In “The House of Mirth”, Edith Wharton’s tragic story of a beautiful young woman’s descent from privilege to poverty in the Golden Age, the novel’s protagonist, Lily Bart, proclaims: “I want admiration, I want excitement, I want money – yes, money!”
Admiration, excitement and money were also the ambitions of Miriam Leslie, a true Gilded Age celebrity. Born illegitimate – and possibly biracial – in New Orleans in 1836, she rose to prominence as a writer, editor, publisher, fashion icon, and champion of social mobility in the new society. -yorker. His fame was fueled by a series of scandals – sexual, financial, social. In the words of her biographer, Betsy Prioleau, she “occupied the gossip columnists.”
Diamonds and Delays: A Story of Greed, Deceit and a Golden Age Woman Tycoon
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Ms. Prioleau brings this forgotten woman to life in “Diamonds and Deadlines”. Among Ms. Prioleau’s previous books is a history of seducers, an appropriate author’s title in the case of Miriam Leslie. The author is sympathetic to her subject, whom she presents as a pioneer overcoming the restrictions imposed on women of her time. Along the way, she paints a larger picture of the society Miriam inhabits, with its extremes of wealth and scarcity.
Like the fictional Lily Bart, Miriam Leslie, née Follin, was a husband hunter, in search of wealth and social status. She divorced three men, outlived another, and became engaged to a fifth, who died inopportunely before the wedding. The men were, successively, a salesman of jewelry, a well-known anthropologist, a wealthy publisher, the dissolute older brother of Oscar Wilde and a Spanish prince. Miriam had spent her early years in the theater, where she was the protege of the dancer and courtesan Lola Montez. Given such a background, it’s no surprise that her approach to marriage is unconventional.
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Having chosen her husbands with a view to gaining rank and financial freedom, she had the composure to reject them when they no longer served her purpose. She traded sex for jewelry from her first husband and then forced him into marriage by accusing him of criminal seduction, an act punishable by five years in prison. She married anthropologist EG Squier even though she probably knew he preferred boys to women.
When publisher Frank Leslie came on the scene at his marriage to Squier, the three lived together for 10 years in a threesome. Miriam eventually got rid of Squier, with the help of two artists from Frank’s publications, one of whom had a score to settle with him. The artists lured Squier to a brothel, where they drew him frolicking naked with prostitutes. A court granted Miriam the divorce she wanted because of her husband’s adultery.
Then there were Miriam’s lovers. Married Tennessee Congressman William Churchwell bought her a townhouse. Poet Joaquin Miller, dubbed the “Byron of the Rockies,” dressed in fantastic Old West gear and penned ravishing odes to Miriam’s charms. A mock English nobleman, who called himself the “Marquis” of Leuville, fought two duels to defend Miriam’s so-called honor. When, late in life, she dumped a fake Russian prince, His Highness nursed her broken heart by spreading word that he had been called to assume the throne of Bulgaria. You can’t make this stuff up. The audience loved it.
While the Astors and Vanderbilts barred Miriam from entering elite New York society, she fit right in with the new-rich crowd. Her dresses came from Paris; one was embroidered with emeralds and pearls. In 1876, Frank bought $70,000 worth of diamond jewelry to wear to a reception celebrating the American centennial. In 1890, she gave a lecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, adorned with a necklace of 3,000 diamonds, diamond earrings, diamond hair ornaments, and diamond bracelets.
Miriam’s entry into journalism came during the Civil War thanks to her husband, who put her in charge of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s magazine in order to keep it under his control. She turned the struggling periodical, perceiving that readers were more interested in sentimental fiction and fashion spreads than depressing stories about the battles and horrors of war. Frank entrusts him with a second publication, then a third. Miriam had found her job.
After Frank’s death in 1880, Miriam took over as head of his publishing empire. She legally changed her name to her own and set about reviving the faltering business. Her talent for understanding what readers yearned for was exemplified by her response to the assassination of President James Garfield in the summer of 1881. She was not the first to understand the story, but she was the first to publish photos of the event in one of his papers. “A century ahead of tabloid journalism, she understood what readers wanted,” writes Ms. Prioleau, “close visual participation in events with public figures”. It was “a journalistic breakthrough”. Traffic exploded. She was the star of Publishers’ Row.
Over the next 20 years, Miriam’s business acumen and journalistic acumen earned her titles such as ‘Empress’, ‘Queen’ and ‘Amazon’ of journalism. But his record was spotty, and his business acumen and editorial judgment were not always good. She refused to cover the social upheavals that made Pulitzer newspapers and the New York Sun popular. She attacked immigrants, the poor, and the labor movement, rebuffing readers who were sympathetic to such causes. Her essays on feminism were contradictory. She wrote about the “upcoming woman” who would revolutionize society, but at the same time offered advice on how to attract men. She did not endorse women’s suffrage in her magazines, although she privately funded the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
At the turn of the 20th century, Miriam was at her wit’s end. The publishing world was a “blood sport”, writes Ms. Prioleau, which “belonged to ruthless young Turks who were reinventing the industry”. At 62, she had “aged without a job”.
Ms. Prioleau happily describes Miriam as “vain, bigoted, imperious and harsh”. All true. There’s not much to like about Mrs. Frank Leslie, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to like about “Diamonds and Deadlines.” Part of the fun of the book is the Kim Kardashian factor – reading about a woman who breaks social norms and succeeds on her own terms.
But it’s a leap to claim, as the author does, that Miriam was a feminist pioneer who was “leagues ahead of her time.” Her vigorous sex life perhaps foreshadowed the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and she certainly marked publishing at a time when few women operated in the public sphere. But Ms. Prioleau does not argue that she was an important figure or that she influenced American opinion on women’s issues or anything else.
Her most significant contribution to American life came after her death in 1914. She left the bulk of her estate – the equivalent of $22 million today – to Carrie Chapman Catt for the advancement of the suffrage of women. Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, used the funds to create a huge publicity machine. He helped build public support for women’s suffrage, which led to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment.
There is no denying that Mrs. Frank Leslie achieved her ambitions, finding admiration, excitement and money with a degree of professional distinction. The story of his life is an enjoyable read, if not always salutary.
-Mrs. Kirkpatrick, former associate editor of the Journal’s editorial page, is the author of “Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman.”
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