Bad Girl Makes Good—Miriam Leslie, Scandalous Tycoon

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

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.

Losing the Right to Plan Our Lives–An American Tragedy

Back in the mid-1950s when I was a newly married graduate student at Columbia University, one of the most important discoveries in my new life was the Planned Parenthood Clinic on 125th Street. Having grown up in a family where contraceptives were never mentioned, I was on my own in finding out about birth control.

Contraception was a lot more unreliable during those post-war years than it is now. Aside from condoms for men, the only realistic choice was a diaphragm for a woman, but that had to be fitted and prescribed by a doctor. Of course, a few couples used the only method approved by the Catholic Church. This was the rhythm method which required a woman to take her temperature every day to figure out when she was ovulating and thus likely to get pregnant. Never the most reliable method, it was sometimes referred to as “the pope’s roulette”

The possibility of a surprise pregnancy gave employers and educators an excuse to deny women, especially married women, many of the opportunities available to men. Medical schools, law schools and employers restricted women’s applications because women were not able to control their fertility. States like Connecticut, which made the use of contraceptives illegal even for married couples, added an extra burden for women.

Gradually through the 1950s, new means of contraception were developed. The pill—the  gold standard in birth control—was unveiled to the world in 1954, and during the next twenty years, the pill became more effective and safer for women. The Planned Parenthood organization was instrumental in perfecting the pill. They publicized the need for reliable contraception and helped to fund doctors and scientists who gradually perfected the methods. Planned parenthood ran clinics and publicized the availability of effective contraception as well as providing help in fertility and family planning issues. PBS has prepared a timeline to show the development of contraception

Having the means to control fertility changed people’s lives. Birth control allowed women and couples to maintain healthy families they could support. Gradually the repressive laws that prevented people from leading healthy, satisfying sex lives were discarded. States could no longer forbid marriage between people of different races, or people of the same sex. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals had the right to privacy in making intimate decisions. Since that time, women and men have had the right to choose their partners, to decide when to have children and raise them, to limit the number of children they had, or to choose not to have children.

By 2022, the world seemed safer for women. Most of us thought our rights were settled and secure. But we were wrong. In a devastating decision, the Supreme Court abruptly declared that it had all been a mistake. A majority of the Court stripped women of the right to choose whether or not to carry a fetus to birth. Who knows what rights they may decide to take away next? The right to get married? The right to decide the number of children they have? The right to choose their partner? 

America’s Founding Fathers believed people had the right to pursue happiness, but it seems our courts have decided that legislators can determine what form of happiness we are allowed to choose even in our most intimate family relationships. Legislators who know nothing about the science of how pregnancy occurs and the complexity of fetal development are given the power to impose their religious beliefs on all of us. Without any factual basis, they can determine who will receive appropriate medical treatment and who will not when complex issues of life and death occur.

Surely this is not what Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers had in mind when they declared that each of us has the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Future justices will look back on the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as a low point for the Supreme Court. The right to privacy is worth fighting for. We must let legislators and justices know that free people do not easily surrender their rights. The struggle to preserve our freedom is only beginning. We will win it by voting in every election and electing candidates who believe in individual freedom for each of us.  Americans deserve no less.

Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.  

Jemima Boone–The first Star of Frontier Life

Everyone who has studied American history knows the name of Daniel Boone, a pioneer who led settlers into Kentucky and encouraged the Westward expansion of the original thirteen colonies. His daughter, Jemima, is less well known, but she had an important role in expanding American territory. 

Jemima’s great adventure started on July 14, 1776, when she was 13 years old and living with her family at Boonesborough, the settlement her father had organized. She and two other teenaged girls took a canoe out on the Kentucky River, which flowed close to the settlement. Seeing flowers on the opposite shore, the girls decided to paddle over and pick some. No sooner had they drawn close to the shore when a group of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians appeared, seized the canoe, grabbed the girls, bound their hands, and marched them away from the river.

Abduction of Jemima Boone by Charles Wimar (1853)

Fortunately, Jemima and her friends were familiar with the difficulties of tracking people through a heavily wooded area and did their best to leave traces of where they had gone. The girls were wearing long dresses, which made it difficult for them to walk through the dense woods, so the Indians cut several inches off the bottoms of the skirts. The Indians buried the fabric so that it would not be found, but the girls were able to tear pieces from the ragged skirts and attach them to bushes along the path. When the Indians noticed what they were doing, they ordered them to stop, but some pieces of fabric were left.

