Margaret and her Marquis

Margaret Strong de Cuevas de Larrain, the twice-titled American heiress, was the only child of Bessie Rockefeller, the eldest of John D. Rockefeller’s five children.

Bessie Rockefeller found here

“As a young woman Margaret went to Paris to live. Following the Russian Revolution there was an influx of Russian émigrés into Paris, and Margaret developed a fascination for them that remained with her all her life. She was most excited to meet the tall and elegant Prince Felix Yusupov, the assassin of Rasputin, who had taken to wearing pink rouge and green eye shadow, and supported himself by heading up a house of couture.

Felix Yusupov found here

At that time Prince Yusupov had working for him a penniless young Chilean named George de Cuevas. The plain, timid heiress was enchanted, and promptly fell in love, thereby establishing what would be a lifelong predilection for flamboyant, effete men. The improbable pair were married in 1928.

Marquis de Cuevas found here

When World War II broke out, they moved to the United States. In New York, Margaret always kept a rented limousine, and sometimes two, all day every day in front of her house in case she wanted to go out. 

De Cuevas is well remembered for an episode of histrionics which took place in 1958. Fifty-two year old Serge Lifar became angry when the marquis’s company changed the choreography of his ballet Black and White. After a heated exchange of words the marquis, who was seventy-two at the time, slapped Lifar in the face with a handkerchief in public and then refused to apologize. Lifar then challenged de Cuevas to a duel and épées were chosen as the weapons. The location of the duel was to be kept secret because dueling was outlawed in France, but more than fifty tipped-off reporters and photographers showed up at the scene. For the first four minutes of the duel Serge Lifar leapt about while the marquis remained stationary. In the third round the marquis forced Lifar back by simply advancing with his sword held straight in front of him, and pinked his opponent. It was not clear, according to newspaper accounts of the duel, whether skill or accident brought the maraquis’s blade into contact with Lifar’s arm. “Blood has flowed! Honor is saved!” cried Lifar. Both men burst into tears and rushed to embrace each other. Reporting the event on its front page, the New York Times said that the affair “might well have been the most delicate encounter in the history of French dueling.”

Serge Lifar found here

As a couple, the Marqius and Marquesa de Cuevas became increasingly eccentric. George often received visitors lying in bed wearing a black velvet robe with a sable collar and surrounded by nine or ten Pekingese dogs, while Margaret grew more and more reclusive and slovenly in her dress. She only wore black and kept an in-residence dressmaker to make the same dress for her over and over again. When she traveled to Europe, she would book passage on as many as six ships and then be unable to make up her mind as to which day she wanted to sail. Once, unable to secure a last-minute booking on a Paris-Biarritz train, she piled her daughter, maid, ten Pekingese dogs, and her luggage into a Paris taxicab and had the driver drive her the five hundred miles to Biarritz. The trip took three days.

Pekingese found here

The apex of the social career of George de Cuevas was reached in 1953 with a masked ball he gave in Biarritz; it vied with the Venetian masked ball given by Carlos de Beistegui in 1951 as the most elaborate fête of the decade. The costumes were fantastic, and people spent most of the evening just staring at each other. Elsa Maxwell came dressed as a man. The Duchess of Argyll, on the arm of the duke, who would later divorce her in messiest divorce in the history of British society, came dressed as an angel. Ann Woodward, of the New York Woodwards, slapped a woman she thought was dancing too often with her husband, William, whom she was to shoot and kill two years later.

Duchess of Argyll found here

Inevitably, the marriage of George and Margaret de Cuevas began to founder. They maintained close communication, however, and Margaret would often call George in Paris or Cannes from New York or Palm Beach to deal with a domestic problem. Once when the marquesa’s chef in Palm Beach became enraged at her unreasonable demands and threw her breakfast tray at her, she called her husband in Paris and asked him to call the chef and beseech him not only not to quit but also to bring her another breakfast, because she was hungry.

