Tag Archives: Women of the Southwest

The Mysteries of Perle de Vere – Madam of the Southwest

What possessed a young girl in the mid-1800’s to leave her well-to-do, “good” family in the mid-west and move clear across the country to Denver, Colorado to take up a life of prostitution? Little is known about the early years of Perle de Vere—a woman who did just that–and later became Colorado’s most famous madam.

Supposed photo of Madam Perle de Vere
Photo thought to be of Perle de Vere – although reportedly no photos of her exist (WikiTree)

“Mrs. Martin,” as she was known in Denver, arrived there at the age of 14 or 15. There is no record of her being married at the time, so one has to wonder why she would leave a comfortable life in Illinois (or Indiana) to travel to the west and sell her body for survival. Perhaps she had family troubles. Maybe she took up with someone her family didn’t approve of, and hopped a train with him in the hopes of a life of wedded bliss. Or maybe she had a lust for adventure and wanted to pave her own way. The possibilities are endless and fun to think about.

Shortly after her arrival in Denver, “Miss Martin” became known as Perle de Vere, a beautiful woman with red-hair, a strong will, and good business sense. Her family believed she worked as a dress designer (or milliner), and catered to Denver’s wealthiest women. But, in fact, she catered to the wealthiest men, and began a life of business in prostitution. What could have happened to set off this chain of events? Did she intend to start her career as a dressmaker and then couldn’t find work? Did she anger her employer? Did she hate her job? Or did she see an opportunity to make some fast cash?

When business crashed in Denver due to the Silver Panic of 1893, Miss de Vere, then at 30 years of age, packed her bags and moved to a booming gold camp called Cripple Creek. She invested her savings and bought a house on Myers street. She hired several beautiful girls and started her own brothel. Her business proved to be an instant success, affording Perle fine clothing and an extravagant lifestyle. She also knew how to protect her investment and demanded her girls practice good hygiene, dress well, and have monthly medical examinations.

Perle, a discerning business woman and the most successful madam of the town, didn’t cater to just anyone. Patrons of her establishment had to apply for a visit. Once their application was approved and their wealth determined, Perle allowed them access to a viewing room where they could choose their girl. Evenings at Perle’s house often consisted of live entertainment, socializing, cards, and dancing before the girls and their clients retired upstairs. Perle often hosted lavish parties with imported foods and plenty of champagne and other spirits.

One of Madam Perle's girls
One of Perle’s girls
(Legends of America)

Ever popular with the men of Cripple Creek, Perle did not make many friends among the women. It didn’t help that she drove her beautiful black horses and carriage through the camp, dressed in expensive and showy clothing—flaunting her success. She and her girls shopped at the best shops on Bennett Avenue, further angering the “good” women of the town. To keep the peace, the town’s Marshal stipulated that the girls could only shop during off hours. They also paid a tax of $6 per month. Madams of the town paid $16 dollars per month, a fraction of what Perle brought in on a weekly basis.

In 1895 Perle married a wealthy mill owner named C.B. Flynn. Shortly after the nuptials, tragedy struck. A fire raged through Cripple Creek destroying many of the town’s businesses, including Flynn’s mill and Perle’s brothel. Unable to recover financially, Flynn had to leave in order to find work. He found a job in Monterrey, Mexico as a steel and iron smelter. Perle stayed behind to rebuild her business. Putting everything she had into her new venture, Perle paid for the construction a two-story brick building and decorated it with lavish, imported furnishings, electric chandeliers, and leather topped gaming tables. She named her new establishment “The Old Homestead.”

Just as the history of Perle’s early life is shrouded in mystery, so is her death. In the summer of 1897, Perle hosted an extravagant party sponsored by one of her wealthiest clients and ardent admirerers—a millionaire from either Poverty Gulch or Denver. Imported champagne, liquor, and caviar, as well as two orchestras from Denver graced The Old Homestead for the wildest party the town would ever see. Perle’s admirer even brought her a beaded and sequined gown imported from Paris to wear to the event.

Is this Madam Perle de Vere?
Another photo thought to be of Perle (Pinterest)

During the evening, after much drinking and revelry, Perle and the gentleman got into an argument. He stormed out of the house and Perle retired to her bedroom. Later that night, one of the girls checked in on Perle. She found her lying on the bed, still in her gown, her breathing labored. Unable to rouse the madam, the girl called for a doctor, but it was too late. In the early hours of the morning, Perle de Vere, at age 37, died. The coroner stated her death was due to an accidental overdose of morphine, a drug she sometimes used for insomnia. Most of the newspapers reported the same, but one reported the death as suicide. Historians dispute this claim because Perle was at the height of her success.

But, could it have been murder? And if so, who would do such a thing? The gentleman who sponsored the party? A jealous wife? One of the girls? Perhaps her husband who potentially grew envious of his wife’s success and numerous lovers? It is known that the admirer who purchased the gown and paid for the party also sent a $1000 check for Perle’s funeral expenses, an amount that today is valued at $36,000. But, does that make him innocent?

Most likely, Perle died of an accidental overdose, as the coroner stated. But, with a story as rich as hers, and with a cast of the intriguing characters she possibly entertained, it’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened to Colorado’s most famous “soiled dove.”

