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As soon as I saw the roadster (a  Duesenberg?)  in the illustration on the hair net package,  I knew that the  jaunty young lady at the wheel had to be the world renowned girl detective Nancy Drew.   

When you were a child did you ever want to be Nancy Drew?  I did.  And all these years later I’m still so captivated by the idea of being a gal gumshoe, a dame detective, a she shamus, that I give crime tours with the LA-based company Esotouric on most weekends.  But even the tours aren’t enough to satisfy my longing be a PI, cop, or a stylish and witty helpmate, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.   

Just because I never became a private investigator or cop (I like to believe that I DID become a stylish and witty helpmate) that doesn’t mean that I can’t pursue my crime busting dreams.   I’ve discovered a few ways in which to get my crime  fix — the aforementioned tours, and I volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS).   

Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel

The historical society has a fantastic museum which is housed in an old police station. I spend my time there organizing and digitizing a collection of Daily Bulletins, and Juvenile Reports.  The Bulletins began in 1907 and were distributed to each officer, every day (with the exception of Sundays and holidays). The Bulletins provide a daily snapshot of life in the growing city of Los Angeles, as reflected in the criminal behavior of its citizens. 

Nancy Drew did her sleuthing in River Heights, not in Los Angeles, and she began her amateur detecting as a 16 year old in 1930. The early books depict Nancy as a very modern girl — just as she should have been in the years following WWI.  She had a litany of accomplishments including: dancer, driver, cook, car mechanic, swimmer, seamstress, painter — and she was fluent in French!  If she’d had a leather cat suit, I’m sure she could have given Mrs. Emma Peel (of the  1960s series The Avengers) a run for her money.  

Mildred in mid-dive c. 1925

The woman who ghosted the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1929 to 1953 was Iowan, Mildred Wirt Benson.  Mildred was nearly as accomplished as Nancy. At the University of Iowa she participated in swimming, soccer, and was a student journalist.  Following graduation  she worked as a general reporter for the The Clinton (Iowa) Herald.  

Mildred was only 21 when, in 1926, she answered an ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for ghost writers. Her first assignment resulted in the novel, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.   

Mildred appears to have remained as feisty as Nancy Drew ever was, because she began to take flying lessons at age 59.  I’m glad to report that Mildred lived a long life – she passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.  

Nancy Drew has gone on to have a long and eventful life too. There were some terrific films in the 1940s featuring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and more recently (2007) Emma Roberts played the girl sleuth. In 2002 the first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the Old Clock, sold over 150,000 copies!


 Oh, and if you think that Nancy Drew was a pre-feminist bimbo who couldn’t possibly have had an impact on intelligent and strong women, think again. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her as an early influence, and so do Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.  

For more information on Mildred Wirt Benson visit the University of Iowa Digital Library.

1920s obsessions: drinking, smoking, cosmetics

The 1920s and 1930s found women experimenting with make-up as never before. School administrators were scandalized as their female students and teachers appeared in class in the latest fashions with their knees exposed, hair smartly bobbed, eyebrows and eyelashes tinted an inky black. Preachers raged from their pulpits that “powder and paint” were condemning a generation of women to eternal damnation. The preachers may have been right in a way that they could never have predicted.

In those early years there was nothing to prohibit unscrupulous manufacturers from whipping up toxic potions that would turn a tidy profit. The manufacturers worried only about their bottom line, and not about the contents of the poisonous cosmetics which could result in blindness, disfigurement or even death.

On the road with Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1933 Consumer’s Research was trying to gain support for a federal law that would establish and enforce standards for everything from malted milk to cosmetics.  An exhibit was created to demonstrate to Congress the need for legislation to proctect consumers – but it ended up going on the road with none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  A reporter dubbed the exhibit the “Chamber of Horrors” and the name stuck.

Here in Los Angeles there was a popular eyelash dye which was available in salons under the name of Louise Norris.  Despite the fact that the product had long been suspected of being dangerously toxic, it remained on the market for years.  In 1940 the Los Angeles Times reported that 44 year old Louise Norris had been busted by state health authorities for distributing poisonous eyebrow and eyelash dye through her cosmetics company.

