During the 1800s, life for women was a constant battle to stay within the rules of society while still winning the battle for security and prosperity. For a beautiful girl born in poverty, this battle could be won or lost by one indiscrete kiss. Miriam Leslie, who is better known by the name of Mrs. Frank Leslie, was one woman who managed to escape this trap, but it was not easy.
Miriam Leslie was born in Louisiana in 1836. Her father’s family had emigrated from France and settled in the area at some time during the 1700s. They started out as farmers, but by the time Miriam was born, they had lost their farm and were struggling businessmen. Miriam’s birth was never recorded. Her father was divorced at the time and we have no record of who her mother was; however, she acquired a stepmother when the family moved to New York a few years after her birth. It seems most likely that Miriam’s mother had been an enslaved woman, but no one has been able to prove that. (Many years later, that elusive mother became the basis for an attempt to keep Miriam from disbursing her fortune.)
Miriam’s life was never well-documented and she tried hard to keep much of it secret, so there remain many patches of uncertainty about her biography. She often made-up stories about her ancestors and her family, so historical sources differ. Where she was educated, and by whom, is not clear, but, somehow, she managed to get a better education than most women of her time. Her father encouraged the girl to read widely and Marion had a gift for languages. As an adult she spoke French, Italian, and Spanish fluently.
Despite giving Marion a good education, her father continued to pile up debts and neglected to provide for his family. It is not unlikely that both Marion and her stepmother engaged at least part time in prostitution, which was one of the few options women had for earning money. Eventually, however, Miriam’s skill with languages helped her to get a job with the dancer and actress, Lola Montez. They became a successful entertainment team and Marion learned how to dress and keep herself looking fashionable and attractive.
Miriam, however, fell out with Lola after their successful tours. She found other acting jobs but was not content to remain an entertainer. Her ambition was to become a socialite and join the highest ranks of New York society As soon as she had a chance, she left the stage to marry Ephraim Squier (usually known by his nickname, E.G.) a scientist and businessman with plans to build a railroad across Argentina.
Unfortunately, like Marion’s other husbands, E.G. was not a successful businessman. He soon discovered that building an Argentinian railroad was not feasible and turned to other schemes. He started writing travel pieces for publication in the growing market of magazines in New York. Marion soon began to write for publication and both of them were encouraged by meeting Frank Leslie, editor of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine.
Leslie soon became a family friend. He left his wife and moved in with Marion and E.G. and the three of them continued to have an active social life. Marion soon found that her unconventional living arrangement meant that she was unable to gain entry into the highest New York society, but she had a wide circle of friends and entertained lavishly. Her writing and her editorial skills kept the family afloat for several years.
Both Frank Leslie and Marion were eventually able to divorce their inconvenient spouses and get married. When they did, Marion legally changed her name to Mrs. Frank Leslie thus firmly leaving behind her birth family and her other marriages. After Frank Leslie died in 1880, Marion was able to take over his publications and keep her place in the ever-changing publishing world of the early twentieth century. She divided her time between New York and Europe and maintained her social contacts on both continents.
The greatest irony of Marion’s life was that despite having never supported the idea of women’s suffrage in any of her publications, she nonetheless left all of her money to Carrie Chapman Catt. Despite efforts by long lost relatives to break her will, it survived. The fortune was eventually spent on supporting the 19th Amendment that gave American women the vote and on founding the League of Women Voters to help women take advantage of their new rights.
Despite the limited documentation available about Marion Leslie’s life, we are lucky this year in having a valuable biography recently published: Betsy Prioleau’s Deadlines and Diamonds: A Tale of Greed, Deceit and a Female Tycoon (2022). Prioleau paints a vivid picture of Marion Leslie’s life and the times in which she lived. Reading it helps us understand how one woman managed to triumph despite poverty and the limitations placed on women. Marion Leslie deserves to be remembered.