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Archive for the ‘Harlotography’ Category

I’d rather drink and die.  –  Barbara Payton

I’ve often pointed out that the professions of actress and whore were at one time indistinguishable from one another, and that even now they are at best two branches of one stem (with a large area of overlap in porn and explicit general cinema).  Furthermore, it’s not unusual for actresses in difficult circumstances to practice the more stigmatized branch of our shared profession in a more direct fashion.  But generally, such deals are both highly discreet and in the “high end” price range; the case of Barbara Payton is an extreme and notable exception.

Barbara PaytonBarbara Lee Redfield was born in Cloquet, Minnesota on November 16th, 1927, to Erwin and Mabel Redfield.  Her family moved to Odessa, Texas when Barbara was 10, and though she was very  fortunate in the looks department of the genetic lottery, another of her inheritances eventually destroyed her: both parents were alcoholics.  Barbara eloped with her high-school boyfriend William Hodge just after her 15th birthday, and though her parents had the marriage annulled she was determined to get out of their house via matrimony; just two years later she dropped out of school and married a decorated combat pilot named John Payton, with whom she moved to Los Angeles.  Barbara dreamed of Hollywood success, and persuaded her husband to have some professional photos done; she quickly attracted attention and was a very successful model before she turned 20 (despite the birth of her son in March of 1947).

But success went to her head, and Payton eventually tired of being married to a party girl; they separated in July of 1948 and were divorced in 1950.  Her self-promotion had already attracted the attention of William Goetz of Universal Studios, however, and in January of 1949 he signed her to a $100/week contract (about $1000/week today).  After a couple of minor films, she won critical attention for her performance in Trapped (1949), and was highly praised for her work in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) opposite James Cagney.  The star’s brother, William Cagney, was so taken with her that he bought out her contact with Universal and got her one with Warner Brothers for $5,000/week, an unheard-of amount for such an inexperienced performer.  Despite this, her career began a sharp decline by the following year, when she appeared in Bride of the Gorilla (1951) with Raymond Burr; by 1955 Hollywood was done with her.  Ironically, her career was destroyed by the same thing which had first ignited it: her hard-partying lifestyle.

From the very beginning, Barbara used speed to keep her weight down, tranquilizers to sleep and alcohol for just about everything else.  She was incredibly promiscuous, and was not afraid to ask for money; soon after she signed with Universal she caught the eye of Bob Hope, who gave her an allowance and kept her in a luxurious apartment.  But Hope dumped her when she started demanding more money, and she took up with her drug dealer, a sometimes-movie-extra named Don Cougar; that ended sometime after Cougar beat up Payton’s elderly landlady over a rent dispute.  Over the next couple of years she is known to have been involved with Howard Hughes, Guy Madison, George Raft, John Ireland, Steve Cochran, Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper, plus many others who weren’t involved in the movie industry.  In 1950, Franchot Tone fell in love with her and proposed; she accepted, but began an affair with a minor actor named Tom Neal.  While Tone was away she even invited Neal to live with her (in the apartment Tone was paying for); when Tone returned she kicked him out.  She went back and forth between the two men until September 14th, 1951, when Neal beat Tone so severely he was hospitalized; she then married Tone on September 28th, lived with him for 53 days and then returned to Neal, who as you might expect beat her regularly as well.  The two never married, but stayed together for four years; and though both their careers were badly damaged by the scandal, the straw that broke the camel’s back in racist 1950s Hollywood was Payton’s relationship with her next boyfriend, black actor Woody Strode.

I Am Not AshamedHer life soon followed her career onto the rocks; she began pawning valuables to pay bar tabs and was arrested for giving bad checks to a liquor store.  She was temporarily reprieved in November of 1955 by marrying George Provas, a furniture store owner, but after their divorce in August of 1958 she resumed her downward spiral.  Her face and figure ruined by hard living, she was no longer able to attract patrons of the caliber of Bob Hope or Howard Hughes, and turned to streetwalking to survive; on February 7th of 1962 she was busted for prostitution on Sunset Boulevard.  She was homeless for much of that year, and was beaten on multiple occasions; she lost several teeth and once was severely stabbed.  In 1963 she got $1,000 for a ghostwritten autobiography entitled I Am Not Ashamed, but the money didn’t last long and things just kept getting worse.  In 1964 she was arrested for shoplifting, and in 1965 for possession of heroin.  Finally in 1967 she admitted she could not survive on her own, and moved back in with her parents (who now lived in San Diego); there she died on May 8th of heart and liver failure.  She was only 39 years old.

Barbara Payton had always been a whore from the time she first realized that she had sexual power over men, in her mid-teens; it’s a sign of our society’s deep misunderstanding of harlotry that nobody ever really accused her of it until she lost control of her behavior and was unable to actually make a living at it any more.  The most successful whores are never so labelled, and the greatest legal penalties and social stigma fall upon the least.

