Archive for January 22nd, 2012

The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.  –  Daniel J. Boorstin

Though the popular conception of the Victorian Era is that it was a time of very repressive sexual morality, one must never lose sight of the fact that this was only among those of the middle class.  The upper and lower classes were every bit as randy as they had ever been; roughly 8% of the female population of London were prostitutes, and the 19th century saw the third great flowering of courtesans in Europe (the previous two being Golden-Age Greece and 16th-century Venice).  And in the second half of the century the advent of mass communications, rapid transit and the modern financial system made it increasingly possible for strong-willed women like Lola Montez and Mata Hari to capitalize on their sex appeal, attracting wealthy patrons as actresses had since ancient times:  on the stage.

Clara Ward was born in Detroit, Michigan on June 17, 1873; her father was Eber Ward, a millionaire who made his fortune in lumber, mining, steel, shipping and rail.  He died of apoplexy (brain hemorrhage) when Clara was two, and the bulk of his fortune passed to Clara’s mother Catherine (née Lyon), his second wife.  Since she was only 31 (Ward was thirty years her senior) she soon remarried to Alexander Cameron, a Canadian lawyer she met in New York City.  The family moved to Toronto, and at 15 Clara was sent to school in London.  In the autumn of 1889 her mother took her on a tour of Europe in order to find her a noble husband, and in Nice they met Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay of Belgium, whom she married in Paris on May 19, 1890.  This sort of arrangement was not unusual at the time; an impoverished European noble married a wealthy (but common) heiress, and she gained a title while he gained a fortune.  It was a mutually beneficial match; Clara became only the second American-born princess (the first was George Washington’s great-grandniece Catherine Gray, who had married Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew), and she paid off her husband’s debts (to the tune of $100,000) and repaired his crumbling chateau (a further $300,000).

Clara bore her husband two children, Marie Elizabeth and Joseph Anatole (in 1891 and 1894 respectively), but this quiet, settled period was not to last long; she was beautiful, voluptuous and inconstant and had attracted the attention of King Leopold II.  As one might expect, the Queen was unhappy about this and the Princess de Caraman-Chimay soon found herself persona non grata in Belgian society.  The Prince therefore moved his family to Paris, where things only got worse; while dining at a fine restaurant, Princess Clara became enamored of the Gypsy violinist, Rigó Jancsi.  After only a few secret trysts she ran away with him in December of 1896, and her husband was granted a divorce on January 19, 1897.  The paparazzi, who had been intrigued by her since her engagement to the Prince was first announced, followed the couple across the continent to Budapest, where a pastry chef named a rich chocolate dessert after Rigó in order to capitalize on the publicity.

Her mother, on the other hand, was deeply ashamed by the press’ attention to her daughter’s escapade and disinherited her; Rigó (whom she married in 1898) had no money, and the divorce court awarded her abandoned husband the children and alimony of $15,000/year (half of her income from her father’s estate).  The Princess (she used the title until she died) had to come up with a way of making large sums of money fast, and like most women throughout history she relied on her sex appeal to do it.  Capitalizing on her notoriety, she contracted with the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge to pose on stage wearing skin-tight costumes while Rigó played the violin.  Though she literally did nothing but stand absolutely still (the general term for such a performance is tableau), the novelty, her fame and her beauty attracted sufficient attention for her to take the act on tour, and she made $6800 ($176,000 in 2012 dollars) in Berlin that April.  She modeled for photographers, licensed her image on postcards, and accepted money for “private performances”, which caused frequent and bitter arguments with Rigó; they separated in 1900. Her next husband was Giuseppe “Peppino” Ricciardi, an Italian tourist agent in Paris whom she married in June of 1904 and divorced in 1911.  Her last husband was her chauffeur, Abano Caselato, to whom she was still married when she died of pneumonia at her Italian Villa on December 18th, 1916.

Idylle Princière by Toulouse-Lautrec, depicting Clara and Rigó Jancsi

Like so many courtesans, the Princess died very young (only 43), but unlike most the names of her lovers (other than Leopold II and her four penniless husbands) are completely unknown.  They must have been quite wealthy, though; despite her enormous expenses, steep alimony and lack of visible income after about 1906, she left a fortune of $1,124,935.96 in cash and about $50,000 in real estate (over $23 million in 2012 dollars).  Ironically, her will dated to just after her marriage to Ricciardi and she had never changed it after their divorce, so he inherited a third of her estate (her two children got one-third each).  In a way, she was like the Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian of her time:  a wealthy sex symbol with no discernible talent who parleyed her highly-publicized sex life into a career as a model and “reality star”.

One Year Ago Today

Walking Stereotype Sues Whore” may be the most self-explanatory column title I’ve ever used.

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