From the Chamber of Horrors exhibit



The most horrifying case of damage done by a commercial dye was that of “Mrs. Brown.” In 1933, the lovely pseudonymous socialite had attempted to enhance her beauty by applying Lash Lure. It took three excruciating months for Lash Lure to destroy Mrs. Brown’s corneas, causing her to become permanently blind.  What she hadn’t known was that the primary ingredient of Lash Lure and similar products was aniline dye.


Aniline is a highly toxic substance, more appropriate for tinting leather than coloring human hair. It is extremely dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And before you get too smug, you should note that aniline is not a relic of the Deco era. It is currently used in polyurethane to manufacture rigid foam, in sealants… and condoms.


Men, be afraid. Be very afraid.

I want to express my thanks to those of you who attended my lecture last Sunday in the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  The lecture was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Art Deco Society, and American Cinematheque, and was followed by a screening (with LIVE musical accompaniment provided by pianist Robert Israel) of the 1927 film “It”, starring Clara Bow.

Here’s a clip from the film:


Clara sure had “It”, and her sassy bob was a major part of her appeal.

Irene Castle

Irene Castle

What about bobbed hair? Did Clara Bow create it? And if she didn’t, who did? There is evidence which suggests that Antek Cierplikowski (aka Mssr. Antoine) may have bobbed the hair of French actress Eva Lavalliere as early as 1909 — but it was dancer Irene Castle who popularized the style in 1914 when she cut her own hair in advance of elective surgery. Irene may have clipped her locks for convenience, but thousands of women were smitten by both the style and the ease of her adorable cropped ‘do and they immediately followed her lead.  Scissors were  soon flying in barbershops all over the U.S.


Irene Castle gave the bob its first little nudge into popular culture, but silent film star Colleen Moore brought the bob to mainstream America in the film “Flaming Youth” in 1923.  Writer  and chronicler of all things flapper,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, said: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

Colleen’s hair was styled in a sweet dutch boy crop; but there was plenty of room for different interpretations of the bob from Clara Bow’s carefree tousled hair, to Louise Brooks’ sleek black helmet.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

Despite their different on- and off-screen personas, all three women epitomized the flapper in general, and the glorified the bob hairdo in particular. The bob has survived to be 100 years old is because it has readily adapted to the whims of fashion.

Bobbed hair was de riguer for flappers, and of course flappers were glorified in film, literature, poetry — all of the arts.  I believe that no single person did more to immortalize the flapper than writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.  And he didn’t just talk the talk — he and his wife Zelda led others of the “Lost Generation” on a decade long party.

Years after the flapper had taken her last illegal drink, and attended her final petting party, Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, was brought to television by PBS.   The 1976 production starred Shelley Duval (Bernice) and Bud Cort (Warren).  In this clip Bernice asks Warren for his opinion on the hair bobbing issue.

Conversations like the one Bernice and Warren were having on the dance floor, were taking place in thousands of American homes during the 1920s.  The hair bobbing issue was a hot topic and caused broken engagements, divorce, and even the spanking of a wife by her husband!

From our vantage point it may be difficult to believe that something as simple as a haircut could cause so much controversary — we’re accustomed to choosing our personal style with virtually no constraints (and that may not always been a good thing.)

Nevertheless, whether you have long hair, or short, props must be given to the women of the 1920s who paved the way for all of the rest of us — we owe them a debt.


The design on the hairnet package above is emblematic of the 1920s in Southern California: surf, sand, sun and sin. What?  You don’t see any sin in the design?  I guess it’s just my evil mind — the  first thing that I thought of was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s mysterious disappearance from Venice Beach on May 18, 1926.  What did her disappearance have to do with sin?  Read on.

Southern California beaches weren’t just places from which to disappear in the 1920s —  they were obviously places to relax (and to wear your prettiest bathing costume.)  I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautiful souvenir folder of Venice Beach which not only shows people enjoying a day at the beach, but echoes the design of the hairnet package. Note the similarities in the coloration and overall design — really quite nice.

Aimee was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890 on a farm in Canada. It was her mother, Mildred (Minnie), who first introduced young Aimee to religion. Minnie worked with the Salvation Army and her daughter would often accompany her to soup kitchens.