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Unlike Takao who is very much missed, Komurasaki is missed by no one.  –  a Yoshiwara courtesan, quoted in 1683

By now the regular reader should have noticed three recurring themes in my harlotographies: one of them pertains only to whores of pre-modern times; the second up to at least a century ago (though it is more pronounced in ancient stories); and the third up until the present day.  Taking these in reverse order, they are as follows: the inability of amateurs to simply report biographical facts without embellishing, dramatizing and romanticizing them; the difficulty of ascertaining even numeric biographical details with any certainty; and the confusion of more than one harlot with the same name.  All three principles are highly noticeable in the tale of Takao, a Japanese oiran (courtesan) who lived from 1640 to 1659; the lady in question was one of at least six courtesans (some sources say as high as eleven) with that name, and so is generally designated with the unimaginative moniker “Takao II”.  Very little is known about her with any certainty other than the day of her death, December 5th, 1659; however, that didn’t stop talespinners from turning her story into one of the most popular of kabuki plays.

I’ve written at length about the world of the oiran, but this passage bears repeating:

Until 1617 prostitution was completely legal in Japan, but in that year the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities.  Yujo (“women of pleasure”) were licensed and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with oiran (courtesans) at the top and brothel girls (who were essentially slaves) at the bottom.  These “red-light districts” were not implemented for the moralistic reasons which spurred their creation in the West, but rather to enforce taxation and keep out undesirables such as ronin (masterless samurai); prostitutes were also not allowed to leave the district except under certain rigidly-controlled circumstances.  Soon the districts grew into self-contained towns which offered every kind of entertainment a man might want, all entirely run by women.  Once a girl became a prostitute her birth-rank ceased to matter, and her status was determined by such factors as beauty, personality, intelligence, education and artistic skills.  Even among the oiran there were ranks, of which the highest were the tayu, courtesans fit to entertain nobles…

Takao was a tayu under contract to the Great Miura, the largest brothel of the Yoshiwara district.  Though we know absolutely nothing about her personality or skills, they must have been as striking as her beauty for her to achieve the position of “top girl” at the Miura house soon after her debut, and to become the most sought-after courtesan in Yoshiwara within a short time thereafter.  Every contemporary source (of which there are three) say she died of tuberculosis; Takabyōbu kuda monogatari (Tales of Grumbling Otokodate) also states that several of Takao’s clients paid for her funeral even though they had failed to visit her on her deathbed.  But despite “consumption” being the traditional cause of courtesan demise in Western romance, Takao’s tragic death at the peak of her success wasn’t nearly dramatic enough for kabuki; for that love, treachery and violent death needed to be added. 

Enter Date Tsunamune, who had become Lord of Mutsu at the age of eighteen after the death of his father.  Some of his kin, however, plotted against him and managed to trick him into visiting Yoshiwara as a means of getting him out of the way.  While there he hired Takao and immediately fell in love with her, proposing to buy out her contract and marry her.  This much is largely historical; Tsunamune was a real person whose did indeed face opposition from his family (and was deposed in 1660).  He may indeed have visited Yoshiwara, though a letter claimed to be from Takao to him has been proven a nineteenth-century forgery.  But the rest of the story as told for generations is the stuff of fiction.  Naturally, Takao is supposed to have rejected his offer; some sources feel mere dislike for the man or a desire for independence after the termination of her contract are insufficient motivations for the rejection, and invent a lover who had pledged to marry her when her term of indenture was up.  I’m sure y’all can guess where the story goes next:  Tsunamune refused to take “no” for an answer and made the brothel owner an offer she couldn’t refuse, Takao’s weight in gold for the contract.  The owner accepted, but took advantage of Tsunamune’s lust by putting iron weights into the sleeves of Takao’s robe, boosting her weight to 75 kilograms.  Some storytellers say that on the boat trip from the brothel, Takao hurled herself into the river to drown, counting on the weights to take her to the bottom; others say Tsunamune caught her in the attempt and killed her with his sword instead, then dumped her body.  Still another version says that Tsunamune had one of her fingers broken for every day she refused his bed, and after he had gone through both hands he had her hanged.  But all of these say that her death (whether by murder or suicide) was the excuse used by Tsunamune’s uncle to remove him from power.

Co-opting the lives of sex workers to tell lurid stories of woe and tragedy is nothing new; it’s been done for centuries, perhaps millennia, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.  But at least in the Japanese variety, the tragedy derives from the freely-chosen actions of a proud, accomplished woman in defiance of fate, rather than from the pathetic subjugation of a cookie-cutter victim stereotype.  And I don’t think there’s any need to explain which I prefer.

