, Josephine performed the “Danse Sauvage,” the dance number that would catapult her to fame. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

She starred in two French movies in the early 1930’s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. With her growing wealth she moved her family from St. Louis Missouri to France, and purchased an estate in Catelnaud-Fayrac called Les Milandes. There, she acquired an assortment of animals including monkeys, cows and horses, dogs, and a pet cheetah she named Chiquita. Chiquita, wearing a collar of diamonds, often performed with her, but when she once jumped into the orchestra pit threatening the musicians, Chiquita had to go. 

Baker became romantically involved with Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian born opportunist who passed himself off as a Count. Although pretentious about his own reputation, under his influence, Baker’s star began to rise. Abatino became Baker’s manager, and under his careful guidance Josephine started training with a vocal coach and her talent went into overdrive. She took the lead in a six-month long run of a revival of the opera, La Creole, cementing her reputation as a first-class performer. She and Abatino decided to take her act back to Josephine’s home, the United States, to perform for the  1936 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. 

While the French and the rest of Europe drank in Josephine’s intoxicating performances and personality, the audiences of the United States did not. Her Ziegfeld Follies run proved nothing short of disastrous with low box office sales and rejection from the press. The New York Times called her a “Negro Wench.”

Heart-broken, Josephine returned to France and renounced her American citizenship. In 1937 she became a French citizen and married French industrialist Jean Lion, but the marriage only lasted two years. 

In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland. Baker was recruited by French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent.” She gathered information for the French while at high society parties in Europe. She also carried secret messages to England written in invisible ink on her sheet music, as well as transporting notes with classified information pinned to her underwear. During this time, Baker also entertained British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. For her efforts, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaul.

 

Josephine Baker - Glamour ShotBecause of peritonitis and then septicema caused by a miscarriage, Josephine had to undergo a hysterectomy. When she recovered, she returned to her French chateau with yet another husband, French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she’d met during her tour of Africa. Unable to have children of her own, Josephine adopted children from all over the world, twelve in total. She called them her “rainbow tribe,” and sought to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. Her Les Milandes estate now included hotels, a farm, and rides. The children sang and danced for paying visitors to the estate. However, the expenses of the farm, chateau, and her growing family put pressure on Josephine’s marriage and Bouillon left shortly after Josephine adopted her eleventh child. 

Although a citizen of France, Josephine supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s in America. Again touring the U.S., she and her husband, Jo, were refused reservations at several hotels, and were denied service in restaraunts because of racial discrimination. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences. A club in Miami finally met her demands, and this time touring America, Josephine enjoyed some success.

In 1968, Josephine lost her beautiful estate because of unpaid debts. She had to be physically removed from the property. Her friend Grace Kelly, whom she’d met while at The Stork nightclub in New York City, where they’d refused to serve Baker because the color of her skin, again came to her rescue and offered her a villa and financial assistance. Kelly had by then become princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco.

In 1975 Josephine starred in a retrospective revue, celebrating her 50 years in show business at the Bobin in Paris. Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed the endeavor. The show opened to rave reviews and was attended by notable personalities and celebrities including Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days later, Josephine was found unconscious in her room surrounded by newspapers depicting glowing reviews of her performance. She later died peacfully in her sleep. The autopsy report stated cerebral hemmorage as the cause of death. 

From the poverty stricken streets of St. Louis with little education, Baker became the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer. She socialized with the most influential artists, writers, painters, entertainers, and intellectuals of her time. She served the resistence of her adopted country France, and she impacted the civil rights movement of her native country, America. She was an empowered woman who used her talent and celebrity to better the lives of others as well as her own. 

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

Mary Todd Lincoln – Judged Unfairly by History?

By many historical accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the 16thPresident of the United States, is portrayed as emotional, irrational, difficult, and spoiled. In all fairness, she might have been these things, but the explanations for the reasons behind these behaviors varies.

As a teenager, Miss Todd’s contemporaries described her as kind, intelligent, well-educated and vivacious.

