Stormed It

07 14 bastilleToday, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.

What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.

When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…

When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.

Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.

07 14 bastille foundationsThe prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.

07 14 napoleon's plaster elephant

When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.

07 14 ribart elephant

In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.

07 14 moulin rouge elephant

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

Pioneering

07 01 alice guy blacheToday is the birthday of Alice Guy-Blaché, who was born in France in 1873. You may not have heard of Alice, but she was a pioneer of French cinema. The first female director and writer of narrative fiction films.

Alice’s family lived in Chile, where her father owned a publishing company and a chain of book stores. She had four older siblings who were all born in Chile, but they all travelled to France for the birth of their fifth child, Alice Ida Antoinette Guy. She said it was her mother’s last attempt to make sure one of her children was French. After she was born, the rest of the family took off back to Chile, leaving Alice in the care of her grandparents until she was three or four. Then, she too went to live in Chile, where she learned Spanish. At six, she was sent to school in France. Her father’s business collapsed and he died in 1893, leaving Alice to support herself and her mother.

She trained as a stenographer and typist, which was then, still quite a new profession. In 1894, she was hired by Léon Gaumont as a secretary for a company working with still photography. The following year, they went bust and Gaumont bought up the equipment and started a new company along with an astronomer called Joseph Vallot and Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. Gaumont was fascinated by photography and great at building precision instruments. He was very interested in building a device that could both film and project moving images. In March of 1895, he was invited to the Lumière brothers to the screening of their first film: ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory‘. Alice was invited along because she happened to be in the office at the time. Gaumont was disappointed to be beaten, but also began to make his own films. Like the Lumières, his films were everyday scenes: people in the street, trains coming into stations. But Alice saw a different possibility.

Alice’s father had been a book seller, she loved books, she loved stories. She didn’t see why a film shouldn’t tell a story too. Alice asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film. He told her yes, as long as she didn’t let her secretarial work drop. Her first film, ‘La Fée aux Choux’, about a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch, was made in 1896. It is a possible contender with the work of Georges Méliès for the first ever narrative film. From then on Alice was made head of production. She not only wrote and directed her own film but also oversaw those filmed by others. Between 1896 and 1906 she was probably the world’s only female film director. She also made travel films and dance films, like this one, which were popular in music halls. Alice used a device invented by Gaumont called ‘Chronophone’, which recorded sound onto a disc along with the film. She used it to produce what might be described as the first music videos.

In 1907, Alice married Herbert Blaché who despite his name, was English. She said she wasn’t quite sure, at first, if she wanted to marry an Englishman, because “they are not noted for their joie de vivre”. Shortly after that, they moved to New York where Herbert was to look after Gaumont’s operations in the United States. In 1908, she gave birth to their first daughter and gave up work for a time. She soon missed it though and, in 1910, she set up her own film company, ‘Solax’ with her husband as production manager and cinematographer and herself as artistic director. Despite being, at this time, pregnant with her second child, she was producing between one and three films a week. Her films were very popular and people were delighted to learn that the company was run by a woman. In 1912, she was the only woman to earn $25,000 a year and they built a new studio in New Jersey which was the largest in the US. This was way before people were making films in Hollywood. She said that, at that time, Hollywood was a small town where they had signs on the doors that said ‘no dogs and no actors’.

Alice was an innovative film maker. She made film versions of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. People were impressed by her sets, her costumes, her lighting. She used special effects like double exposures, masking and running the film backwards. She always strove to create more spectacular scenes. If a boat needed to be blown up on screen, she didn’t make a little model, she blew up a real boat. But most of all she encouraged her actors to ‘be natural’. Alice directed melodramas comedies, love stories and westerns, but the film I really want to tell you about today was called ‘A Fool and his Money’. It is about a poor man who falls in love with a rich woman but has a rival who is much better off than him, it’s a universal story. But then, he finds a lot of money. He buys himself fancy clothes, spends ostentatiously and throws a huge party where he plans to ask her to marry him. But at the party, his rival cheats him out of all his money in a poker game and he is poor again. What’s particularly interesting about this film is that is features an entirely African American cast. The film was thought lost, but a copy has been recently rediscovered. You can watch a little video about it here.