Feature photo found on Google from Bonanza Boomers

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe in headscarf
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
(New York Times)

Georgia O’Keeffe—a name synonymous with the beauty and mystique of the Southwest.

O’Keeffe’s depiction of multicolored desert landscapes, sensuous enlarged flowers and animal skulls, white-washed from the harshness of the New Mexico sun, portray her passion for and enchantment of the American Southwest. Throughout her life in New Mexico, O’Keefe found solace, inspiration, and the empowerment to become the “mother of American modernism.”

Born in 1887 to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Georgia showed a passion for art at a young age. Her parents supported her interest by enrolling her in art lessons with a local watercolorist. At 18 years old, Georgia studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a bout of illness, she returned to school at the Art Students League in New York City. There, she produced a still-life painting entitled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, and with the painting, won a scholarship to attend the League’s satellite school in Lake George, New York.

In 1908, her art and her passion took a turn. Unable to finance her studies due to her family’s bankruptcy, Georgia took a 4-year hiatus from her craft. She began teaching in 1911. In 1912 she took an art class that focused on the work of Arthur Wesley Dow, and started to experiment with abstract principals. This would prove pivotal in her future career. In 1915, while teaching at Columbia College, she created a series of charcoal drawings. The drawings, depicting shapes she found in nature fused with her own subconscious feelings, showed O’Keefe’s unique perspective of integrating art with emotion.

nude of Georgia O'Keeffe
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz (New York Times)

That same year, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and owner of 291, an esteemed art gallery in New York, received O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings from one of her colleagues at Columbia College. Stieglitz exhibited 10 of the drawings at his gallery in 1916 without the artist’s permission. When O’Keeffe heard this, she wrote to him and asked that he take them down. Stieglitz refused,  insisting that her art and her unique vision needed to been seen and shared with the world.

Unable to forget the work (and the woman) that moved him in such a profound way, Stieglitz arranged for O’Keeffe to come to New York to paint. A professional, and then later, a personal relationship developed. Already married to Emmeline Obermeyer, Stieglitz fell hard for O’Keefe, 23-years his junior—the muse he’d always longed for. While his wife was away, Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe at his family’s New York apartment. Emmeline feared an affair between the two, and demanded Stieglitz terminate his relationship with O’Keeffe. In turn, Stieglitz secured an apartment and he and O’Keefe moved in together. It took 7 years for Stieglitz to obtain a divorce, but finally, he and O’Keefe married in 1924.

Jimson Weed - O'Keeffe
Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keeffe
(Wikipedia)

In New York, Georgia became influenced by the movement of Precisionism and began to create the floral paintings that catapulted her to fame. During her lifetime, O’Keeffe made over 200 large scale depictions of flowers such as Oriental Poppies and later, her famed Jimson Weed  that sold in 2014 for over $44,000.

In 1925, O’Keeffe buried herself in this new found precisionist style and began painting a series depicting the New York skyline and the skyscrapers that formed the urban city’s landscape.

Due for a respite from the bustling city, in 1926, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with a friend. They stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan, another east-coast transplant, at her home in Taos. There, O’Keeffe became enchanted with the colors and landscapes of the New Mexico desert. By 1929, she would spend part of every year in Taos and Abiquiú, much to Stieglitz’s disappointment. The relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe was both passionate and tumultuous. O’Keeffe wanted to spend more time in New Mexico while her husband needed to stay in New York to manage his galleries. Another affair occurred. This time between Stieglitz and a young protégé, the photographer Dorothy Norman.

O’Keeffe found in New Mexico solace and inspiration. In 1940, she purchased a house at Ghost Ranch, in the northern part of the state, and five years later purchased a second home in Abiquiú. This home served as much of her subject matter through the 1950’s. In New Mexico, O’Keefe was prolific, creating series of paintings inspired from rock formations in the area surrounding Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu which she called “Black Place” and “White Place.”

Stieglitz & O’Keeffe
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In 1946, at the age of 82, Alfred Stieglitz died with O’Keeffe by his side. Three years after that, O’Keeffe made New Mexico her permanent home. In 1949, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and letters, and began traveling the world, seeking further inspiration. She continued to expand her abstractionist style. Inspired by her sky side view in airplanes, she created a cloudscape series, including Sky Above Clouds IV.

In the early 1970’s, O’Keefe began to lose her eyesight from macular degeneration, but her passion for her art and her artistic vision never wavered. She continued to produce art with the help of assistants, and also wrote her autobiography, Georgia O’Keeffe, which became a best-seller.

O’Keeffe received many awards throughout her lifetime for her dedication and contribution to the world of abstract art. In 1977 she received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford, and the National Medal of Arts in 1985.

In the Spring of 1986, O’Keeffe died at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eleven years later,  the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was built in her honor. There, her memory lives on with 140 oil paintings, nearly 700 drawings and hundreds of additional works dating from 1901 to 1984.

Although O’Keeffe and her work broke ground for female artists around the world, she never identified herself as a “woman artist” or as a feminist. She wanted to be known only as “an artist”, an individual drawn to her craft by something within her that could not be held back or held down. She lived her life just as she wanted, with a unique passion, vision and boldness. Her work, like the woman herself, is empowered, unmistakable, and utterly unforgettable.

To learn more about the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, click here.