Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age
I met Betsy Prioleau in the most unusual of ways. Research on a book of my own had led me to the ancestors of Prioleau’s husband—when I reached out, I received not only a reference I would never have found otherwise, I was invited over for a drink. I had no idea I would be meeting an author who has worked for decades in the same time period I was struggling to comprehend, and whose subject matter overlapped with my own.
I went on to gobble up a couple of Prioleau’s earlier books, titillatingly entitled Swoon and Seductress. We maintained a correspondence as her current book took shape. Diamonds and Deadlines is gloriously hard to describe. Ostensibly, it is a biography of the most influential woman you’ve never heard of, Miriam Leslie. However, the application of any particular moniker to Miriam’s remarkable—and sometimes checkered—career is to overlook critical facets of her life. Just how wide-ranging that life was is reflected in this conversation, which touches on income inequality, the dictates of biography and the shortcomings of fact, American Psycho, whether history should serve as cautionary tale, women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial, bigotry and mixed-race heritages, and the importance of a good “toilet.”
J.C. Hallman (Rail): You’ve been working in the nineteenth century for your entire career—how did you first come across Miriam? Do you recall the moment, the detail or anecdote, that triggered the thought that a book needed to be written about her?
Prioleau: Miriam makes a cameo appearance in Seductress as a woman who finessed her professional, personal, and erotic life. When the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial approached, I thought of her again. I remembered her famous legacy and the dramatic trial to undo her will. Frank Leslie’s heirs charged that the bequest was invalid because Miriam’s birth mother was a Black enslaved woman. Although the will was sustained, the judge refused to discount the possibility.
That was the starting gun and led to the South Carolina archives where records supported her mixed-race parentage. If Miriam lied about that, what else did she hide? So I was off, unraveling an incredible story hidden in a skein of lies. Who could resist a biography like that?
Rail: The book begins with an extended sequence of “Mrs. Frank Leslie” attending to her “toilet,” as it was called in the nineteenth century. Why did this feel like the natural starting point for you?
Prioleau: The “toilet” seemed an obvious way to raise the curtain on Mrs. Leslie. She was a creature of artifice and camouflage who confronted life with an elaborate persona. The “face” she applies, the false hair, steel corsetry, petticoats, embellished gown, and jewels epitomize the extreme façade she deploys throughout the book as a secret weapon to maneuver to power. The Gilded Age was a veneer society, a culture of surfaces replete with poseurs. Mrs. Leslie was a past-mistress of disguise, the “toilet,” her war room.
Rail: Can you talk about the use of the name Frank Leslie?
Prioleau: The Frank Leslie name was of apiece with Miriam’s story, a fake moniker first used by her second husband in 1848 when he came to America to reinvent himself as an illustrator and newspaper publisher. Born Henry Carter to a British glove manufacturer, he also wanted to put his past behind him (including a wife and three children). As his empire expanded “Frank Leslie” became a valuable brand, which he willed to his wife Miriam—an unprecedented step. After a bitter court challenge by Leslie’s children, Miriam won the right to his name and legally became “Frank Leslie.” It was fortuitous; the publishing company she inherited was on the brink of bankruptcy and her masculine alias invested her with the necessary authority to run the business and bail it out.
Rail: At times the book feels almost like a blend of Henry James and American Psycho. That’s not a question, but please pretend that it is.
Prioleau: Intriguing observation! Patrick Bateman in front of his makeup mirror eerily resembles Miriam putting on her “face” at her toilet table. We see two capitalistic power brokers concealed behind cosmetic masks—both materialistic, glitzy, egocentric, and indifferent to the unfortunate. Then if you stir in a little James with his opulent sets and avaricious female protagonists: Madame Merle (Portrait of a Lady), Kate Croy (Wings of a Dove), and Charlotte Sant (Golden Bowl).
I can see it—sort of. There’s the same vulgar consumerism and themes of greed, deceit, class cruelty, decadence, and corruption. But Diamonds doesn’t tip over into melodrama, despite the extremities of Miriam’s life and epoch. For all her vices, she wasn’t villainous—capable of sociopathic schemes or murder. Operatic, yes, with a story out of the tabloids, but not quite James or American Psycho.