In 1918, her husband left her and ran away to Hollywood with an actress. Alice directed her last film in 1920 and, in 1922, she was forced to sell her studio and move back to France with her children. After that she struggled to provide for them by writing children’s stories and articles for magazines. She never made another film. Alice Guy Blaché wrote, directed and produced around 700 films in her 26 years in the film industry. Her career was longer than that of any other film pioneer, yet most of her work has been lost and her legacy has, until quite recently, been largely forgotten by the industry. She wrote her biography in the 1940s, but it was not published until after her death and not published in English until 1986. If you want to learn more about Alice, there’s a lovely documentary here. There is film footage of Alice herself and it is partially narrated by her granddaughter.

Welcome

06 17 meester van de sint joriskermis - olifantWhat has a nose four and a half feet long, a mouth three feet wide and weighs just over 200 tonnes? Sadly, it isn’t one of these, but it’s a good picture, so I thought I’d show it to you. No, it’s the Statue of Liberty. She sailed into New York harbour, from France, on this day in 1885. She was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.

Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, really wanted to build a statue of a giant woman that doubled as a lighthouse. It’s an odd sort of ambition, but he was thinking of the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, a hundred foot high figure that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He had originally wanted it to be an Egyptian peasant woman, clad in loose robes and holding a torch aloft. She was to stand at the northern end of the newly built Suez Canal, at Port Said, Sketches and models were made, but it was never built.

06 17 bartholdiThen, Bartholdi and his friends, who had been avid supporters of the Unionists in the American Civil War, thought the statue would be a great thing to celebrate their victory and the abolition of slavery. The sculptor travelled the US in 1871, to try to locate a site for his statue and to find funding. Bedloe’s Island was an excellent choice, because all the ships coming into New York harbour sailed past it. Plus, it belonged to the United States Government. Unfortunately times were hard and there was no government funding forthcoming in either America or France. So, after years of struggle, the project was largely funded by private individuals.

At first, Bartholdi only had sufficient funds to build the arm holding the torch. It was taken to America and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia, to arouse interest and generate funds. People paid to climb up into the torch. The money raised from that was sufficient for the artist to build the head. He was so grateful that he almost gave the statue to Philadelphia instead of New York. The head was exhibited at Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and models of the statue were sold to help raise funds. It was also possible to buy a ticket to visit the workshop at Gaget, Gauthier and Co. where the statue was being constructed.

06 17 liberty 2

Meanwhile, in America, a group of people were trying to raise enough money to build the plinth that the statue would stand on. Things were not going well. Some people thought a statue celebrating America should be built in America, by an American. Others thought that, if the French wanted to give a statue, they should jolly well give a plinth to go with it. Then, in 1882, it was discovered that the city of Boston was making a play for the statue. That was when New Yorkers decided that they really wanted it. The New York Times announced: “that great light-house statue will be smashed into… fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.” Then, Joseph Pulitzer had a brilliant idea. He would publish, in his newspaper, the name of anyone who made a donation to the project, however small. That was how they raised just over $100,000 and also a massive rise in sales of his paper. There were more than 120,000 contributors, with most people giving less than a dollar. Over 200,000 turned out to welcome the statue on June 17th. Its parts were packed into crates to be reassembled on site.

06 17 liberty 1

The framework inside the Statue of Liberty was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). The outer skin is made of copper and is less that two and a half millimetres thick. It was originally a dull brown colour but within five years it had begun to turn green. By 1906 the whole statue was covered with verdigris. Many were concerned that it was evidence of 06 17 statue of libertycorrosion. But when it was investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, they concluded that the patina protected the skin and also that it “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.” Which was probably uncharacteristically sentimental of them.

Despite best efforts, engineers were unable to make the statue work as a lighthouse, much to the consternation of Bartholdi. It was not his only disappointment, if he had got his way, the entire 151 foot high statue would have been covered with gold leaf. Luckily there wasn’t enough money to do that, because I think it would have looked awful. Thomas Edison also had a rather disturbing idea. He wanted to build a giant phonograph and put it inside the statue so that it could talk. Fortunately, that didn’t happen either.