Chef found here

Then Raymundo de Larrain entered the picture. He was talented, brilliant, and wildly extravagant, and began making a name for himself designing costumes and sets for George de Cuevas’s ballet company. A protégé of the marquis’s to start with, he soon became known as his nephew. In 1960 the Marquis de Cuevas offered Raymundo de Larrain, with whom he was now on the closest terms, the chance to create a whole new production of The Sleeping Beauty, to be performed at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées. George de Cuevas attended every performance up until two weeks before his death. He died at his favorite home, Les Délices, in Cannes, in 1961. Margaret, who was in New York, did not visit her husband of thirty-three years in the months of his decline.

Sleeping Beauty found here

Meanwhile, Margaret’s physical appearance had been deteriorating. She covered her face with a white paste and she blackened her eyes in an eccentric way that made people think she had put her thumb and fingers in a full ashtray and rubbed them around her eyes. She wrapped handkerchiefs around her wrists to hide her diamonds, and her black dresses were frequently stained and held together with safety pins. For shoes she wore either sneakers or a pair of pink polyester bedroom slippers, very often on the wrong feet.

image found here

Her behavior also was increasingly eccentric. In her bedroom she had ten radios, each radio was set to a different music station—country-and-western, rock ’n’ roll, classical—and when she wanted to hear music she would ring the butler and point to the radio she wished him to turn on.

Margaret and Raymundo became the Harold and Maude of the Upper East Side and Palm Beach. In 1977, the Marquesa Margaret de Cuevas, then eighty years old, married forty two year old Raymundo de Larrain, in a hastily arranged surprise ceremony. For the wedding, Raymundo told friends, he gave his bride a wheelchair and new teeth.”

Harold and Maude finger puppets found here

sealing wax and other things

Writer Leo Tolstoy came from a rather eccentric family, with Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy (1782 – 1846) being perhaps the most unruly of all his relatives.

His comrades at that time described Fyodor Tolstoy as an excellent shooter and a brave fighter. His wild character, along with his taste for women and card games, gave him frequent cause for arguments with his comrades and higher officers that often ended in a violation of discipline.

image found here

In 1803 Fyodor went on a circumnavigation of the world as a member of the sloop Nadezhda. His behavior on board, where he was unencumbered by official duties, was very unpredictable. He often provoked quarrels with the crew, including the captain himself and played jokes on those that he did not like: for example, once he intoxicated a priest and when the latter lay dead drunk on the floor, Tolstoy stuck his beard to the deck boards with sealing wax. When the priest came to, he was obliged to cut off his beard to free himself.

poppy seed beard found here

On another occasion, when the Captain was out, Tolstoy sneaked into his cabin with an orangutan that he had bought while the ship was moored on an island in the Pacific Ocean. He took out the logbook and showed the ape how to cover the paper with ink. Then he left the orangutan alone in the cabin, drawing on the notebook. When the Captain returned, all his records had been destroyed.

image found here

Similar behavior more than once caused Tolstoy to be put under arrest. Finally, the Captain lost patience and abandoned his passenger during a stop at Kamchatka. From Kamchatka Tolstoy managed to get to Sitka island, where he spent several months among Alaskan natives.

Russian Church in Sitka found here

During his sojourn on Sitka, he acquired multiple tattoos, which he later displayed with pride to curious acquaintances. The afore-mentioned orangutan, which was left on land with Tolstoy and whose later fate is unknown, gave rise to a great deal of gossip in aristocratic circles. According to one of the rumors, during his stay in Kamchatka, Tolstoy lived together with the ape; according to others, he ate it.

Alaskan tattoos found here

Tolstoy returned to European Russia via the Far East in August 1805. He developed a love of gambling and became famous for it during his years in Moscow. He did not hide the fact that he sometimes cheated. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries, he did not like to rely on luck during a game, preferring, by way of cardsharping, to “play for certain”, as he liked to say.

image by Georges de La Tour

Even more famous was Tolstoy’s participation in a number of duels, the reasons for which were often found in card games. It is unknown how many duels he fought, but some accounts state that he killed eleven men altogether. In his early years in Moscow, Tolstoy’s love affairs provided copious material for rumor and gossip in society. He married the gypsy dancer Avdotya Tugayeva on January 10, 1821, but only after having lived with her for several years.