Mary Todd LincolnMary grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, a town her family helped found. The daughter of a wealthy merchant or banker (accounts vary), Mary had every luxury a young girl in the 1800s could want. Her parents, Robert Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd raised their children in comfort and refinement. However, wealth did not provide much happiness for Mary after the death of her mother who died while giving birth to her seventh child. Robert Todd soon remarried and Mary, at age six, did not get on well with her step-mother.

Despite her unhappy home life, Mary received an excellent education and excelled in school where she mastered the French language and studied dance, drama, music, and social skills. She also showed a keen interest in politics.

As a young woman, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her married sister, Elizabeth Porter Edwards. Outgoing and social, she soon became popular among the blue-bloods of Illinois and had many beaus. Among them, a young lawyer Stephen A. Douglas, the man who would run against her future husband for the presidency. But, Mary chose Abraham Lincoln, much to the concern of her family who thought she married beneath her.

Mary and Abraham shared a love of literature and politics, and their endearment for one another lasted until his untimely death.

Though very much in love, the Lincoln’s experienced more than their share of loss with the death of two of their sons; Edward (Eddie) at age four, and William (Willie) at age fourteen. William died while the Lincoln’s lived in the white house, three years before his father.

During her time as First Lady, Mary came under intense scrutiny. Coming from a Confederate family didn’t help her cause. Mary’s family had been slaveholders and several of her half-brothers served in the Confederate army during the war. Some accused her of being a Confederate spy. Fiercely loyal to her husband, she always supported his views and his quest to end slavery and save the Union.

For much of her adult life, Mary suffered from migraines and depression. The migraines became more frequent and more intense after a carriage accident during her time in the white house. Mary’s depression worsened after the death of the couple’s son Willie in 1862. Despondent and overcome by grief, Mary experienced wild mood swings and was prone to temperamental outbursts—sometimes in public. To assuage her grief, she also explored spiritualism and used mediums to reach out to her dead sons, and later her dead husband. All of this added up to a kind of “female hysteria” in the public’s opinion.

Mary also came under criticism for her spending habits. During Lincoln’s presidency, she completed a lavish redecorating of the white house. Probably not a good idea as money was needed to fight the war. She also spared no expense in expanding her wardrobe to include fine silks and lace. Perhaps as first lady, she felt she needed these things to be presentable on the arm of her husband while he went about the business of being President, but others didn’t see it that way.

As one could imagine, when her husband was shot at point blank right in front of her and then later died from his wounds, the state of Mary’s mental health did not improve.

As a widow, Mary returned to Illinois to be nearer to her two surviving sons, but when Thomas (Tad) died in 1871, grief overwhelmed her again. Her son Robert Lincoln became alarmed at his mother’s increasingly strange behavior. He had her committed to an asylum, but her depression did not improve. She experienced fever, headaches, gait problems, delusions and hallucinations. After a year in the asylum and many imploring letters to her lawyer and finally the Chicago Times, Mary was released to the custody of her sister. Shortly after, she took up residence in France to escape further public scrutiny, and her estranged son Robert, who controlled her finances.

Her health continued to decline and after four years in Europe, she returned to her sister’s household and died in 1882.

Many historians contribute Mary’s odd behavior for some thirty years to bipolar disorder, but it has also been suggested that she suffered from pernicious anemia—a vitamin B12 deficiency. She might have suffered from both.

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be the wife of a president, or a country’s leader, especially during a Civil war. Given the difficulty of Mary’s life before she became First Lady, and certainly with the pressures she endured after with the death of three children and her husband, in addition to physical and emotional health issues, it’s no wonder she seemed a little off her rocker.

Although not one of the most popular First Ladies in history, Mary Todd Lincoln can be remembered as a devoted wife and mother, and loyal to her role in the white house. Despite illness, incomprehensible grief, and public disapproval, she showed fortitude in keeping up the good fight and enduring despite it all.

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!