Up, Up And Away

06 04 montgolfiersToday, I am celebrating the first public demonstration of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. There were sixteen Montgolfier siblings. I don’t know much about the others but I can say they were, and still are, a family of paper makers. For today though, I shall focus on Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne.

A year earlier, Joseph had been sitting by his fire musing, for some reason, on the fortress of Gibraltar which was impossible to attack by either land or sea. There was laundry drying over the fire and as he watched it billow upward in the rising hot air, he began to wonder whether an air attack might be possible. Joseph was an inventive sort of a chap and he built himself a very thin wooden frame about 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft which he covered in taffeta. He put crumpled paper underneath and lit it. The box rose into the air and hit the ceiling. He demonstrated it to his brother Étienne who was extremely impressed and they set about building another three times the size. Before they had even finished filling it with hot air, the contraption floated away. It landed in a field over a mile distant. We don’t know exactly what happened but Étienne tells us that it was destroyed due to the ‘indiscretion of  passers by’.

Étienne, who was the more practical of the two, was concerned that someone else might steal their idea and wrote to a friend in Paris asking him to mention it at the Academy of Science. He could see how it could be used to carry messages, goods, even people, relatively cheaply. But he didn’t send any drawings so his friend didn’t know what on earth he was talking about and kept the letter to himself.

Even so, they set about building a much larger model which was spherical in shape and made from sackcloth. They had lined it with paper to help keep the air in and it was made in four pieces which were held together with 1,800 buttons.

On June 4th, a small crowd gathered in their home town of Annonay to witness a large but uninspiring sackcloth bag being strung between two poles. The weather was not good but there was a diocesan assembly in town which meant that there were a lot of important people around. They lit a brazier near the eight foot square opening of the bag. It soon began to fill with air and four men were needed to hold it down with ropes. As soon as they let go the balloon leapt five or six thousand feet into the air and was carried for about a mile and a half. Unfortunately a last minute decision to fasten the brazier beneath the balloon meant that it caught fire when it landed. People working nearby were too frightened of the strange object to put out the fire so it was quickly consumed by the flames. Still, everyone was pretty amazed and the king soon got to hear about it.

On 19th September they were able to demonstrate an even bigger balloon to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette at Versailles. It was made of blue taffeta and decorated in gold with suns and signs of the zodiac. It must have been an incredible sight. Also this balloon was to carry passengers. The king had wanted to launch two criminals but instead the inventors decided on a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. The sheep was chosen because it was the approximate size and weight of a human, the duck because it could fly and wouldn’t come to much harm and the cockerel to see what would happen to a bird that didn’t usually fly much at all. The flight lasted eight minutes, achieved a height of around 1,500 ft, covered about two miles and landed safely.

06 04 manned flightIn October, the first tethered flight was made with a human passenger, and the following month, the first free flight. The balloon travelled around five and a half miles and landed with enough fuel to have flown four or five times the distance. In fact, it landed with so much fuel it almost caught fire. Nevertheless, it was a huge sensation. Engravings were made to commemorate the event. You could buy mantel clocks with balloons painted on the face, crockery decorated with balloons, even balloon-backed chairs. Everyone was very excited, and rightly so.

The following year saw the first ever female aeronaut, so it’s worth celebrating her as well today as we know little else about her, other than the fact that she was the abandoned spouse of a Lyon merchant. She is especially worth celebrating as she was dressed as the goddess Minerva and sang a couple of duets with her co-passenger as they flew. Her name was Élisbeth Thible and her friend was a Monsieur Fleurant. He credited her with the success of the flight as she had been the one who fed the fuel into the firebox all the way.

Sensational Woman

06 03 josephine baker 1926Today, it is the birthday of this lady. In her early teens she was homeless and scratching a living on the streets of St Louis. She became a world famous entertainer, helped the French Resistance during World War II and was offered unofficial leadership of the American Civil Rights movement after Martin Luther King died. Her name is Josephine Baker.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman, her father a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family not long after she was born. From the age of eight, she worked as a domestic for wealthy white families and was very badly treated by them. She dropped out of school at thirteen and found herself living on the street in the slums of St Louis, searching garbage cans for food and making what money she could as a street corner dancer.

