Friday, April 22, 2011

Nellie Bly (1864 - 1922)

I was born on May 5, 1864 as Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran's Mills, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. As a child, I wore a lot of pink and was thus nicknamed "Pink" by my family and friends. My father, Michael, a wealthy former associate justice, died when I was six years old. My mother remarried three years later, but it was a bad marriage and she sued for divorce when I was only fourteen years of age. I testified in court against my drunken, violent stepfather. I attended boarding school for one term, but was forced to leave due to lack of funds to pay the school fees.

In 1880, we moved to Pittsburgh. A chauvinistic column in the Pittsburgh Dispatche angered me. I wrote a blistering rebuttal to the editor and signed it with "Lonely Orphan Girl." The editor was so impressed with my intensity and fortitude he hired me to work for the paper. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and I chose "Nellie Bly" which I borrowed from the popular song "Nelly Bly" by Stephen Foster.

My early work centered on the plight of working women, and I wrote a numerous investigative articles on the hardships faced by female factory workers. Editorial pressure, however, forced me to cover the more traditional topics of fashion, society, and gardening, for female reporters back then. Dissatisfied, at the age of twenty-one, I traveled to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. There, I reported on the lives and customs of Mexican people. In one report, I protested the imprisonment of a local journalist who had criticized the Mexican government. Mexican authorities threatened to arrest me, and this prompted my hasty departure.

Back in Pittsburgh, I was once again made to report on theater and arts. Displeased, I quit the Pittsburgh Dispatch and moved to New York City. Penniless after four months, I talked my way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World, and was offered a very interesting undercover assignment. I agreed to feign insanity in order to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

After practicing deranged expressions and behaviour, I checked myself into a working-class boardinghouse. Immediately I caused trouble. I refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that I feared them because they looked mad. It did not take long for them to deem me as crazy. The next morning they summoned the police who brought me before a judge. I pretended to have amnesia and the judge concluded I had been drugged.

Several doctors were brought in to examine me. They all declared me insane, a hopeless case. The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced me undoubtedly insane. My case attracted a great deal of media attention.

Committed to the asylum, I experienced its conditions firsthand. The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was little more than dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water. Dangerous patients were tied together with ropes. Patients were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. Waste was all around the eating places. Rats crawled all around the hospital. The bathwater was frigid, and buckets of it were poured over our heads. The nurses were obnoxious and abusive, telling the patients to shut up, and beating us if we did not. Speaking with my fellow patients, I was convinced that some were as sane as I was.

After ten days, at the behest of my newspaper, I was released from the asylum. My report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought me lasting fame. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting me to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes I had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. They also made sure that all of the examinations were more thorough so that only people who were actually insane went to the asylum.

In 1888, I suggested to my editor that I take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, and with two days' notice, I boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began my 24,899-mile journey.

I brought with me the dress I was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying my toiletry essentials. I carried most of my money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around my neck.

The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat my time. She would travel the opposite way around the world. To sustain interest in the story, my newspaper organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate my arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting of a free trip to Europe and spending money.

During my travels around the world, I communicated by way of short progress reports by telegraph or by regular post. I travelled using steamships and railroad, visited a leper colony, and even bought a monkey.

1888 Letter by Nellie Bly

Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after my departure, I was back in New York, having circumnavigated the globe. My nemesis, Bisland, was still going around the world. My journey, at the time, was a world record.

In 1895 I married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman, 40 years my senior. I retired from journalism, and became the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. In 1904, my husband died.

For a time I was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States, but embezzlement by employees forced me into bankruptcy. I was forced to return to reporting where I covered woman’s suffrage and stories of World War I.

In 1916 I was given a baby boy whose mother requested I see that he become adopted. The child was illegitimate and difficult to place since he was half-Japanese. The boy spent the next six years in an orphanage. When I became ill towards the end of my life, I requested that my niece, Beatrice Brown, look after the boy and several other babies in whom she had become interested.

I died of bronchopneumonia at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City in 1922, at age 57, and was interred in a modest grave at Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Elizabeth Martha Brown (1811 - 1856)

My name is Elizabeth Martha Brown (nee Clark). We all carry regret, but my biggest regret is having married John Brown, my second husband, a man several years my junior. I believe he married me first for my money and second for my good looks. Our marriage was unsettled and stormy from the start. Not long after we were married, my darling husband John took up an affair with Mary Davis, a younger woman trapped in a miserable marriage of her own.

One night, after preparing dinner, I sat in a chair and waited for John. I waited and waited and waited. Finally he came home at 2 a.m. very drunk. The minute he entered through the door, I accused him of being with Mary Davis. This set off his anger. He kicked the chair out from beneath me. Our battle raged for an hour at which time John struck me hard on the side of my head. This disoriented me and I sat down to recover.

He stared down at the dinner I had prepared for him. “Eat it yourself and be damned,” he said as he reached for a whip from the mantelpiece. He struck me with it several times. I screamed and threatened to cry out murder. He did not care and threatened to knock my brains through the window and hoped to find me dead. John then kicked me on my left side. The pain was tremendous. When he stooped down to remove his boots, my blind rage got the better of me. I seized a nearby hatchet which I had earlier used to break coal for the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head. I cannot say how times I struck him. He fell at the first blow and never spoke or moved afterwards.

I was convicted of his death and was sent to Dorchester Prison in England. I was to be executed thirteen days later.