It wasn’t long before the settlers in Boonesborough heard cries and realized something was happening. They ran to the river where they found the empty canoe floating in the water. The girls had disappeared and the men realized they had been captured. Daniel Boone quickly organized a few men as a search party. Although both Shawnee and Cherokee Indians travelled often through the area, their trails were well hidden and Boone and his party didn’t know which direction they would choose.

Jemima was wearing a bonnet and she realized the bonnet strings could give information. She tied knots in the string to indicate the number of Indian braves who had taken them—five in all. Because the girls were clever enough to leave clues, and because Daniel Boone and his party understood them, it took only a few days to rescue the girls. Despite worries among the settlers, the girls were not injured by their captors. In fact, the girls seem to have established congenial relations with several of the Indians and reported that they had been well treated.

Jemima and her friends, however, soon became only a background to the media blitz (by 19th century standards) of their story. During the years after they had returned to Boonesborough, been reunited with their families, and married other settlers, their story was often retold. It served as the basis for a fictional retelling in Sir Waler Scott’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and was the basis for both paintings and stories in popular media.

It seems sad that Jemima would never be able to read Scott’s novel because like most women among the colonial settlers she was never taught to read. She did live a long, adventurous, and presumably happy life, however, as a wife and mother until her death in 1834.

Jemima’s story and the effect it had on her father as well as other settlers on the Western frontier is the subject of a recent book by the novelist Matthew Pearl, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America (2021). Pearl has done a lot of research and he sticks carefully to the known facts about the incident and its repercussions. The result is a fascinating picture of what life was like for both settlers and Indians during pioneer days on the western frontier. It was a lot more complicated and far more fascinating than most versions that have been available in books, movies and on TV.

Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Memorial Day Past, Present and Future

In May of 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin, Walt Whitman wrote these lines as a tribute to the slain president:

When lilacs last in the dooryard blooms’,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

During the years since then, in late May when lilacs are blooming in much of the country, Americans have paused to honor the young people who have died in war. Memorial Day has been one of the most important holidays of the year especially for parents who lost children during those wars.

This year we have even more tragic deaths to mourn. Nineteen children were killed—not on a battlefield, but in their classrooms in Texas by a teenager with two assault weapons. A teenager killing children. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen in a civilized country. But it did. And it has left grieving parents and grandparents who will never forget their loss. Every year when spring arrives across the country, people will grieve again for the senseless waste of innocent lives.

Christina Rosetti put that grieving into words for us:

Talk what you please of future spring
And sun-warm’d sweet to-morrow:—
Stripp’d bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
I sit alone with sorrow.

The only way to end this endless cycle of loss and grieving is to take action. Those of us who have read and listened to the news of the mass shootings must remind our political leaders that we the people have the right to defend our children and our children’s children. We must protect them from the endless cycle of tragedies. Other countries have shown us the way. We can insist that Congress outlaw the sale of lethal weapons to young people. We can make spring a time to celebrate growth and rebirth instead of a time of mourning. We just need the courage and the wisdom to take action.

Veterans Graves decorated for Memorial Day

Who Controls a Woman’s Life? Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Her Children

Today in several American cities demonstrators are marching to protest the expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Women fear that they will lose the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This seems an appropriate week to celebrate the work of one woman who fought to enlarge and protect the rights of women at a time when most women had no choice at all about bearing or raising children. In fact, by law in England once a woman was married, all her rights were given to her husband. But one woman started a battle which continues to this day.

Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808 in London. Her grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Sheridan, and her father was an actor as well as a diplomat. Caroline was one of three daughters in the family, all of whom were admired for their beauty and lively wit. Unfortunately, when their father died suddenly, the family was left without any regular income and were almost penniless. His daughters had to rely upon their beauty and charm to build satisfactory lives for themselves. And because marriage was the only acceptable career for a woman, that meant they each had to find a reliable husband.

Caroline Sheridan Norton

Caroline, the middle daughter, was beautiful and had a quick wit which attracted many men, although some people considered her too sharp-tonged and outspoken. In 1827, she married George Norton, a barrister with political ambitions.  He was well-educated and capable, but like his wife, he was dependent on earning enough money to support his family. The marriage quickly became a difficult one. Norton was a harsh and strict husband. He encouraged Caroline to support his career by making friends who could help him to get a government appointment, but he was a heavy drinker and became abusive if he thought his wife was too friendly with other men.