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A cleaner, sweeter bed-fellow does not exist.  –  Greville’s letter praising Emma to Lord Hamilton

When Mandy Rice-Davies compared herself to Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress, it is doubtful that any of the reporters who made her famous for the reference had any confusion about what she meant.  But the 1960s were a more sexually honest time than our own, and nowadays writers are even more likely to prevaricate about Lady Hamilton’s harlotry than they are about Rice-Davies’; a BBC article on the famous affair even goes so far as to say that “[Nelson and Hamilton] had fallen out of love with their partners”, as if the Lady had married her patron due to “falling in love” in the first place.  In fact, there’s another modern term for the way they came to be together, more pejorative  even than “prostitution”; read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith named Henry Lyon and his wife Mary, was born on April 26th, 1765 in Cheshire, England.  Her father died when she was an infant and her mother raised her alone, later sending her to live with her grandmother in Wales.  At twelve she started working as a maid and soon met another maid named Jane Powell, who aspired to be an actress; through her Amy found work at the Drury Lane theatre as a maid to several actresses, during which time she lived in the home of a brothel madam named Mrs. Kelly.  Her beauty and grace attracted the attention of James Graham, the doctor who owned an establishment called the “Temple of Health and Hymen” where couples could pay £50 a night (over £3000 today) to have sex in the “Celestial Bed”, which administered mild electric shocks that were supposed to cure infertility and encourage the conception of “perfect” babies.  Amy’s job was to be a hostess, model and erotic dancer, presumably to augment the effects of the electric bed.  When she was sixteen she was hired by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh to provide entertainment at a several-months-long standing party; she is known to have danced nude on the dining room table at this shindig, and her other activities may be guessed by the fact that she was pregnant by the end of the summer, presumably by Sir Harry.

As was typical in those days, Sir Harry blamed the pregnancy entirely on Amy, so though he was still supporting her she decided to become the kept woman of Charles Francis Greville, an MP and the second son of the first Earl of Warwick.  Though Greville was in love with Amy, he was quite domineering and appears to have viewed her as a piece of property.  When the baby, who was given the name Emma Carew, was born, he sent her away to be raised by a couple named Blackburn; around this same time he also demanded that Amy change her own name to Emma, specifically “Emma Hart”.  When he had her portrait painted by his friend George Romney, the painter became obsessed with her; he made so many sketches of her (both nude and clothed) at this time and later that he was able to paint a number of portraits of her without further sitting.  Because Romney was a popular painter, Emma became well-known in London society both for her wit and personality and as an artist’s model.

Unfortunately, Greville spent far beyond his means, and by 1783 he needed a new source of funds; he decided to acquire them by marrying the young heiress Henrietta Middleton, but since it was common knowledge that Emma was his lover he had to be rid of her.  He therefore convinced his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, to accept her as his mistress.  Hamilton was an art collector, and no doubt viewed the now-famous beauty as a valuable find; he also wanted to facilitate his nephew’s marriage so as to eliminate his frequent requests for money.  The deal was therefore made without Emma’s input or knowledge, and she was shipped off to Naples (where Hamilton was the British envoy) under the guise of a six-month holiday while Greville was supposedly away on business.  She was, in other words, “sex trafficked”, sent from one owner to another in a different country.

But though Emma was furious upon discovering what was really expected of her, she eventually adapted to her situation.  Hamilton’s home was beautiful and his art collection renowned, and he was a widower who, far from viewing her as an embarrassment, instead encouraged her modeling, singing and other performance.  The form for which she became known was called “attitudes”; this consisted of an act in which she would wear a simple gown dressed up by scarves and shawls which helped her to evoke images from history and classical mythology by posing.  The audience was then supposed to guess who she was portraying.  Though this may sound a bit silly to modern ears, the effect was apparently very striking; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before.  With a few scarves and shawls she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations.  One pose after another without a break”.  Within a few years of her first performance in the spring of 1787, a number of other actresses took up the art; over the years Emma herself evolved from mere posing into acting out short pantomimes, most famously portraying Medea.

Sir William eventually married Emma on September 6th, 1791; he was sixty and she twenty-six.  The match gave her the title by which she was forever known afterward, though friends still called her “Emma”.  It also gave her the duties of a diplomat’s wife, among them entertaining Horatio Nelson (then a mere post captain) when he came in 1793 to request reinforcements from the King of Naples.  By the time he returned in 1798 he had lost an arm, an eye, most of his teeth and the majority of his health, but had won both the Battle of the Nile and worldwide fame.  Sir William invited the great man to recuperate in their home, nursed by his young wife, and it was at this time that the two began their affair.

But while one might think this a betrayal of hospitality, the truth is that Sir William definitely knew about and seems to have even encouraged the affair; he and Nelson respected and admired one another, and Emma and Nelson had similar feelings for one another.  Indeed, the relationship soon developed into a ménage a trois; after the Neopolitan Revolution of 1799 the ailing Hamilton was allowed to retire and return to England, accompanied by Nelson, who openly moved in with the Hamiltons despite having a home (and wife) of his own.  In fact, the arrangement became such a huge scandal that the Admiralty ordered Nelson back to sea to keep him away from Emma.  The public, however, was fascinated and the Hamiltons seemed completely unconcerned with what anyone said; when Emma gave birth to a daughter on January 31st, 1801 she named her “Horatia”, flagrantly advertising her paternity.