Rail: It’s actually a mistake to call the book just a biography of Miriam, because her affluence and indulgence are offset by harrowing descriptions of the squalor of New York City during the so-called “good year.” What details from those set pieces in the book stand out to you as particularly evocative or essential?
Prioleau: Appalling poverty coexisted in the Gilded Age with the orgiastic excesses of the monied elite. The most egregious example was the Bradley-Martin Ball of 1897. Amid a global depression when two-thirds of New York City’s population inhabited fetid tenements with record cases of starvation and disease, socialite Mrs. Bradley-Martin decided to give an exorbitant costume ball. For weeks she fed newspapers accounts of her preparations—ten-thousand mauve orchids and roses and couturier historic costumes. On the appointed night the poor picketed the Waldorf and threatened bombs while Mrs. Bradley-Martin received periwigged guests as Mary Stuart in priceless lace, jewels, and velvet robes. A hundred detectives disguised in livery patrolled the premises as guests quadrilled and feasted on delicacies all night. The backlash was swift—a breaking point: public outrage and threats of violence forced the Bradley-Martins into exile.
The same year Miriam prompted a similar protest when a Pittsburgh investigative reporter was invited to visit her lavish black-tie Christmas soirée as breadlines formed outside her salon. The paper flamed her in a front-page feature story.
Rail: The book becomes almost a history of income inequality, with obviously a lot of modern resonances. To what extent did you see the story as a kind of cautionary tale for the current moment? Is the country threatening to return to this time before the invention of the middle class?
Prioleau: The parallels between postbellum America and today are striking. Since the eighties, our era has been called the “New Gilded Age.” We’re witnessing the same rise of a ruling one percent, ostentatious consumerism, and the jarring juxtaposition of luxury and poverty. Economic inequality is growing, the wealth gap widening. Anti-immigrant sentiment and systemic racism and sexism are with us again.
The Gilded Age is a stark cautionary tale. Not only are we headed in the same direction, but the resistance is weaker; rather than sustained violent protests and collective action, we see what economists call “acquiescence to exploitation.” We’ve retreated to apathy, hedonism, and radical individualism. And we lack the committed professional reformers and politicians who ushered in the Progressive era. But the muckrakers who gave Miriam so much trouble are still among us and refuse to pipe down. They may be part of the solution to end the “Second Gilded Age.”
Rail: It felt as though Miriam’s experience contained the entire breadth of possible experience for women in the nineteenth century. Another non-question.
Prioleau: Miriam brilliantly subverted the gender dictates of her time. When middle-class Victorian American women were confined to the home, denied autonomy, sexual agency, and participation in public life, she made it in a man’s world. She invaded male turf, commanded a business empire, and had no truck with the domestic sphere. She led a sex life that was off the charts—lovers, a ménage à trois, and three divorces.
She pushed the edges. Yet she was strangely tethered to sanctioned femininity. She remained an unreconstructed romantic, obsessed with a chivalric male protector and committed to feminine consumerism and the constrictions of female dress and gentility. In the end, this proved her undoing. She couldn’t adapt to a new generation of enlightened, unsentimental “new women” and lost her female following and readership.
Rail: The book ends—biographies can’t really have “spoiler alerts,” can they?—with what is perhaps Miriam’s most redeeming feature: the bequest she left to the suffrage movement. Is it fair to say that women may not have won the right to vote at all had Miriam not left a significant sum to the movement?
Prioleau: Miriam’s unprecedented two-million-dollar bequest to women’s suffrage—the largest gift ever—wasn’t a complete surprise. She secretly supported the vote for women with small sums for twenty years and filled her essays with proto-feminist, pro-suffrage sentiments. Before she died, she dropped hints that she intended to do something big for women.