Click on photo to see Sister McPherson preach.

While other little girls may have preferred to play house with their dolls, Aimee played “Salvation Army” with hers. Sermonizing to a congregation of dolls may not have been particularly thrilling or rewarding, but it was good practice for her adult life.

Aimee and Robert Semple

Given her interest in religion and the fact that, even in high school, she was protesting the teaching of evolution in public schools, it’s no surprise that she fell for a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland, Robert James Semple.

She converted to her husband’s faith and they married on August 12, 1908. The newlyweds immediately took off on an evangelistic tour of Europe. Continuing their mission they arrived in Hong Kong, China in June 1910, where both  contracted malaria. Robert died on August 19, 1910 and was buried in Hong Kong.  Aimee was just beginning to recover from the same illness that took her husband when she gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17, 1910.

Newly widowed and a recent mother, Aimee continued to convalesce in New York, and it was there that she met accountant Harold Stewart McPherson. They were married on May 5, 1912, and their son, Rolf, was born on March 23, 1913.

Aimee on the road

In mid-1915 Aimee took her act on the road and held tent revival meetings up and down the Eastern Seaboard, eventually heading out to other parts of the country. Whatever his reasons, Harold wasn’t always able to travel with his wife and their marriage suffered.  In 1918 he filed a petition for divorce (citing abandonment) and the divorce was granted in 1921.

Aimee eventually tired of being on the road and settled in Los Angeles.  Her ministry was so successful that she was able to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park (dedicated in 1923).

Sister Aimee was at the zenith of her influence and popularity by 1926. And then it all began to unravel.

On May 18, 1926 McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach, just north of Venice Beach, to swim. It was from there that Aimee vanished. Had she drowned? Her mother thought so. Aimee had been scheduled to preach later that day, but Minnie filled in. She ended her emotional sermon by telling the parishioners that “Sister is with Jesus”.

Mourners kept a seaside vigil for their beloved Aimee, but she did not emerge from the sea. Sadly, one parishioner drowned searching for McPherson, and a diver perished from exposure.

It didn’t take long for people to notice that Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for Aimee’s radio station, KFSG, had disappeared as well. Some felt that Ormiston and McPherson had run off together — they had become very friendly.

A month passed when finally there was word of Aimee in the form of a ransom note delivered to her mother.  The note demanded a half million dollars or else McPherson would be sold into “white slavery”. The note was signed “The Avengers”.  Believing that her daughter was dead, Minnie tossed the letter.

On June 23rd, like a biblical prophet, Aimee staggered out of the desert into a Mexican town just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Aimee’s story was that she’d been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held in a shack until she managed to escape, walking 13 hours to freedom.

There were several gaping holes in her story: her shoes were grass stained and showed no signs of a 13 hour desert trek and, furthermore, she’d disappeared from the beach clad only in a bathing suit, yet she had turned up following her abduction fully dressed and wearing her own wristwatch. To make matters worse, no sign of the shack where she was allegedly held was ever discovered.  A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but they adjourned after 12 days saying they hadn’t enough evidence to proceed against the wandering minister. The Grand Jury reconvened when new evidence was uncovered. The evidence suggested that Aimee and Kenneth had been traveling together, and signing into motels along the way.

What had Aimee really been up to for over one month?  Had she been kidnapped as she continued to maintain, or had she gone off to have an abortion, or heal from plastic surgery? We’ll probably never know. District Attorney Asa Keyes dropped all of the charges, thus ending any official investigation.

Despite the bad press she’d received Aimee continued her good works, but her reputation had been permanently damaged. Involved in a power struggle with her mother over control of the church, Aimee had a nervous breakdown in 1930.

David Hutton w/ballet dancers

David Hutton w/ballet dancers

McPherson would marry for a third time on September 13, 1931 to actor and musician David Hutton.  Two days into the marriage the groom was sued for alienation of affection by Hazel St. Pierre. Hutton claimed never to have met Hazel, but she still managed to walk away with a settlement of $5,000.  Things would get worse.  Aimee was in Europe when she heard that Hutton was billing himself as “Aimee’s man” in his cabaret act.  Let’s hope he wasn’t performing “The Ballad of Aimee McPherson”.  David and Aimee were divorced on March 1, 1934.

