the original female dandy

Luisa, Marquise Casati Stampa di Soncino (1881 – 1957) was an eccentric Italian heiress, muse, and patroness of the arts in early 20th century Europe.

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“A celebrity and femme fatale, the marchesa’s famous eccentricities dominated and delighted European society for nearly three decades. She astonished society by parading with a pair of leashed cheetahs and wearing live snakes as jewellery. During a stay at the Paris Ritz, one of her boa constrictors escaped, causing much consternation among other guests and staff.

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In 1910 Casati took up residence at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on Grand Canal in Venice (now the home of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection). Her soirées there would become legendary. Casati collected a menagerie of exotic animals, and patronized fashion designers such as Fortuny and Poiret. Nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her. Bizarre wax mannequins sat as guests at her dining table, some of them even rumoured to contain the ashes of past lovers.

wax mannequin found here

She was tall and thin, with a pale, almost cadaverous face. Her huge green eyes were flanked by false eyelashes, slathered with black kohl, and she regularly used belladonna eyedrops to dilate her pupils. It is said that she once wore a freshly-killed chicken as a stole, and that on a separate occasion, she had her driver kill a chicken and pour the blood down her long white arms so that it dried in a pattern which pleased her.

blood spatter cushion found here

In 1896 she was one of the wealthiest women in Europe but by 1930, Casati had amassed a personal debt of $25 million. She fled to London, where she lived in comparative poverty and was rumoured to be seen rummaging in bins searching for feathers to decorate her hair. She died at her last residence, 32 Beaufort Gardens in Knightsbridge, on 1 June 1957, aged 76.

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Casati was buried wearing not only her black and leopardskin finery but a pair of false eyelashes as well. She also shared her coffin with a stuffed pekinese dog.

Taxidermied Pekingese found here

just a tiny slither please

Ever since I read Stolen World by Jennie Erin Smith I’ve become fascinated by the people who are fascinated with snakes. There is even a religion devoted to the slithery creatures.

Snake (or serpent) handling in Alabama is practiced primarily by the members of the Church of God with Signs Following. The eccentricities and inherent danger of the church’s practices have made it an attractive subject for social scientists.

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In addition to handling serpents, members of the sect also engage in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and “laying on of hands” (a belief that illnesses and wounds can be healed with the mind) and drink the deadly poison strychnine. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of serpent handlers who live in Alabama—or nationwide for that matter—because the sect is not public or open in its practices.


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One of the most recognized names in Alabama’s Church of God with Signs Following is Glenn Summerford of Scottsboro. Summerford had risen to a high level of church hierarchy as a preacher when his wife, Darlene, accused him of attempted murder in 1991. She was hospitalized with a series of snake bites and accused Summerford of forcing her hand into a box full of snakes. He was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in jail.

The highlight of the trial was when wife Darlene was on the stand. When asked if the congregation kept snakes, she replied “Yes, sir.” Then asked if they fed the snakes Darlene replied “Yes, sir.” Then when asked if they bred the snakes Darlene—without a pause—replied, “Oh no, sir…they do that all by themselves.” The court broke into hysterics. Darlene was a hit.

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By the way, if you’re planning a visit to Israel, please stop off at Barak’s Snake Spa. Apparently snake massage has therapeutic value…

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Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 9:26 am  Comments (38)  
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catching herpes at the zoo

Henry Molt started out his working life as a Kraft salesman.

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When Molt’s workdays of counting mayonnaise jars and issuing credits for moldy cheese ended, he would retreat to his parents’ house and write letters to foreign animal dealers. Molt wanted only the rare animals, reptiles even the zoos couldn’t get, so he sought out dealers in countries that restricted, or banned, the export of wildlife to the United States.

Albino Echidna found here

His heroes were men like Ditmars and Frank “Bring ’em back Alive” Buck. “Frank Buck was going to get rhinos or elephants ninety fucking years ago, when there was no treatment for malaria, just some gin and tonics when you got a chance. Overcoming these odds like they were nothing.”

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Molt quit Kraft Foods and with his mother-in-law’s money, he bought a pet store in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia. He quickly gained repute as a boutique dealer, someone with excellent taste in reptiles. In the mid 1960s, little thought was given to regulating the animal trade; a middle-class family could still return from Florida in those years with a baby alligator.

Baby Alligator found here

Molt saw little cause for restraint. A zookeeper in Australia scheduled big shipments of snakes and lizards for around Christmas, when postal and cargo workers were overwhelmed. If a shipment contained venomous snakes, the package was mislabeled on the outside. Inside was a warning sticker, “in case the guy got bit,” Molt said. “If they opened it that much we were fucked anyway.”

read about two stupid Australians and a snake here

With the exception of a woman wrestler who slept with snakes in her bed, his big customers were all zoos. Another Australian, Henry Szoke, began shipping endangered species to Molt. When shipments were large, Szoke sent them in red shipping crates labeled “art.” Molt paid him cash, which he mailed in Hallmark cards.

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The apartment upstairs from Molt’s pet shop was occupied by an ex-convict named BobUdell, a bearish young man in and out of mental institutions and jail, who would set police cars on fire, or shoplift large quantities of meat. Udell decorated his apartment with bead curtains and a naked mannequin lying in a coffin. “Udell had a talent with the animals. He could walk by a cage and see a snake not lying right, and sure enough the animal was dehydrated,” Molt said. “Plus you couldn’t make him go away—he would burn your house to the ground.”

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A peculiar man phoned the pet shop one day. He sounded like a hillbilly, and yet he was on his way to Madagascar, he told Molt, “to get some lemurs.” He was thinking of picking up some snakes while he was there. “The problem is,” the man said, “I can’t tell one from the other.”

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The hillbilly turned out to be a towering, freckled, elfin eared man named Leon Leopard. He lived in Waco, Texas, on a street called Parrot Street. For a yokelish Texan who owned gas stations and spoke no French, Madagascar was not an easy trip but he returned from there with the rarest of the rare—lemurs, boas, plow-share tortoises….

For more on the fascinating characters who smuggled rare animals around the world (often because legitimate enterprises like museums and zoos were willing to turn a blind eye to how the animals were obtained), read Stolen World by Jennie Erin Smith

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 10:48 am  Comments (44)  
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