Despite their troubles, the couple remained together and had three sons who became the center of Caroline’s life. As the family unhappiness continued, Caroline threw herself into writing. Her first book The Sorrows of Rosalie was published in 1829. It was a success and she wrote several other novels as well as pamphlets on current affairs. As a married woman, all of the money she earned belonged to her husband. According to English law, married women were not recognized as individuals, but only as dependents of their husband. Furious at the way her husband took all her earnings, Caroline began to spend more and more of the money earned by her writing. Her debts, like her earnings, became the responsibility of her husband, but his anger and resentment about this only led to more abuse. The couple finally separated in 1836 when Caroline left Norton and moved into one of her sister’s houses.

After their separation, Caroline continued her busy social life. One of her closest friends was Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. They saw each other frequently and wrote many letters about what was happening in government circles. But then George Norton committed what Caroline saw as an unforgiveable sin—he kidnapped their three sons and moved them to Scotland to live with his sister and her husband. Caroline was not allowed to visit the boys or to make any decisions about their education. She protested to her family and friends, some of whom supported efforts and tried to persuade Norton to let her see her sons more often.

In the midst of this battle over custody, Norton decided to ruin Caroline’s chances by accusing her of sexual misconduct with Melbourne. He brought charges against Melbourne and the case went to trial. Personal letters between Caroline and Melbourne were read aloud in court and servants who had been discharged from the household were called upon to testify that they had seen inappropriate behavior between the two. In the end, the jury ruled that adultery had not been proven. Norton was not able to sue for divorce, but Caroline’s reputation would never recover from the scandal.  

Caroline’s life was not destroyed by the Melbourne trial, but it was set on a path which led her into more and more political activity. She continued to write novels as well as articles and political pamphlets. Her work along with that of other women helped lead to laws such as the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. 

George and Carolyn’s lives remained stormy although they never divorced. Caroline won the right to see her sons and eventually her grandchildren, but their relationships had been damaged by the years of separation. George Norton died in 1875 and Caroline in 1877

Antonia Fraser has written a thoughtful biography of Caroline Norton called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2021). This biography paints a vivid picture of what married life was like during the 1800s and helps us to understand some of the difficult battles that have been fought to enable women to control their own lives. Now it appears that the battle is not over yet.

Viewing Stars and Finding a New World—Sophia Brahe

Although wives are often remembered as the helpmates of their husbands, sisters are less likely to be given that spotlight. Most male scientists have probably had sisters, but astronomers seem to be the only ones who made their sisters part of their team. Caroline Herschel, for example, helped her brother William Herschel with his observations for many years and was known and honored as a discoverer of planets.

Two centuries before Caroline Herschel made her mark, another younger sister became an important assistant to her astronomer brother. Born in 1556 (or perhaps 1559) Sophia Brahe was the youngest child in a large brood of children born to a noble family in Denmark. Her brother, Tycho Brahe, the oldest child in the family, was ten years older than Sophia. As she grew up, Tycho realized that his youngest sister was unusually curious and loved to learn, so he provided books to help her learn about chemistry and horticulture. He believed that a woman would be unable to become an astronomer so he did not suggest that she learn about heavenly bodies even though that was his major interest. But Sophia was a determined girl. She read astronomy books in German and had Latin books translated so she could study them. Eventually Tycho recognized his sister’s talents and began to make her one of his assistants.

Sophia Brahe

Sophia frequently visited Tycho’s observatory, Uranienborg. Tycho Brahe was the first astronomer to recognize the importance of careful, precise observations of the stars and planets. Sophia Brahe helped him to prepare his observations for his publication De nova stella, or On the New Star. She assisted with a set of observations that led to the discovery of the supernova now called SN 1572, as well as observations of the December 8, 1573 lunar eclipse. She, along with other assistants, made observations that helped Tycho develop his theory of orbits. This work was essential in establishing modern methods to predict the positions of planet.

Today, as we look back on the work of Brahe and his associates, it is hard to believe they could learn so much about the behavior of astronomical bodies without the help of modern instruments like the telescope. It was not until thirty years after Brahe’s observations that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, applied for the first patent for a telescope.

Astronomy was only one part of Sophia’s life. In 1579, she married Otto Thott. The couple had one son before Otto died leaving Sophia to raise the son and maintain Thott’s estate until the child came of age. She continued to visit her brother at Urainienborg, but also used her horticultural expertise to design magnificent gardens and develop her son’s estate.