 On September 26, 1944 McPherson traveled to Oakland, California for a series of revivals. When her son went to her hotel room at 10 am the next morning to fetch her for her sermon, he found her unconscious.  Aimee would die less than two hours later.  The coroner was not able to conclusively determine the casue of death.  Apparently Aimee had been taking sleeping pills (Seconal) and it is most likely that her death was the result of an accidental overdose.

I wonder if there was something in the air during 1926 that caused two very famous women to mysteriously vanish, and then to reappear without a credible explanation. The first woman was, of course, Aimee Semple McPherson — the second woman was famed mystery writer Agatha Christie!

On December 8, 1926 after being told by her husband Archie that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce, Agatha vanished. She’d left notes for both her husband and her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her car was found abandoned and for a while it appeared that she’d been the victim of foul play.

About ten days later Agatha was identified as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate. Agatha would never give a full account of her disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from  amnesia. I believe it was the news of Archie’s infidelity that caused her to go off the rails for a while.

Max and Agatha

Max and Agatha

Archie and Agatha would divorce, and in 1930 she would marry an archaeologist Max Mallowan, whom she’d met on a dig in the Middle East. The Mallowans would have a long and happy marriage.

 For a wonderful fictional account of how Agatha spent her missing days, watch the 1979 film “Agatha” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.






Being in vogue in the 1910s

Doesn’t everyone want to be in vogue? Women in the 1910s certainly did, and one of the face powders they counted on to enhance their beauty was Vogue.

What’s playing at the Bijou?

The earliest ad I found for Vogue Face Powder appeared on July 12, 1914 in the Daily Review, which was a local paper in Decatur, Illinois. According to the advertisement, the purchase of a $.35 ($7.44 in current USD) box of the face powder would get you a free ticket to the Nickel Bijou! No right thinking woman could have passed up an opportunity like that. And what would have been playing on the big screen? The extremely popular serial, “The Perils of Pauline”, which debuted in 1914 and made Pearl White a star. There was a time when Pearl was even more popular than “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford!

The “Perils of Pearl”

Pearl White not only cheated death and escaped disaster in each of the films in the “…Pauline” series, she did a pretty fair job of cheating biographers out of the true story of her life. She had a flair for story telling, and she never let the truth get in her way. She told whoppers about her early life, at one point even telling reporters that there hadn’t been one natural death in her family in three generations and that except for herself, only her mother and one sister remained alive. It’s not clear how, or if, Pearl explained that story to her father and one of her brothers; both still very much alive at the time she told the tale! 

Another story that Pearl loved to tell was how she ran away from home at a young age and joined the circus, becoming both a trapeze artist and a bareback rider (undoubtedly another of her fabrications).

Pearl didn’t really need to manufacture any drama; her real life had plenty. She was married for the first time at age 18 (in 1907) to a fellow actor, Victor Sutherland. The couple divorced a few years later.

In 1919 Pearl met and married Major Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., a WWI vet. Wallace was an occasional actor, mainly on the stage and in light comedic roles; however, the war profoundly changed him. He was one of the many young men to return to their homes suffering from shell shock (i.e. psychological trauma). Only a couple of months following their divorce in 1921, a heavily armed Wallace vanished from a private club in New York. He was found many months later, and then spent the next several years drifting.  On January 4, 1928 Wallace was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a Los Angeles rooming house. Allegedly found near his body was a bottle of bathtub gin and a note that read: “Have a drink”.

And if there wasn’t enough excitement in her personal life, there was the day-to-day excitement of shooting action pictures in New York (Pearl never worked in Hollywood), as well as performing many of her own stunts.

Pearl’s later years

Like many artists and performers, Pearl was drawn to Paris in the years following World War I. She was offered film roles, but she preferred to perform on the stage. She did make one final film in 1924 — and then starred in a few stage reviews at the Montmarte Music Hall in Paris before retiring from performing.