Alas, their happiness was not to last long.  Sir William, whom Emma had grown to love, died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea to fight Napoleon soon afterward.  The daughter Emma was carrying at the time died soon after her birth early the next year, and she consoled herself by gambling and otherwise wasting money; when Nelson died at Trafalgar in October of 1805, she had nothing left but Hamilton’s £800/year pension, which she exhausted trying to build up Merton Place (the house Nelson had bought for the three to live together in) as a monument to the great man.  Now the government decided to have its revenge on the woman it considered a double embarrassment for tarnishing the reputations of two of its favored sons: Emma was barred from Nelson’s funeral, and his request that she and Horatia be provided for was totally ignored; money and gifts were instead showered upon Nelson’s widow, brother and other family members.  As her looks and figure were long gone, Emma could no longer attract a patron; she fell deeply into debt and after Nelson’s love letters to her were stolen and published in 1814, the government exacted one more act of petty vengeance by throwing her into debtor’s prison.  After her release that autumn she fled to France with Horatia, where she died on January 15th, 1815.  Men in power are never kind to women who have embarrassed them, and neither Lady Hamilton’s title nor the exalted reputation of her most famous lover could save her from being treated like any other troublesome whore.

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Well he would, wouldn’t he?  –  response when told Lord Astor had denied having her

As I’ve written many times, the maintenance of the Madonna/whore dichotomy demands the erasure of all ambiguity; women must solidly be classified as one or the other, “good” women or “bad”, “empowered” women or “fallen” ones, without a hint that a single woman could play both roles at different parts of her life (much less at the same time).  And so women who succeed in other careers after sex work, especially if they’re popular and well-liked, must never ever ever be described as sex workers; they might be dancers, or perhaps masseuses, or models, or even mistresses, but not what they actually were: prostitutes, no different from me or any inhabitant of any red-light district.  Of course, it helps when the prostitution is genteel and privately arranged and the whores have other “legitimate” jobs as showgirls or hostesses; then they can be described politely as “party girls” and their clients as “lovers”, and the transactional nature of their “affairs” can be glossed over on the BBC or in polite newspapers.

Marilyn Rice-Davies was born in Wales on October 21, 1944 and after a fairly conventional upbringing began modeling at 15.  After playing a window-dressing part in the film Make Mine Mink, she ran away to London at 16 and quickly got a job as a showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho; there she met and befriended Christine Keeler and the two lived together for a while.  Keeler introduced her to the well-connected osteopath Stephen Ward, who both delighted in and profited by introducing ambitious young women like Keeler and Rice-Davies to his wealthy friends.  Mandy soon became the mistress of slumlord Peter Rachman, who had previously kept Keeler, but the arrangement ended abruptly with Rachman’s death by heart attack on November 29th, 1962.  Rachman was a notorious character who had been under constant police investigation since 1959; he had been prosecuted twice for brothel-keeping and among his expensive gifts to Mandy was a new Jaguar (which was, alas, seized by his widow).  But Mandy later insisted that there was no profit motive involved in her relationship with the short, dumpy Rachman, a statement repeated without question by journalists and others ever since.

It was after Rachman’s death, however, that Rice-Davies’ ship finally came in, via the Profumo Affair and the associated persecution of Stephen Ward.  She had always hoped to achieve stardom, and since coming to London had appeared in several advertisements, but the free publicity afforded her by her appearance as a prosecution witness at Ward’s trial gave her career a mighty boost.  This is not to say that she intentionally capitalized upon Ward’s misfortune; in fact, she only agreed to testify after the cops trumped up charges involving a fake ID (and later, a supposedly stolen television set) so she could be threatened with a long stretch in Holloway if she refused to “cooperate”.  But once the trial started, she clearly both enjoyed and took advantage of the publicity.  The cameras loved her, and her comparing herself to Lady Hamilton (Lord Nelson’s mistress) made her the talk of the papers for a few weeks.  After the trial ended with Ward’s suicide at the end of July, Mandy was offered a job as a cabaret singer in Germany and quickly became involved with another wealthy patron, one Baron Cervello.

For several years she toured the world, taking whatever singing gigs she could find, then in 1966 she moved to Israel; there she met and married nightclub owner Rafael Shaul and converted to Judaism, founding a chain of restaurants and nightclubs called Mandy’s.  The couple amicably divorced in 1971 but remained business partners, and Mandy appeared in a number of Israeli films in the ‘70s, then European ones (and television show episodes) in the ‘80s.  She also published her autobiography, Mandy, in 1980 and a novel, The Scarlet Thread, in 1989.  During this time she had a number of liaisons with ever-wealthier men and an extremely short-lived marriage to the French restaurateur Jean-Charles Lefevre.  But it was her third marriage, to British businessman Ken Foreman, which accelerated what she called her “long descent into respectability”; among Foreman’s friends was Sir Denis Thatcher, and Mandy – now going by Marilyn Foreman – is known to have holidayed with Thatcher and his much more famous wife, Margaret.  She died of cancer just three weeks ago, on December 18th, and was the subject of laudatory obituaries in the Guardian  and Telegraph, among many others.