At fifteen, Josephine was recruited into the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show and wound up performing in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and social explosion of African American culture during the 1920s. There, she performed a sort of comedy role in the chorus line. The dancer at the end of the line, who gets all the dances a bit wrong until the final number when she proves that she is better than all of them. She was a huge hit and became quite wealthy as a result. Unfortunately, racial segregation meant she couldn’t spend her money freely in the places that other, white, performers might and, in 1925, she left for Paris.

Josephine also arrived in France at an opportune time. Just as the Paris art scene fell in love with all things African. She was appearing in a show called ‘La Revue Nègre’ where she appeared  on stage almost naked and wowed audiences with her erotic dancing. She travelled Europe with the show and then returned to Paris to perform at the Folies Bergère. Although she was born in America, she enjoyed playing up to her audience’s image of her as a wild African woman. She danced wearing only a skirt made from a string of bananas and got herself a pet cheetah. The cheetah wore a diamond collar and together, they stalked the streets of Paris. It may even have performed with her. Perhaps it occasionally escaped from the stage and frightened the orchestra. Josephine was an inspiration to Picasso, to Christian Dior. Ernest Hemmingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. It wasn’t long before she was the most highly paid American entertainer in France.

In 1934, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the title role ‘Zou-Zou’, a laundress turned stage performer. In the mid 1930s, she also became a successful singer. In 1936, she returned to the United States, but her tour did not go well. American audiences were not ready to accept a sophisticated black performer and she returned to Europe heartbroken. She married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, became legally French and gave up her American citizenship.

At the beginning of World War II, Josephine was recruited by French military intelligence. As she travelled reasonably freely and often attended embassy parties, she was able to pick up all sorts of information without raising suspicion. As an entertainer, she travelled all around Europe and North Africa and carried with her important military intelligence. It was written in invisible ink on her music. It was written on notes that she pinned to the inside of her underwear. She did all this despite suffering from a bout of pneumonia and later, a miscarriage which resulted in a hysterectomy. And she was performing all the way. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur for her bravery.

06 03 josephine baker 1950Josephine returned to perform at the Folies Berègre and in 1951, she was invited to tour North America. In many ways, she was a huge success this time. She performed in Harlem in front of 100,000 and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People awarded her the title of ‘Woman of the Year’. But she found racial segregation was still rife. In many places she was refused hotel accommodation because she was black. Josephine began to write articles on the subject of segregation and when she toured the South, she gave a talk at the Fisk University about the equality of races in France. She refused to perform in venues where the audiences were split between black and white and afterwards received threatening phone calls from the Klu Klux Klan. Her tour went well until she was involved in an incident at the Stork Club in Manhattan in which she felt she was being discriminated against. Whether she was or not, there was an enormous fuss involving a court case. She was accused of Communist sympathies, which was pretty serious in 1950s America, and forced to give up her tour and leave.

In 1963, she was back in the US and speaking alongside Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. She was the only female speaker. After King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked her if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But Josephine eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to loose their mother.”

Josephine’s children were not her biological children. She adopted two daughters and ten sons from countries all over the world. She called them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She intended them to be an example of how people from all nations and religions could live harmoniously. They all lived in a castle with her at Château des Milandes in south western France. Looking into this, it probably wasn’t a resounding success. She kept them all too much in the public eye.

In the mid 1960s, she got into debt, lost her château and by the 1970s, began to believe everyone had forgotten her. But her family encouraged her to continue her career and by the mid 1970s she was performing at Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium. On April 8th 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her fifty years of show business in the city. It was so successful that they had to put out extra chairs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was there. So were Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, she was found in her bed in a coma, having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She was surrounded by newspapers with glowing revues of her performance. Josephine Baker is the only American-born woman to have been buried with full French military honours.