Like most astronomers of the time, both Tycho and Sophia were interested in astrology. Most people believed that accurate predictions about people’s lives could be based on the movements of planets. The desire for astrological predictions was one of the most important reasons why many rulers supported astronomers in their courts. Tycho was more interested in learning about astronomy, but Sophia Brahe devoted much of her time to investigating genealogy and astrology.

In 1602, Sophia Brahe married Erik Lange, an alchemist who devoted much of his fortune into trying to change base metals into gold. Her family, except for Tycho, strongly disapproved of the marriage of Lange and Sophia, so the couple lived in poverty for many years. But her work continued. Besides her studies in astronomy and astrology, Sophia Brahe completed a detailed genealogy of the Danish Royal Family

According to an article in Wikipedia, the poet Johan L. Heiberg proclaimed that “Denmark must never forget the noble woman who, in spirit much more than flesh and blood, was Tycho Brahe’s sister; the shining star in our Danish heaven is indeed a double one.”  

Dancing through the Pain—Tanaquil LeClercq

Spring has arrived, bringing a feeling of hope and rebirth as flowers bloom and trees put out new leaves. It is a good time to think about people who have also managed to find a rebirth and hope after serious illness or loss. One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently is about a dancer who overcame the assault of an illness that would have destroyed the lives of many others—Tanaquil LeClercq.

Born in Paris in 1929, the daughter of an American mother and a French father who was a poet and writer, Tanaquil was named after an Etruscan queen. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York. As a child, Tanaquil attended the French Lycée and began to study ballet. She won a scholarship competition at the School of American Ballet where she attracted the attention of its founder, George Balanchine.

Tanaquil LeClercq

By the time she was fifteen years old, Tanaquil began to appear in early Balanchine pieces at the Ballet Society, which later became the City Ballet. It was the beginning of a spectacular career during a time when ballet was becoming an important part of the American cultural world.  Balanchine, who had been born in Russia, and had experience in both classical ballet and in theatrical revues in London, developed a new style of ballet combining elements of traditional and modern dancing. He created a number of ballets for Tanaquil whose skills exemplified those needed in his new ballets. In 1952, he and Tanaquil were married. Both of their careers flourished.

Tanaquil LeClercq

Besides dancing in many of Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Symphony in C”, “Western Symphony” and “La Valse”, LeClercq also danced in many of the ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins who also became a close friend. One of his most spectacular pieces was “Afternoon of a Faun” in which LeClercq dominated the stage with her long, graceful body and startling dancing.

During the 1950s, LeClercq toured with the City Ballet in America and Europe. It was on a tour in 1956, that polio found her. Although the Salk polio vaccine had become available in 1955 and most of the ballet troupe received the vaccine before leaving the U.S. on their tour, LeClercq delayed her shot saying she would get it after the flight. It was in Denmark that polio struck and LeClercq suddenly found herself placed in an Iron Lung.

The first two years after catching polio are the crucial time for regaining strength and mobility. Balanchine and LeClercq worked tirelessly together to revive the muscles that had been affected by polio. Balanchine devised special movements and exercise to restore Tanequil’s legs. He encouraged her to place her feet on his as he walked or danced, hoping that would allow her muscles to regain their strength. Being a spiritual man, he also prayed. Nothing helped. LeClercq gradually regained strength in her arms and upper body, but she was never again able to use her legs.

Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, LeClercq’s closest colleagues, worked hard to keep up her spirits. Robbins wrote her a letter every day during the first year of her illness. But recovery from polio is painfully slow and incomplete and as time went on, LeClercq had to struggle on by herself. She and Balanchine divorced in 1969. And gradually she and Robbins drifted further apart.

The two men continued their careers and LeClercq worked hard to develop a new one for herself. She learned how to use her arms and upper body to demonstrate dance steps and she began to coach the dancers at the City Ballet. Her biggest opportunity came when Arthur Mitchell invited her to work with his newly established Dance Theater of Harlem. There she taught classes for more than a decade and during that time she also wrote and published two books.

Although her magnificent career as a dancer was cut cruelly short, Tanaquil LeClercq built a satisfying new life defying the tragedy of polio. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th anniversary season with a tribute to her. LeClercq attended in her wheelchair. She died two years later at the age of 71.

LeClerc’s life has been celebrated in a documentary film “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” (2013) which includes archival footage of her dancing as well as interviews with several people who knew her. The film can be streamed on Kanopy and other streaming services. Watching this film will allow you to spend an evening with a woman who was an amazing dancer and a gallant spirit.