But despite her respectability and long-maintained insistence that she had never really taken money for sex, Mandy never attempted to distance herself from the Prufumo Affair and the Ward trial; in fact, in 2013 she was consulted by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his short-lived stage musical, Stephen Ward.  At the time, she revealed that she had not spoken to her old flatmate, Christine Keeler, in over three decades; while Rice-Davies had embraced the publicity and used it to advance her own interests, Keeler had been embarrassed by the whole thing and vanished from the limelight for 20 years after it was over.  Their different ways of reacting to the debacle had driven a wedge into what was never a particularly close friendship to start; “I don’t think she liked me,” Mandy said in an October 2013 interview.  And though neither of the two ever (publicly) considered themselves sex workers, their very different post-scandal lives demonstrate an important truth about two kinds of women involved in the work:  those who consider it to have been a humiliation, and those who embrace it as a means of attaining their goals.

(This month’s harlotography first appeared in Cliterati on January 4th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.)

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More city business was transacted at Lou’s than at City Hall.  –  Bill Speidel

Since I spent much of last month only a few blocks from the building which once housed her Seattle brothel, and was so welcomed by the city she helped build, it seems fitting that I should pay tribute to the life and legacy of Lou Graham (February 9, 1857 – March 11, 1903), the city’s most famous madam.  As with most whores, there is a great deal of inconsistency and misinformation involved in her story; however, in Graham’s case it mostly surrounds her death rather than her life.

As Thaddeus Russell explains in A Renegade History of the United States, the reason so many western states gave women the right to vote long before the eastern ones (or the country in general) had absolutely nothing to do with high-minded egalitarianism and everything to do with pragmatism and arse-kissing.  You see, frontier populations are always disproportionately male because they tend to lack the sort of amenities “good” women tend to want.  Accordingly, frontier towns fill up with lonely young men desperate for female company and usually possessed of money drawn from whatever industry the town is built on (whether that be mining, trapping, trade or whatever).  Naturally, whores arrive to capitalize on this and so the minority of frontier populations which are female are usually made up largely of working girls.  These ladies soon amass a disproportionate share of the wealth, and madams tend to become fabulously wealthy; in order to win their favor (the better to secure donations and investment in civic projects), city fathers all over the western US granted them suffrage.  Seattle did this on November 23rd, 1883 and almost immediately regretted it; by the time the city had actually granted suffrage, the whores had been outnumbered by recently-arrived “good” women, who immediately repaid the “bad” sisters who had won the vote for them by electing “progressive” prohibitionists to enact new laws (and vigorously enforce old ones) restricting saloons, brothels, gambling and other “vices”.  The result, naturally, was a dramatic loss of tax and license revenue, and by the time women’s suffrage was revoked by judicial fiat in 1887-88 the city’s finances were in shambles.

Lou GrahamEnter Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben of Germany, a not-especially-beautiful 31-year-old whore gifted with charm, a gift for persuasion and business savvy.  She approached a banker named Jacob Furth, and with his help convinced a number of local businessmen to invest in a truly world-class brothel staffed with beautiful, charming, educated women.  Though the building she purchased (at the corner of Third and Washington) burned down in the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, she had already made enough money in her first year of business to rebuild immediately in stone; it was, in fact, the first building to re-open after the fire.  Some say that the pleasures of her house were free to government officials, but whether that was true or not it is certain that she had considerable influence on the political class; though the area’s weird aversion to sex was already in evidence and resulted in periodic “vice crackdowns”, these never lasted long and Graham was always back in business practically overnight.  The one instance in which she was actually arrested resulted in the political downfall of Henry White, the “reform” mayor who had presided over the police operation in question.

Unlike some of the other madams I’ve discussed, Graham was far from shortsighted; she fully realized that the political climate might change at any time, resulting in the extinction of her business.  So she invested heavily in the stock market and made a killing; on top of that, she made high-interest loans for business ventures that the city’s conservative bankers would not back, but which her friend and business associate Jacob Furth nevertheless felt were good risks.  Many of the wealthy Seattle families who nowadays support prohibitionism and finger themselves furtively to “sex trafficking” fantasies enjoy fortunes founded on loans drawn from funds paid for sex…in other words, from the “avails of prostitution”.  And that makes them, in the modern view, the descendants of indirect “pimps”.  Indeed, given that a very large and publicly-announced deposit from Graham saved the Puget Sound National Bank (Furth’s institution) from a bank run during the Panic of 1893, it could also be said that everyone who has profited from investment in said bank for the past century was also a beneficiary of the “wages of sin”.