06 03 josephine baker 1

Black Widow

04 13 catherine de mediciToday is the birthday of Catherine de’ Medici, who was born in 1519 in Florence. Historically Catherine has had a terrible reputation as a ruthless poisoning witch. For centuries. it was thought that she killed her daughter’s future mother-in-law, Jeanne d’Albret, with poisoned gloves. But it turned out that she died of tuberculosis. But, also connected with her daughter’s wedding was a most dreadful massacre which frankly makes George R R Martin’s ‘Red Wedding’ look like a squabble at a picnic. As it probably wasn’t anything to do with Catherine and was not brilliant, I am side-stepping it today. Catherine was accused of practising magic and of bringing occultists to court. She did bring Nostradamus, but it’s really no worse that Queen Elizabeth I’s relationship with John Dee. She also brought the Ruggeri brothers who were notorious practitioners of black magic. On the other hand she is credited with introducing the French to the fork, ice cream and women’s underwear.

The Medici were a powerful family of bankers who ruled Florence. They had come by their wealth and power by bankrolling the monarchies of Europe. Her great uncle was the Pope, that’s how influential her family was. Two weeks after she was born, her mother died of a fever. A week after that, her father died of siphylis. She was raised by her grandmother and then an aunt. Then she spent time as a beloved and honoured guest of another Pope, Clement VII, who was also a relative.

In 1527, the Medici were overthrown, which left Catherine in a difficult position. She was hidden away in a convent, but for political reasons that I won’t go into, she wound up with a mob outside baying for her blood. They wanted her stripped naked, chained to the city walls and used for target practice. Catherine was then ten years old. When all that blew over, Pope Clement began to look for a husband for her. Catherine was rich but her family were no longer so well connected, so when Clement had the chance to marry her off to the second son of the King of France, he was delighted. So, at fourteen she was married to Henry, (also fourteen) the second son of Francis I.

The consummation of their marriage, on their wedding night, was witnessed by King Francis, which must have been awkward, and they were doubly blessed the following morning with a visit from the Pope Clement. Her marriage would be beset by problems. It didn’t really help that the Pope died, probably of poison, without ever paying her dowry.

The Medici’s weren’t terribly popular in France and were thought of, not without reason, to be a particularly ruthless family. When her father Lorenzo II became Duke of Urbino, someone wrote a book for him, a manual suggesting all the ways he should deal mercilessly with his enemies. The book was called ‘The Prince’ and its author was Niccolò Machiavelli. Italians generally’ were thought of as poisoners and Catherine’s dowry included a unicorn’s horn which was widely regarded as a powerful antidote. It was almost as if they expected trouble. Catherine didn’t really help her case much by bringing her Italian friend and perfumier, Renato Bianco, to court with her. He provided her with perfumed gloves which became quite popular. But he also set up Bianco’s Perfume, Cosmetics and Poison shop near Notre Dame.

Several people close to Catherine died in what were described as ‘mysterious circumstances’, most notably perhaps her husband Henry’s elder brother. He became ill after a tennis match and this left Henry as heir to the French throne. Catherine and Henry had no children for the first ten years of their marriage, which was obviously a problem for the future King of France. Needless to say, the blame fell on Catherine and she tried everything to provide an heir to the throne. She refused to ride a mule, because she believed that contact with an infertile animal might transmit it’s sterility to her. She tried charms and alchemy, she tried drinking the urine of pregnant animals. None of it worked and it didn’t do much for her reputation either. Eventually they found a doctor who realised that Henry’s oddly shaped genitals might be the problem and was able to offer them advice which proved helpful. Catherine eventually gave birth to ten children.

Catherine didn’t hold much power during Henry’s reign as he had a mistress who had a great deal more influence over him than his wife. Henry died after he was stabbed in the eye with a lance during a joust in 1559. Catherine wore black for the rest of her life and adopted the lance as her symbol. Following Henry’s death three of her sons would become Kings of France and then she became very much the power behind the throne. Her Eldest son, who was married to Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1559 but died after seventeen months. Her second son, Charles IX became king aged ten and cried at his coronation. She became regent on his behalf. Charles died at twenty-three leaving no male heir and was succeeded by Henry III, her favourite son, in 1574. She had a great deal of influence over him almost until her death in 1589.