A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Adirondack Life Magazine lamenting the treatment of Heloise Durant Rose, aka Ella Durant in the historical record of the famous Durant family. So I thought of doing something about it and when I signed up to be an editor on Wikipedia and write her bio wouldn't you know! Someone already did! And they included my novels that reflect her life story. I firmly believe that the work I have done chronicling my research via this blog has increased awareness of her place i the Durant family history. Thank you to all who have read my blogs, followed up with research tips, told me about the scrapbooks in the attic, sent pictures, and family anecdotes. This was truly a public history research project.
I was giving a talk at a book event on the challenges of writing historical fiction and I asked the audience the question: what do you think would cause a woman living in the late 19th century to give part of her inheritance to a man she hardly knew?
The answers were diverse: blackmail, love, the thought of making more (greed), hope of getting married.
I chose falling in love with the wrong man.
I might be wrong but when I read the biographies of other famous women of the time period (late-Victorian era or Gilded Age) I found a familiar theme: seemingly competent, well-to-do women who had everything going for them, fell for men that were not only rakes but abusive as well. I modeled my plot line on the biography of a couple of them.
The famous French actress, Sarah Bernhardt was a good example. I found a biography written about her in 1921 by a fellow actress. Indeed, the author of the biography, Madam Berton, was the wife of Sarah’s former lover, mentor, and the man that discovered and launched Sarah’s career - Pierre Berton.
Sarah was a successful actress. She made what would be considered in today’s money millions for her stage productions in France, the UK and America. She was courted by royalty, including the Prince of Wales. But she ended up marrying a man named Jacques Damala, another actor, who her biographer called ‘the god of evil’ , a classic Greek beauty, and a dark and handsome man. Sarah ignored the warning signs and rumors about his reputation as a womanizer. Worse for her however was that after their courtship, Damala became abusive and a morphine addict.
Bernhardt’s biographer claims Damala made a game out of demeaning Sarah; criticizing what she wore, how she spoke, even her acting. She would become enraged, he would leave her and wait until she came to him. Indeed, he would state publicly that he “had Sarah on her knees last night, begging for forgiveness.” Hard to believe that a woman as famous as Sarah Bernhardt would allow herself to be treated this way?
Well maybe not. I then turned to the biography of another famous actress of the time period: Lillie Langtry. And the same pattern emerged. Here was another woman of great beauty and talent; courted by the Prince of Wales as well (and considered his official mistress for awhile) and she too fell victim to an abusive relationship. Her first marriage to Edward Langtry was a disaster. He drank his way through his inheritance and turned the other way while Lillie used her considerable charm and good looks to keep them afloat financially.
Lillie had a number of lovers after her affair with the Prince waned and she became pregnant by a man other than her husband Edward. Although her relationship with the Prince of Wales ended on a sour note because of a prank she pulled on him at a dinner party (she put an ice-cube down his back); Prince Bertie does help her launch a theater production company. When she was finally able to rid herself of Edward through divorce, she started up a relationship with an American socialite named Freddie Gebhard.
Freddie introduced her to racing horses and they became business partners. She seemed to do well for a number of years with Freddie as her partner and then she married a titled Scotsman named Hugo de Bathe. Various biographies claim the marriage was unsuccessful, one claiming he physically abused her.
When it was time for me to consider the behavior of one of the characters in my novel set in the same time period, Ella Durant, I had to re-imagine her motivation for giving away close to $20,00 of her inheritance to a Parisian Count to invest for her. I only had court testimony to go by. In 1893 Ella sued her brother William for her share of the inheritance that she believed he squandered. His defense was she could not take care of herself and was financially irresponsible. But besides mentioning this ‘lost investment’ there was no explanation. A letter addressed to Ella from her mother's companion provides a hint of their relationship:
"Your mother exceedingly regrets you accepted a jeweled cross from Count Seguin de La Salle..she does wish you had refused it...he would have far greater respect for you if you had done so."
Ella Durant was an author and American heiress who was living and socializing with literary figures such as Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker in London during the late 1880s. What would it have been like to have money at her disposal, cavorting around London and managing financial affairs on her own? Wouldn’t she be prey to men who would want to take advantage of her beauty and wealth? And what would be the enticement? The most basic of human instincts, the need to be loved.
Photo Source: Wikimeida, Winterthur Musuem
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