Lou Graham obit Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3-12-1903None of this is controversial, but the end of her life (and its aftermath) is another matter.  After yet another ridiculous “morality” crusade resulted in the closure of her brothel in December 1902, Graham suddenly decided not to bother re-opening in Seattle; she instead took off for San Francisco the following month, apparently intending to start up again there.  Less than two months later she was dead, of causes that have never been adequately explained.  Her obituary listed the cause as a perforated ulcer, possibly aggravated due to nerves brought on by her repeated harassment.  A popular rumor of the time said it was actually suicide, and proponents of the “drug addict whore” and “diseased whore” myths favor the explanations of drug overdose and syphilis, respectively.  Another odd point is that she appears to have died intestate, surely an unlikelihood for a woman so careful with business matters; the Seattle Times reported that there had been a will, but that it was torn to shreds during a violent argument between Lou and Amber Delmas the night before Lou died.  Amber was described as her “housekeeper”, but it seems virtually certain that the two were lesbian partners; Amber had assisted Lou in running her business for years and accompanied her to San Francisco, and the general belief is that the destroyed will originally named Amber’s daughter Ulna as the chief heir.  The daughter soon became the victim of a custody battle between her mother and busybodies who wanted to “rescue” her; the latter won (as they still do today) and the girl was placed in what was described as a “good home”.  Lou’s $200,000 fortune ($5.1 million today) was claimed by relatives from Germany, but a court (perhaps conveniently) ruled against them and instead gave the money to the King County School District; despite this, not one single school was named for her (because obviously sex radiation lasts long after death).  In some ways, the United States was a very different place a century ago, but when it comes to the incredible hypocrisy of politicians (especially Washington politicians) toward sex workers, it seems absolutely nothing has changed at all.

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Lady Castlemaine…[went] away…upon some slighting words of the king, so that…the king, the next morning, under pretence of going a hunting, went to see her and make friends…After which she came back to court, and commands the king as much as ever, and hath and doth what she will.  –  The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 22nd, 1663

Though the majority of whores have always been born in the working class, when disposition, circumstance and necessity converge to make harlotry the most attractive choice, women of noble birth are just as quick to make it as their humbler sisters.  And when looks and personality converge to give her a higher-than-ordinary degree of sexual power over men, a noble-born courtesan is no more likely to be sparing in the use of that power than any other.

Barbara Villiers was born in Westminster on November 17th, 1640*, the only child of William Villiers, the 2nd Viscount Grandison, and his wife Mary (heiress of the 1st Viscount Bayning).  She would have been a very wealthy little girl after her father’s death in battle** had it not been for the fact that he had given his entire fortune to the Cavalier war effort; Mary and her daughter were left in poverty, and she was forced by necessity to marry her husband’s cousin Charles (the 2nd Earl of Anglesey) in order to have any income at all.  The Commonwealth was not a good time for the Villiers family; though like many others they had officially espoused loyalty to Cromwell, they secretly supported the claim of the exiled Charles II and lived under a cloud of suspicion due to their active participation on his father’s side during the Civil War.  Barbara was raised in the country by relatives, but by 15 she had blossomed into an exceptionally beautiful young woman (tall and voluptuous, with chestnut hair and eyes of so dark a blue they looked black); her mother brought her to London with the idea of marrying her to a wealthy family despite her lack of a dowry.  Within a year the intelligent, independent Barbara had become the mistress of Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, and on April 14th, 1659 she married a young lawyer named Roger Palmer, heir to a large fortune, over his family’s vociferous objections (including, but not limited to, the fact that he was Catholic and she Anglican).  Though on paper they never divorced, in reality they separated in 1662.

The reason for that separation was, as you may have already guessed, her infidelity.  In the autumn after their marriage, the royalists dispatched Barbara to The Hague with letters and money for the King; since she was only 18 at the time, it was felt she would arouse less suspicion (and her person was much less likely to be searched in any case).  Before she returned to England, she had already become Charles’ lover; at first they were relatively discreet about it, but by the Restoration of the monarchy in April of 1661 it was secret to virtually nobody.  When her daughter Anne was born in February of 1661 the King, her husband and Chesterfield all claimed the child as theirs, and when Palmer was created Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine later that year it was whispered that the titles were payment for his wife’s services; unlike the husbands of Lillie Langtry and Alice Keppel, however, Palmer was not at all sanguine about the arrangement.  When Barbara’s second child, Charles, was born in June of 1662, Palmer had him baptized Catholic; Barbara later had him re-baptized Anglican in a ceremony attended by His Majesty, who publicly proclaimed the child his.  It was the last straw for Palmer, who never saw his wife again; though he had a long (but stormy) political career until his death in 1705, he was deeply humiliated by his reputation as “Europe’s best-known cuckold”.

