Books I’ve Known and Loved

Demorest-Ad

Yes, the Irish population loved their bicycles and sewing machines, but the world loved Madame Demorest. Maybe it’s true that women were slaves to their horrible husbands  and to a society that looked upon business women with disdain in the 19th century, but Nell Demorest didn’t let that stop her. By odd coincidence she grew up in my son’s friend’s house across the street from us in Schuylerville, New York–a stones throw away from Saratoga.

Statuesque Arbiter of Fashion

Statuesque Arbiter of Fashion

Young Nell liked fashion–is that a crime? She loved watching the Southern beauties and new rich mingle and compete for the most extravagance in dress. Her father, obviously another decent guy, helped her start her own ladies’ hat design business at the age of 18. But just as it is today, New York City was the place to be if you liked fashion so off she went to open a shop in the big city all by herself.

Mr. Demorest was a widower when he fell for Nell. He had a thriving dry goods shop and the two decided to combine their talents. One day Nell watched her maid cutting a pattern for a dress out of thick old paper and came upon the idea of patterns cut of tissue paper for next to nothing and mass produced. Wasn’t everyone getting sewing machines these days? Even the Irish population.

Mr. Demorest loved the idea. “And how about we start a magazine of fashion so as to advertize your new mathematical methods that allow tall, short, fat and skinny women to modify their creations to enhance their body type?,” he said (or something like that).

Blue Lovelies

Blue Lovelies

They became famous for the patterns,  the colored prints in the magazine and the free patterns stapled into each issue. Nell came up with useful gadgets as well like the Imperial Dress Elevator which was a bunch of little strings and weights so when crossing the mucky roads in your long dress you could pull a string and the skirt would rise just enough to avoid a rotting dead animal or a puddle.

They had a big shop on Ladies Row and came back from trips to Europe with simplified versions of the latest styles changed to fit the more modest and sensible tastes of American ladies. And guess what–they hired black and white women. A lot of them. There was no outcry.

Except for the part where Martha Stewart almost ran over her neighbor and drove  her husband away with her insufferable perfection Madame Demorest was like Martha in that her image became synonymous with a bunch of products from face cream to dress elevators and even  tea. When Madame talked, people listened. Yet Nell was a woman of her times. She admired her husband’s business acumen and masculine qualities and saw no problem with him wearing the pants in the family.

She helped build a vast empire, but there is not a single instance recorded of her being a bitch. Being in business didn’t harden her. She held sway over a generation of women and girls with a gentle and admirable grace and self-made sophistication.

Crusades and Crinolines by Ishbell Ross

A Noble Moment in a Man’s Life

The Grand Union Hotel speaking, but silently to a uninterested world.

The Grand Union Hotel speaking, but silently to a uninterested world.

There’s a wickedness to not exploring the past–not the past that’s contrived and shoved down your throat by a committee of people with an agenda. Go to the old buildings and listen to them speak to you. Find that little piece of a battlefield still untrammeled by suburbs. In the distance you hear a lawnmower but closer still you feel the fear and heartbreak of men in sweat-stained uniforms being carried from the field under sunny sky.

Don’t put all your faith in the snarky characterizations, the slip-shod research and self-righteous tendency to tear the noble moments of a man’s life down. We’ve all fallen and would prefer no one finds the self-pitying journal entry from 20 years ago that exposes our temptations, mixed motives and sins.

One man's love affair dismantled.

One man’s love affair dismantled.

Trash the textbooks and throw open the historical libraries to children. Let them feel the leather-bound book — pages dripping with ink and humanity. To see a general’s script is to fall in love and understand this man truly existed and thought his own thoughts–not that of a scared little college adjunct professor. I may think great things about a soldier and you may think the Indian is superior, but I say, go back and be with them. Quiet little houses and dusty old local libraries await with their treasure.

Why is it wicked to be fed your history? Because you put your trust in fallen man. I think what I think. I have an agenda so go see for yourself.

055

056

057

“Saratoga is the wickedest place in the United States.” Nellie Bly

 

Enter if you dare.

Enter if you dare.

Wicked maybe, but beautiful too. Oh, for the days of such wickedness! Before the CIA promoted ugly art causing president Truman once to remark, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”

Gambling was illegal when Mr. Morrissey, a tough prize-fighter from Troy rolled into Saratoga and set up his Gentlemen’s Club (aka casino). The Saratoga mineral springs had attracted rich Southerners before the war who liked to flaunt their wealth and Paris fashions, but after the war a more democratic crowd filled the hotels and rubbed shoulders with the wealthy. That was fine all day, but when evening came . . .

Perfectly respectable wickedness.

Perfectly respectable wickedness.

Morrissey recognized the need for gentlemen to have a luxurious place to have a bit of gambling fun and so the casino began. Nellie Bly, Spencer Trask and others bemoaned the gambling being done at the club and then at the track (Morrissey realized vacationers would get bored of mineral water before noon and needed afternoon diversion so started the races with the backing of richie-riches like Travers, Jerome and Vanderbilt ).

Okay, so drinking, drugging, betting and adultery are wicked pursuits, but the seasons at Saratoga were beautiful–as was the casino.

Exhibit 1 Beauty

Exhibit 1 Beauty

Exhibit 2 Can anything truly wicked happen in a room like this (the High Stakes Room)?

Exhibit 2 Can anything truly wicked happen in a room like this (the High Stakes Room)?

Exhibit 3 Give me gambling like this any day over the riff-raff jingle jangle Atlantic City casinos!

Exhibit 3 Give me gambling like this any day over the riff-raff jingle jangle Atlantic City casinos!

The Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, US Grant and Mark Twain ate club sandwiches (invented here so not all wicked) while they gambled the night away. That must have been fun and here’s the sideboard where the stacks of refreshments where kept ready for hungry wicked people.

Club sandwich, Mr. Twain?

Club sandwich, Mr. Twain?

But what about the wicked women? Nellie Bly found the women trashy, but they don’t look too bad to me–though maybe a little pale as they read magazines, sip tea and play tunes on the piano in the reading room of the casino (some probably fretting a small bit about fortunes being squandered up above.

Fa-la-la to hell we go!

Fa-la-la to hell we go!

The casino today still looking pretty great though no longer all that wicked.

The casino today still looking pretty great though no longer all that wicked.