It rained on the day of my execution. As I left my cell, I shook hands with the chief warder and other officers. On my way to the scaffold, I remained calm and dignified even while those who attended me were overcome and weeping. I conversed briefly with the chaplain and prayed fervently with my hands clasped firmly together, my eyes turned toward Heaven.

When I arrived at the scaffold, I walked courageously up the flight of eleven steps. Here I was restrained and my female attendants left me with the executioner. Among the crowd of nearly four thousand people, a sixteen year old man named Thomas Hardy watched. Little did I know that he was to immortalize my execution in the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles one day. He stood close to the gallows and seemed ashamed to be there.

i wore a black, silk dress. The executioner placed a cloth over my head, but it began to rain and my face became visible beneath it. I managed to hold back my tears. The executioner, after pinioning me, left the platform to spring the track, but before he could do so, he had to return because he had forgotten to tie down my dress to prevent any scandalous fluttering. I remained stoic until the moment “justice” was done.

Dear Woman

Profound words by men acknowledging the strife of women in history.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 - 1973)

Elsa Schiaparelli
(1890 - 1973)

"I gave to pink, the nerve of the red, a neon pink, an unreal pink"

Fashion Designer

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome on the 10th of September 1890, the daughter of a Neopolitan aristocrat and a renowned scholar and curator of medieval manuscripts.  As a child, Elsa studied the heavens with her astronomer uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered the canali of Mars.

As a young woman, she entered the University of Rome where she studied philosphy.  It was during this time that she published a book of sensual poems.  The poems were so risque, and shocked her parents so much, they promptly shipped her off to a convent.

Angered and rebellious at her strict surroundings, Elsa unsuccessfully went on hunger strike.   Because of the wealth and lofty social status of her parents, Elsa was able to lead a life of relative comfort with many luxuries. But she wanted to rebel from this too because she believed it was wealth and luxury that smothered her creativity.  She endured the convent until the age of 22 when she eagerly accepted a job as a nanny for a family in London.

While on her way to London, Elsa was invited to a ball in Paris.  Having just come from the austerity of a convent, she had no ball gown.  Worse yet, she had no money to purchase one either.  So, ever resourceful, she purchased some dark blue fabric and wrapped it around her stylishly and pinned it in place.

While nannying in London, whenever she found a spare moment, she would attend museums and attend lectures about art and design.  It was at one of these lectures that she fell in love and married Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, a Franco-Swiss theosophist.

In 1921 the couple  moved to New York where Elsa immediately took to the modern city with all its cultures and businesses.  While she was busy fitting in and growing ever more comfortable each day, her husband did not.  He became unhappy and distanced himself from the city and Elsa.  By the time their daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor (nicknamed Gogo) was born, Count William had abandoned them.

Elsa found work with the owner of a French fashion boutique.  While there met artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray who lured her to Paris. 

While in Paris, Elsa began to make her own clothes.  She soon opened her own store, but it closed in 1926 despite its popularity. 

In 1927 she launched a new collection of knitwear using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees with surrealist trompe l'oeil images.  Her first designs were featured in Vogue.  But when she created a pattern that gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer's neck, her business boomed.
Following that success, she created the "pour le Sport" collection which included  bathing suits, skiwear and linen dresses.  Elsa created a divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts.  Lili de Alvarez wore them in competition at Wimbledon in 1931 and shocked the tennis world.

In 1931, Elsa began to design evening gowns.  When France declared war on Germany in 1939, Elsa toned down her designs with darker colours and camouflage print taffetas.

When Paris fell in 1940, Elsa boarded a ship and returned to New York for a lecture tour where she remained until the end of World War II. 

But when she returned to Paris, it was a changed city.  Fashions were much different.  Elsa struggled to build her business in a city devastated by war and struggling to escape austerity.  The house of Schiaparelli struggled to make ends meet until she was finally forced to close at the end of  the year in 1954 when Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, returned to the business of fashion design.

At the age of 64, Elsa wrote her autobiography and then lived out a comfortable retirement between her apartment in Paris and house in Tunisia. She died on 13 November 1973.

Elsa was recognized as an innovative fashion designer.  From graphic knitwear, to faniciful prints of body parts, food, and other unusual themes, she slowly gained recognition.  She was the first to use brightly colored zippers, appearing first on her sportswear in 1930 and again five years later on her evening dresses. Not only was she the first designer to use brightly colored zippers, but she was also the first to have them dyed to match the material used in her garments. She was the first to create and use fanciful buttons that looked more like broaches. They came in the shapes of peanuts, bees, and even ram’s heads.

Elsa invented culottes, introduced Arab breeches, embroidered shirts, wrapped turbans, pompom-rimmed hats, barbaric belts, the “wedge,” a soled she that would trend through the 20th century and into the next, and mix-and-match sportswear, the concept of which would not be fully recognized for another forty to fifty years.

But what she is most known for, was her use of  "shocking pink".

Chanel referred to her as 'that Italian artist who makes clothes'.

In 1937 Elsa designed a jacket and an evening coat embroidered with a female figure with one hand caressing the waist of the wearer, and long blonde hair cascading down one sleeve.  The coat featured two profiles facing each other, creating the optical illusion of a vase of roses.

Elsa is also famous for the Lobster dress, the Tears dress, the Skeleton dress, the shoe hat.

Lobster Dress

Tear Dress

Skeleton Dress

Shoe Hat

Elsa Schiaparelli Bootees, winter 1939-40.
Pink, green, and white silk satin and leather with mother-of-pearl buttons.