Writing Poetry during Difficult Times—Anna Akhmatova

Even though it is only the beginning of April, this year of 2022 has already brought us startling news from around the world. Western media is focused on the fighting in Ukraine as Russian troops continue to bombard cities and force thousands of people to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere.

A hundred years ago, in 1922, things were much the same. Western newspapers were carrying stories of fighting, destruction, and hunger in Eastern Europe. The first World War had triggered a revolution in Russia. The Tzarist government fell and the Bolshevik party, under Vladimir Lenin, changed the face of Russia forever. During the early 1920s, as Lenin’s health declined, there was a struggle to take over leadership of the new government. The eventual winner of that struggle was Joseph Stalin whose power would determine the future of Russia and all of Eastern Europe for decades to come.

Russian writers and artists who had grown up during the Tsarist regime were deeply affected by this change in government; perhaps none more so than Anna Akhmatova. She had been hailed as one of Russia’s greatest poets but was to lead a very different and more difficult life under the new regime.

Anna was born near Odessa in 1889. Her father came from a Ukrainian Cossack family and was a stern, harsh man. He did not want poetry published under the family name, so at a very young age Anna chose the pen name Akhmatova, the name by which she was known for the rest of her life. Her father divorced his wife, Anna’s mother, and left the family while Anna was a child, so she grew up mostly in St. Petersburg. Her education was informal, but she soon joined a circle of young poets, artists and writers and began publishing poetry.     

When her second book of poetry,  Rosary, appeared in 1915, it became immensely popular. The poems she wrote were short lyric pieces filled with images of life and love:

Anna Akhmatova

The sun fills my room,

Yellow dust drifts aslant.

I wake up and remember:

This is your saint’s day.

(Translated by D.M. Thomas)

The poems were so popular that by 1916 many young people began playing a game called “Telling Rosary”. Someone would start reciting one of the poems and someone else would finish it. There was no shortage of fans who memorized her works.

Akhmatova flourished in the vibrant cultural world of St. Petersburg. She was young, beautiful, and fascinating to both men and women. In 1910 she married her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, two years later their son Lev was born. During the first few years of their marriage Akhmatova continued to write and publish poetry, even after the Russian Revolution started in 1917 and brought new turmoil to the country. Although many young writers and intellectuals left Russia and moved abroad during the years of revolution, Akhmatova refused to leave. As usual, she expressed her feelings in poetry I am not one of those who left their country/ For wolves to tear it limb from limb. (Translated by D.M. Thomas)

When the revolution ended in 1921 and Lenin became the country’s leader, Akhmatova and her friends hoped that a new, more democratic society would develop. Unfortunately, when Lenin died, his leadership role was taken by Joseph Stalin, who quickly became a harsh, unforgiving dictator. Soon after he came to power, Akhmatova’s poetry was denounced as “no longer relevant.” Akhmatova began to have difficulty finding a publisher and she was unable to continue giving the public readings that had been popular and an important source of income. For more than ten years her voice was almost silenced in Russia.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Akhmatova’s personal life was difficult. She was virtually penniless for many years; her former husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was imprisoned. Their son, Lev, was denied entry into schools. Eventually he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Northern Siberia. Akhmatova depended on the generosity of friends and lovers for her survival. During World War II she survived the 800-day siege of Leningrad, although her health deteriorated badly. Records of these years are difficult to find because she destroyed letters and journals so the authorities could not seize them and use them to justify additional punishment for her son or their friends.

Akhmatova’s health never completely recovered after the deprivations she suffered during World War II, but after the war, her reputation and fame began to return. In 1963, her masterpiece, a series of poems called “Requiem” was published in Germany, although it was not available in Russia until after her death. In 1965, Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and later that year she was allowed to travel to England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University. These tributes must have been precious to her as she neared her end, but by the time they came, she was very ill. She died of a heart attack in 1966.

Since her death, Akhmatova has been recognized as one of Russia’s most important poets. She is also one of the most popular. Her poems have been published around the world in many different languages. The translations that I have included above are by D.M. Thomas and are available in the Everyman Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Various translations of her work can be found in libraries and bookstores everywhere.

Details of Akhmatova’s life are still difficult to find, but a fascinating biography Anna of All the Russians: A Life of Anna Akhmatova (Vintage 2007) is available in libraries and bookstores. Feinstein gives a good picture not only of the poet, but also of Russia and Eastern Europe during the difficult years of the early twentieth century.