19th century gypsy found here

Tolstoy suffered greatly from the death of his children, especially when his eldest daughter, Sarra, died at the age of seventeen. At the end of his life he  grew devout and considered the death of his eleven children to be God’s punishment for his killing of eleven men in duels.

He carefully noted the names of those he had killed in his diary. He had twelve children, who all died in youth, except for two daughters. As each child died, he would cross out the name of one person he had killed and wrote the word “quit” (repaid). When he lost his eleventh child, he crossed out the last of the names and said, “Well, thank God, at least my curly-haired gipsy girl will live.”

Harvey Keitel in Ridley Scott’s The Duellists

Tolstoy died in 1846, after a short illness, in the presence of his wife and only surviving daughter Praskovya. Before his death he summoned a priest and confessed to him for several hours. He was buried in the Vagankavo Cemetery. His widow Avdotya outlived him by fifteen years but died a violent death: she was stabbed by her own cook in 1861.

Published in: on April 14, 2011 at 8:41 am  Comments (39)  
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mutton chops for me

When I was growing up in New Zealand we ate a lot of lamb roasts and mutton was considered suitable only for stews. You may remember Colonel D’Alton Mann thought they were a delicacy best paired with a bottle of champagne. Here’s another newspaperman who thought they made a worthy meal.

JGB and the first motor car in Granada

James Gordon Bennett and his son published the New York Herald. Gordon Bennett Jr., while devoted to the paper was also an avid sportsman and playboy, who, like Colonel Mann, liked to dine at Delmonico’s. One night while drinking there, a fire alarm went off nearby. Totally inebriated, he dashed outside in his evening clothes and made such a nuisance of himself trying to direct the firefighting operations that one of the firemen turned the hose upon him and sent him sprawling down the block. The next day when he sobered up he ordered rubber overcoats for all firefighters as he’d “never been so wet in all his life”.

image

He considered his income of a million dollars a year to be almost inexhaustible and once threw a large roll of bills into the fire because it interfered with the use of his pocket and spoiled the line of his pants. Occasionally he moved through restaurants pulling the cloths off tables and crunching crockery beneath his feet, telling the maitre’d to send the bill to his office.

Gordon Bennett was a dog fancier who sometimes judged the men in his office by how his dogs responded to them. Staff who were out of favour were known to secret portions of meat about their person to gain acceptance from the various Cocker Spaniels, Pomeranians and Pekinese who accompanied their master to work each day.

Pomeranian

A keen sailor, he also practiced the gentlemanly sports of auto racing, pugilism and ballooning. He was a master of the lost art of coaching and was often seen riding his coach and four naked at midnight, destroying the formal gardens of his neighbours in the process and paying for repairs later.

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One of the many incidents for which he was well known was the fighting of the last duel in New York. The ludicrous affair began when he arrived at the home of his fiancée, Caroline, in a partying mood. After consuming prodigious amounts of wine he proceeded to relieve himself in the astonished lady’s fireplace. He was flung out in the street and the next day Caroline’s brother waylaid him outside the Union Club and attacked him with a horsewhip. Bennett challenged him to a formal duel two days later with a retinue of surgeons at Slaughter Gap. No one was hurt as both men, who were excellent shots, settled the matter by firing in the air.

image

Bennett was always the master of the grand gesture. On a bet, he once coaxed a cavalry officer to ride his horse into the library of Newport’s most distinguished men’s club. When the board of directors chastised him he bought a huge plot of land nearby and built the Newport Casino, a far more extravagantly elegant club. When his favourite mutton chop-serving restaurant was too full to accept his booking he promptly bought it on the spot for $40,000. As the new owner, he had a table cleared and sat down to lunch. When he left he tipped the waiter most generously by handing him the deed to the restaurant with the proviso that there must always be a table reserved for him and that mutton chops would always be on the menu.

not these mutton chops

Published in: on October 11, 2010 at 8:33 am  Comments (35)  
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