One true thing about Pearl was that she knew how to hold on to a dollar. While in France she invested in a successful nightclub, a resort hotel and casino in Biarritz, as well as a stable of thoroughbred race horses.

At some point she became romantically involved with a Greek businessman, Theodore Cossika, with whom she travelled around the Middle East and the Orient.

As a result of injuries she sustained during stunt work, Pearl was in chronic pain. In order to ease the pain Pearl began to drink excessively. She was hospitalized in 1933 and was given opiates, to which she became addicted.

Pearl died of cirrhosis at age 49 on August 4, 1938 in the American Hospital in Neuilly, France. She was buried in the Cimetiere de Passy.

Before I began to collect face powder boxes and other beauty ephemera, I collected compacts and vanity cases. I was recently poking around in the historic Los Angeles Times (from September 20, 1926) and I found a story about a young woman who used her vanity case to hold something other than a lipstick, so I thought I’d share it here. 


Twenty-four year old Gene Anderson was a lingerie designer , so she she took a particular interest in current fashion, and she loved to wear expensive clothes.  But Gene was in the same predicament as many young women were in the 1920s; she was employed but not very well compensated. The average man earned about $1313 per year (approximately $16,276 current USD) and the average woman made about half that amount.


The Myer Siegel & Company advertisement shows a dress that would have appealed to Gene; but it cost a small fortune! The $25.00 frock would be $304.65 in today’s dollars! Gene realized that if she was going to indulge her passion for high fashion, she needed to devise a plan to get her hands on some additional funds.  Finally she hatched what she thought was the perfect solution; she’d write rubber checks all over town.


As you may imagine, Gene’s plan was rather short-sighted; and after writing thirty-two bad checks (totaling over $1000!) the law caught up with her. Feigning illness, Gene was able to slip away from the officer who had taken her into custody and leap from the window of her Bixel Avenue apartment.  The slightly injured woman was discovered later in a local hospital, where she was once again arrested.


Upon being searched by a matron at the County Jail, it was discovered that Gene was packing a loaded revolver in her vanity bag!  Vanity bags were what modern handbags have become, a home away from home containing everything necessary for spending a day or evening out.  


Gene tried to talk her way out of the gun charge to no avail. She finally said “I want to go to San Quentin and get it over with”. She had reason to regret her statement. Her application for probation was denied and she was sentenced to from two to twenty-eight years in prison.  She served fifteen months of her sentence and was released in January 1928.

The Guerlain advertisement by Jacques Darcy is one that I adore, and one which I have noticed is very similar to the Man Ray photograph of Elizabeth “Lee” Miller from 1930.

Elizabeth Lee Miller by Man Ray (1930)

Elizabeth "Lee Miller" by Man Ray (1930)

Both images are of a woman’s face — upside down, hair flowing, eyes shut. The images reveal women who appear to be sleeping peacefully. Because the advertisement has a caption, we know that the woman is dreaming. The father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, said that “wish-fulfillment is the meaning of each and every dream, and hence there can be no dreams besides wishful dreams”. Nothing like interjecting a bit of Freudian psychology into an advertisement for lipstick!

Man Ray may not have been probing the human psyche in the same ways as Freud, but he was exploring the landscape of the mind through his art. Ray was an American artist residing in New York in 1916 when he became acquainted with fellow artists, and recent arrivals from France, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. The three men were kindred spirits and they soon became active in the anti-art movement in the U.S. Anti-art didn’t mean that they rejected art per se but rather that they were rebelling against conventional “museum art”. The movement was known as Dada and was a protest against the nationalism, capitalism, and other “isms” which many people felt were the fundamental causes of World War I. Artist George Grosz characterized his Dadaist art as a protest “against this world of mutual destruction”.

Observatory - The Lovers by Man Ray (1934)

Observatory - The Lovers by Man Ray (1934)

When Ray arrived in France in 1921 he was one of many expatriate artists and writers who would gravitate to Paris in the 1920s; and just as his predecessors had done he found his way to Montparnasse, sometimes referred to as the “Harlem of Paris”. Ray continued to pursue his art; however, Dadaism peaked by 1922 as many of his contemporaries embraced Surrealism.