Her legacy was a game-changer. In 1917, when Carrie Catt, president of the National American Suffrage Association, received the bequest, the movement was splintered, weakened, and faced with a series of setbacks. The night she got the money, she didn’t sleep. With the Leslie fortune, Catt was able to roll out her “Winning Plan,” centralize the campaign, lobby Congress, and build a massive publicity machine that brought the national press and congressmen to “overwhelming support of suffrage.” Miriam’s money gave suffragists the means and might to pass the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. This might have taken longer, perhaps decades as in France. Later, one of the suffrage leaders wondered “if we would still be going to the Capitol if Mrs. Leslie had not made that bequest.”
Rail: I was struck by the range of emotions the reader goes through in regard to Miriam herself—sometimes you like her, sometimes you’re revolted by her. Did you experience that as well?
Prioleau: I experienced a whipsaw of emotions about Miriam. On the one hand, I had to admire a woman of such grit, drive, fortitude, and majesty when her female peers were passive parasites, hamstrung and helpless. She endured extraordinary hardship: family tumult, grinding poverty, prostitution, business and social failures, and romantic reverses. She scrapped her way up with guile and guts and prevailed. She worked hard, earned her diamonds, and walked tall.
On the other hand, there were times when she infuriated me. Although she wasn’t unique to the Gilded Age, her callous racism, snobbery, and random cruelty were hard to stomach. Her remarks about Native Americans on her 1877 California trip and about the Haymarket rioters who should be “shot like dogs” were gag moments. Worse were her praises of Black slavery in Cuba. She was, alas, all too representative of the period.
Like many supersized personalities, she could be overbearing, vain, and often exasperating with a tangled mix of admirable and distasteful traits. Not unlike Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, et al.
Rail: It seemed to me that this made it a very unusual biography, in that more often one writes biographies of figures who are unequivocally laudable—or at least the biographer thinks so. At best, Miriam is a mixed bag. Did this seem like an opportunity for you to tell a history that was unclouded by either animus or affection for the subject?
Prioleau: One of the classic pitfalls of writing biographies is the “biographical fallacy.” Authors willy-nilly project themselves onto their subjects, often unconsciously. It’s something you try to monitor and curb. When emotions leak onto the page, the heroization and demonization process begins and clouds the picture.
That said, clinical objectivity may be impossible. You can’t observe anyone—much less an historical figure—with complete neutrality. Yet Miriam made it somewhat easier since her life story and character were at such a remove personally and historically. Then she was an overscale person, her vices and virtues in high relief, and difficult to misread. She was also hard to fall in love with—something she would have hated. Seduction was her specialty of the house.
Rail: In your introduction, you indicate that you hew close to demonstrable fact but also employ “inspired conjecture” to access motives and emotions that aren’t likely to wind up on any primary source document. Can you unpack that a little?
Prioleau: Facts in a biography will only go so far. To grasp a subject’s full complexity—the drives, conflicts, and all that inner machinery—requires an imaginative leap. In Miriam’s case, this was especially true since she deliberately engulfed herself in mystery and false personas. There were so many imponderables: her obsession with social status, for example, and her crazed romanticism, Napoleonic grandiosity, and extreme bigotry.
When the standard psychiatric and sociological explanations ran out, I worked hunches. I tried to channel the humiliated mixed-race poor girl and embattled woman and make inspired guesses. I wanted a multidimensional portrait of Miriam and used every resource, including some intuitive woo-woo to get a read on this complicated, puzzling woman.
Rail: I can’t remember the last time I read a book that sent me down so many rabbit holes—that is, I set the book aside, and set about learning more about people and events you alluded to or described. There’s just a vast tapestry here. Has any of it leapt out for you as a possible next avenue to explore?
Prioleau: The American Gilded Age contains a trove of rich subjects. There are biographies begging to be written—the preposterous “Byron of the Rockies,” Joaquin Miller, the appalling Mrs. Stuyvesant (Mamie) Fish and her set, and the two rivalrous, polar opposite Pulitzer brothers.
What also intrigues me are the Gilded Age sensationalistic thrillers and “romances,” and the women who wrote them, like Miriam’s scandalous friend, Mary Elizbeth Braddon who lived in an adulterous relationship fourteen years.
Another subject I’d love to explore further is the American sexual subculture of pre- and postbellum years. There are statistics and histories but no study devoted to the women’s actual lived experiences.