When the new Queen, Catherine of Braganza, arrived at court from her honeymoon soon after baby Charles’ birth, she discovered her new husband’s mistress already in control; the fact was hammered home when the King demanded she accept Barbara’s appointment as a Lady of the Bedchamber, an official position which would give both an income and rooms at the Palace.  The Queen had already been told about Barbara by friends, so naturally she refused; Charles became furious and sent the ladies she had brought with her home to Portugal.  The King’s chief advisor, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, hated Barbara with a passion, but gritted his teeth and advised the Queen to relent for her own good; Barbara repaid this reluctantly-given help by plotting with his political enemies to bring about his downfall in August of 1667.

These are only a few examples of Barbara’s extraordinary selfishness and viciousness.  Though she was witty and charismatic and could be generous and even kind when it suited her, she had a terrible temper and was merciless to those she perceived as enemies; she was described by George Reresby as “the finest Woman of her age“, but by John Evelyn as the “curse of our nation“.  She had a powerful hold on King Charles, partly due to her looks and partly to her legendary sexual prowess; her influence was so great that after one of their many arguments she could always get him to come crawling to her, and on more than one occasion she actually got him to apologize in front of witnesses.  He showered her with gifts, and not long after his coronation gave her a payment of £30,000 (about £2.5 million today); he also granted her an annual pension of £4700 (£400,000) from the Post Office, and allowed her to take additional money out of his own purse whenever she liked.  After her sudden conversion to Catholicism in December of 1663, she also made extra money by charging French and Spanish diplomats for using her persuasive powers to sway the Anglican King in their favor.

Barbara bore King Charles three more children:  Henry (1663), Charlotte (1664) and George (1665); all of her children were eventually granted titles, even the youngest (also called Barbara), who was born in 1672 and was probably the daughter of John Churchill.  Neither Barbara nor King Charles had ever been faithful to each other, but while the King did not care she was quite jealous because it meant her income.  The concern was not an invalid one; since April of 1668 the King’s favorite had been the younger and far more even-tempered Nell Gwyn.  In June of 1670 he gave Barbara one final set of generous gifts as a kind of severance package:  she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the titles Baroness Nonsuch, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (the latter was a true peerage, made with a condition allowing her to pass the title to her son Charles).  She was still nominally the official mistress until 1673, when the Test Act banned Catholics from holding office; she thus lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber to Louise de Kéroualle, Nell Gwyn’s chief rival.  In 1676 she moved to Paris with her four younger children, but returned to England in 1680 and enjoyed a friendly relationship with the King until his death in February of 1685.  By this time she had developed a terrible gambling habit, and in 1682 had Nonsuch Palace entirely dismantled so she could sell off its expensive materials to pay her debts.  In her later years she became involved with a series of unscrupulous fortune-hunters; after Roger Palmer’s death in 1705 she actually married one of these, though it was later annulled when she discovered he already had a wife.  In 1709 she developed what was then called dropsy, a condition which caused her to become so edematous that she died of congestive heart failure on October 9th.  It is clear that Barbara, like so many other courtesans, had been totally unable to recognize that her sex appeal had deserted her, and adjust her expectations, lifestyle and expenditures so as to live out her declining years in comfort and some small measure of dignity.  But then, dignity was never something that Barbara was very good at, even when she still had her youth and looks.

*Because Catholic realms (including France and Ireland) had already converted to the Gregorian calendar at this time but the United Kingdom had not, it is not unusual to see her birthday expressed in the new style as November 27th, and some sources record the year as 1641.
**There is considerable disagreement about which Civil War battle claimed Villiers’ life; Wikipedia says Newbury (September 20th, 1643); other sources say Bristol (July 26th, 1643); and Bishop Burnet’s contemporary history says Edgehill (October 23rd, 1642).

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If that preacher man wants me to repent, he better pay me more money.  –  Minnie Rae Simpson

One of the recurring themes of these harlotographies is the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of almost any given detail about the life of any given whore who lived prior to the 20th-century advent of obsessive recordkeeping.  The farther back in history one delves, the harder it is to be sure of dates and other details, and the more biography merges into fiction, legend or even myth.  By the late 19th century we can be reasonably certain of things like birthdates and residences for whores of middle or upper-class birth, but solid facts about those of the working class – especially in the frontier regions of the young United States – can be just as obscure as those of a person born centuries earlier.  Add claims made by the lady herself to entice customers or inflate her reputation, and those made by reporters, biographers and other tall-tale-tellers during her life and after her death, and we have the recipe for a legend as misty as that of King Arthur even if its subject lived well into recent times.