La Magie Noire by Rene Magritte

La Magie Noire by Rene Magritte

There were several parallel, and very important, art, design, philosophical, and political movements gaining ground during the 1920s: Dada, Surrealism, Art Deco, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Existentialism (the term existentialism was not used in the 1920s; it was coined in 1943 by Gabriel Marcel, and it would be retroactively applied to philosophers such as Martin Heideggar and Soren Kierkegaard). I see subtle similarities between the Darcy ad and the painting La Magie Noire by Rene Magritte. Perhaps it is the coloration, or the peaceful expression on the face of the woman who seems to belong to both the earth and the clouds.

For most of the 1920s Ray’s muse was Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), the Queen of Montparnasse. Kiki had come up hard as the illegitimate child of a peasant girl, and was given over to her grandmother to be raised. The two struggled in extreme poverty (Kiki often stole food from local gardens) and so when at age 12 she had an opportunity to live with her mother in Paris, she took it. She was a headstrong girl and she and her mother frequently clashed. When Kiki finally left her mother’s home for the last time she was only 14 years old.

Kiki with vase by J. Mandel (c. 1928)

Kiki with vase by J. Mandel (c. 1928)

She was a lovely girl, and it wasn’t surprising that she was quickly discovered by local artists. Her relationship with the artists was often mutually beneficial — many times they produced their best work when using Kiki as a model. That was certainly true of Man Ray.

Kiki fled Paris in 1940 when the Germans began their occupation and she never returned as a resident. She died at age 51 — the likely result of alcoholism and drug abuse.

Le Violon dIngres by Man Ray (Kiki as model)

Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray (Kiki as model)

In 1929 Kiki was supplanted in Ray’s affections by Elizabeth “Lee” Miller. Lee arrived at Ray’s Paris studio and announced to him that she was his new student. He insisted that he didn’t accept apprentices, but Lee was extraordinary; she was gorgeous and talented. They became lovers as well as student and teacher. Lee had run to Paris after posing for a Kotex ad. The ad is famous for being the first feminine hygiene ad in which an actual photograph of a woman was used. At first Lee was mortified by the ad, apparently she hadn’t realized that she wasn’t to be a model for a drawing, but rather for a photograph.

Lee Miller in Kotex ad (1928)

Lee Miller in Kotex ad (1928)

Lee would stay with Man Ray for a few years, but eventually she grew restless and returned to New York where she opened her own studio. If her studio work was superlative, her work as a photojournalist for Vogue magazine during World War II was brilliant; however, witnessing scenes at liberated death camps, among other horrors, profoundly changed her.

She put away her camera in the 1950s and channeled her restless energy into gourmet cooking, at which she excelled. Lee succumbed to cancer in 1977; her ashes were scattered over her herb garden at her farm in Sussex, England.

Darcy ad for Guerlains Are You Her Type? ad campaign

Darcy ad for Guerlain's "Are You Her Type?" ad campaign

As for Jacques Darcy, the artist who created the distinctive advertisements for Guerlain, I have not been able to discover very much about him. I found conflicting information in various sources. The consensus seems to be that he was born on February 7, 1892 and died in 1963 in Michigan. His work appeared frequently during the 1920s and 1930s in such publications as Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. He is best known for the art he produced for Guerlain — in my opinion some of the best commercial art ever created.




There was no shortage of such cartoons during the 1920s. Makeup (or powder and paint as it was frequently referred to) was causing a revoltuion.

I love the image of the woman on the Richard Hudnut Deauville face powder box. I’ve always thought of her as a courtesan dressing for her paramour — she’s just the right combination of innocence and decadence.  The face powder box dates from the early 1920s, but the image of the woman recalls an earlier time. While I love the blues and  rock ‘n roll, I’m also a fan of opera, and to me the woman in the design represents the beautiful but doomed Violetta Valery from Verdi’s  1853 opera La Traviata. Verdi based his opera on the novel Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (the younger — it was his father who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo).

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

Dumas was born in Paris in 1824, and he was the illegitimate son of novelist Alexandre Dumas and dressmaker Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay. Dumas often tackled complex moral issues in his writings , such as the life of his fictional courtesan Marguerite Gautier. Dumas didn’t have to rely solely on his imagination to tell the story of Marguerite because she was a thinly veiled depiction of Dumas’ former lover Marie Duplessis.

Alexandre and Marie had a relationship that lasted only one year, and their affair was an open secret in Paris. It wasn’t until after Marie’s untimely death that Dumas began to write the story of the lady of the camellias.  Dumas was typical of the time in which he lived, he seemed to have no qualms about taking a mistress, nor about appropriating her life story for his fiction, yet he would write frequently about the evils of prostitution. In fact, Dumas went so far as to propose to the government that all street prostitutes be deported to the colonies — out of sight, out of mind. Not exactly an enlightened approach to public policy and social ills.

Marie’s life story was much different than Dumas’ romanticized version. She was born Rose Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy, France in 1824. Marie’s parents weren’t a good match, and when they split up Marie’s mother abandoned her own family and became employed as the maid to an English family living in France. Marie was left in the care of her father, who shipped her out to the boonies to live with relatives. She lost her virginity at age 12 to a farm hand, and by 13 she’d been returned to her father who began to pimp her out. Despite her earning potential Marie’s father shipped her off again, this time she went to stay with relatives in Paris who owned a grocery. She worked as a clerk in a hat shop and saved enough money to get her own apartment in the Latin Quarter. Because she was vivacious and pretty she soon came to the attention of wealthy men who could buy her a better life than she could afford on her own.

Her first benefactor lasted only as long as his money held out. Marie’s subsequent lovers were wealthier and more powerful in turn, and she was finally able to move out of the Quarter and into a sumptuous apartment on Boulevard de Madelaine. If spending money was an Olympic event,  Marie would have won multiple gold medals. She easily spent 100,000 francs per year on her personal upkeep, not including her staff. By the age of 20 she may have been the queen of the demi-monde in Paris — but she was also dying. Marie had consumption (tuberculosis) and it was destroying her. She knew she didn’t have long to live, and that knowledge, coupled with her deprived upbringing, undoubtedly fueled her compulsive spending and gambling habits.

Heroin Chic redux? An ad from c. 2007

Heroin Chic redux? An ad from c. 2007

Consumption has been common throughout human history. Ironically, during Marie’s lifetime women emulated the visible symptoms of the disease for fashion! People believed that the symptoms of the disease enhanced senstive, artistic dispositions. It was a kind of “TB chic” (just as the so-called “heroin chic” would have its day in the mid-1990s). The white skin, flushed cheeks, and luminous eyes were frequently achieved by using extremely dangerous substances. Among the potions used were compounds containing lead (many women died as a result of lead poisoning) and belladonna. Belladonna (the juice of the poisonous nightshade plant) was used to make a woman’s eyes bright as if she had a fever.

Greta Garbo in Camille

Greta Garbo in Camille

Marlene Dietrich may have presented a tragically romantic vision as she died in Robert Taylor’s arms in the 1936 film version of Camille (one of the many films based upon La Dame aux Camellias)  but Marie’s end was excruciating. Shortly before she died she had met and fallen in love with the composer Franz Liszt. The love may have been reciprocated, but Lizst didn’t take Marie on tour with him. This would have been the time when so-called Listzomania was sweeping Europe, so perhaps he thought better of taking a lover on a tour during which women fought over shreds of his hankies and gloves. Lizst left on tour, and soon afterwards Marie spent her last days in agony before death released her.

Theda Bara

Theda Bara

Marie was deeply in debt when she died, and her belongings were sold at auction — even her pet parrot! The auction drew crowds of people who were mostly interested in the vicarious thrill they could derive by handling the possessions of an infamous courtesan.

Among those in the crowd at the auction was author Charles Dickens. Of the crowd he said: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.”

Marie’s life was brief, but she achieved immortality through Dumas’ work. Her story has been told many times in film and on stage, and she has been portrayed by actresses such as: Greta Garbo, Eleonora Duse, Lillian Gish, Theda Bara, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Marie’s funeral was reported to have been extravagant — drawing a crowd of hundreds. She is interred in Montmarte Cemetery.



Warm wishes for the holiday season

Warm wishes for the holiday season

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