One excellent example of this is the story of Minnie Rae (sometimes called Mary) Simpson, a young San Francisco streetwalker of the 1870s.  According to the popular narrative of her life, she was born in or near Philadelphia in 1860 to a woman known only as Lacey; her father is said to have been a shoe worker who participated in the Great New England Shoemakers’ Strike which began on February 22nd, 1860.  He is supposed to have died en route to California in 1862, either just before or just after the birth of Minnie’s younger brother, Adam.  Lacey claimed a land grant near San Francisco under the Homestead Act and managed to build up a small farm, relying on young Minnie for assistance with her baby brother; however, she died of scarlet fever in 1869, leaving the girl an orphan (it is unknown whether Adam survived).  Without family or even friends in the area, Minnie was forced to provide for herself and did so, as so many others have throughout history, by prostitution; she lived for a time with a Mr. Simpson (from whom she took her surname) and is supposed to have travelled with him the following year to England and Scotland.  There she is said to have met the young J.M. Barrie, who in later years wrote Peter Pan and patterned the character of Wendy after her.

Minnie Rae Simpson in 1871While on this tour she became pregnant, and the only known photograph of her was taken in 1871.  She gave birth to a son (whom she named Bartholomew) the following year; by this point she was no longer with Simpson and lived mostly on the street.  She was a close friend to the notable San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton, who proclaimed her “The Little Countess”, and the association almost certainly contributed heavily to her fame; during the same time period she gave a series of interviews to a journalist, who turned them into a book entitled My Life as a Child Prostitute: The Autobiography of Minnie Rae.  Given the subject matter, it seems likely that the reason the journalist remained anonymous was to avoid controversy or even accusations of being one of Minnie’s clients.  It was a wise precaution; though the Cult of the Child was not yet in full swing in the US, Minnie’s pragmatic view of prostitution (“I get paid to be a whore.  If I married some farmer, I’d have to do it for free”) and her statements that prostitutes do the work because it’s lucrative and gives them a high degree of freedom, were almost as incendiary then as they would be now.  Only a few copies were ever printed, and these were gathered together by a preacher and burned in 1880, soon after the Emperor Norton’s death.  One copy survived, and was passed down to her descendants by Bartholomew until it, too was lost sometime in the late 20th century; only a few photocopied pages remain.  Minnie herself left San Francisco in 1873 and vanished from history; how Bartholomew knew anything about his mother or gained his copy of her book is entirely unclear, considering he was an infant at the time.  The only other concrete evidence of her existence is Minna Street in San Francisco, named for her by a politician who was one of her clients.

Now, the skeptical reader will no doubt already see a few problems with this narrative; though there are exceptions to every rule, in the late 19th century the average age of menarche in the US was about 14, and conditions such as Minnie lived in would tend to raise the age due to poor nutrition; in other words, getting pregnant at the age of 11 was even less likely in 1871 than it is now, and delivering a healthy baby from such a pregnancy would be unlikelier still.  Furthermore, though she was undoubtedly precocious, her making the kind of splash that she did in the short time she managed it seems to me less like something a 10 or 11-year-old could accomplish, and more like the actions of a bright 14 or 15-year-old with a baby face who realized that lurid narratives sell.  The intelligent, outgoing Minnie was well-known among clients and acquaintances as a tale-teller, and she even boasted that Mark Twain had been inspired by some of her yarns; it seems very likely that she ratcheted her age down a few years for the sake of marketing, but whether she told her clients that age or whether it was something she came up with for a credulous journalist is unknown.  Given that her business is known to have gone up after she got pregnant (an obvious sign of more advanced physical maturity), and that underage whores still to this day exaggerate their back-stories for gullible members of the press, the latter seems far more likely.  One thing I find fascinating is that those who retell her story never find it odd that her birth year is known with such certainty despite the fact that her birthplace, her original surname and any event of her life after 1873 are not; I reckon the wanking fantasy of the pregnant 10-year-old streetwalker is just too juicy to pass up.

sacred chaoLarger-than-life characters tend to live on in the imaginations of others long after their deaths, and Minnie Rae is no exception.  Beside Peter Pan’s Wendy, she was also named a Discordian saint in 2006 (unsurprising, given that the Emperor Norton was a major influence on the philosophy); the Discordians seem to have started a rumor that the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train system was named after her son Bartholomew.  Minnie believed in reincarnation, and claimed to have been a Babylonian harlot who was mentioned in the Bible; whether she meant Revelation’s “Whore of Babylon” is unknown.  But it seems likely that her belief inspired two modern-day strippers to claim to be Minnie reincarnated; one of them, who went by Fannie Mae, worked in Los Angeles during the ‘90’s. The other, Kitty, worked on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during the ‘50s and ‘60s, knew Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst (one of the founders of Discordianism), and because of that connection (and a tentative one to Jack Ruby) was suspected by Jim Garrison as being connected to the Kennedy assassination conspiracy.  Confused yet?  Read some of the links, and it’ll probably get worse.  But it all goes to show that when dealing with the demimonde, appearances are often more important than reality, and adhering to conventional beliefs about women and girls is foolish at best.

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