Ladies to Love – A Valentines Top 10

Those who remember our Valentine’s Day blog post of Handsome Chaps from History from last year (if not, refresh your memory here), will recall that we promised a similar list of ladies the minute we find an excuse. Well, that excuse has finally arrived, so on Valentine’s Day 2017 let’s kick off our Top 10 of Charming Chapesses with…

10. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Born in Paris to a courtesan mother and unknown father, Sarah Bernhardt rose to become the greatest star of the 19th century theatre, earning the nickname ‘The Divine Sarah’. Although not a conventional beauty, she had talent and charisma in abundance, and was equally at home in both tragedy and comedy. She didn’t shy away from roles such as Hamlet usually reserved for male actors, and was not averse to scandalous productions either, performing in John Wesley De Kay’s ‘Judas’ in New York in 1910. Mary Magdalene, a lover of Pontius Pilate, then of Judas Iscariot, moves on to Jesus whereupon Judas betrays him to the Romans in a fit of jealousy. Even more shockingly, Bernhardt was cast in the title role.
9. Annette Kellerman (1887-1975) Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was once dubbed ‘The Perfect Woman’ for her body’s closeness to the measurements of the Venus de Milo. She discovered a love of swimming in childhood when taken by her parents to the local pool to help the muscles develop in her painfully weak legs, and rapidly progressed to giving swimming and diving exhibitions. Her prowess did not go unnoticed by Hollywood, helped greatly by her provocative championing of a new tight-fitting swimming costume for women. It was so shocking that in 1907 Kellerman was arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. In 1916 she scandalised further by appearing fully nude in ‘A Daughter of the Gods’, the first million-dollar film production.
8. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (1837-1898). Elisabeth stands out in the roll call of European royalty as unusually beautiful. At 5’8” she was tall, and maintained a strict exercise and beauty regime. She was an impressive horsewoman, riding for hours every day, and drilling on balance beams in front of huge mirrors. Her beauty cult transformed her into an icon. Unhappily, Sisi’s life with the Emperor Franz Joseph was a tragic one. She was stifled by rigid court rules and tyrannised by her mother in law who prevented her having any say in the care of her own children. Her only son died in a suicide pact, an event Sisi never recovered from. She was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, ensuring her place in the myth of doomed beauty.
7.Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) Intense, dynamic, radical and beautiful, militant suffragette and women’s rights campaigner Christabel Pankhurst inspired complete devotion from her followers. While this no doubt sprung from a shared desire to bring about a state of female emancipation, Pankhurst’s striking good looks and passionate nature can’t have been too much of a turn-off.
6. Cleo de Merode (1875-1966). Cleo de Merode combined talent as a ballet dancer with glamour and stunning good looks to become one of the most famous and imitated women of the Belle Epoche. Born in Paris, she was painted, sculpted and photographed by the pre-eminent artists of the day, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Giovanni Boldini and Felix Nadar, but her reputation was sullied by the public admiration of King Leopold II of Belgium. Salacious gossip spread that she’d become mistress to the 61-year-old, unwanted rumours which Cleo was never able to shake off.
5. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian and American film star, was not only exceedingly beautiful, but also a brilliantly talented inventor. On screen her sparkling sexuality riveted audiences. Off it, she helped to develop a method of transmitting radio signals by frequency hopping that many years later became an important element in modern communication technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Brains and beauty – what more could one desire in a dinner companion?
4. Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702). The great 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys called Frances the greatest beauty I ever saw. While at court as lady-in-waiting to King Charles II’s new bride Catherine of Braganza, she caught the eye of the Merry Monarch who became infatuated with her. To avoid becoming another of Charles’s mistresses, she eloped with the Duke of Richmond, an injury that wounded Charles deeply. He forgave her, and later commissioned a medal of Britannia modelled upon her profile that came to adorn British coinage for centuries.
3. Lily Elsie (1886-1962). Edwardian singer and actress Lily Elsie caused a sensation with her starring role in operetta ‘The Merry Widow’ in London in 1907, and became one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian era. Once again, the Venus de Milo was invoked as the perfect standard of beauty with whom Elsie compared admirably. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper writing in 1915 went on to say that, “everyone agrees that Lily Elsie has the most kissable mouth in all England”.
2. Louise Brooks (1906-1985). Compared with some, Louise Brooks’ film acting career was relatively short, lasting from 1925 to 1938 with four of those years absent from the screen. Her early retirement from film preserved her sleek, glamorous, stylish image as an icon of the Jazz Age. Today, her role as Lulu in German silent film ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1929 is her most well-known. The film is a dark, lurid tale of seduction, murder and downfall with a lesbian fling thrown in for good measure. Although poorly received at the time, it was rediscovered in the 1950s to great acclaim, with French film archivist Henri Langlois famously commentating that, “there is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks”.
1. Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Actress Anna May Wong had star quality in abundance but as a Chinese American woman in the overtly racist climate of twenties and thirties Hollywood, she was never going to be allowed to play the happy romantic lead opposite a white actor, and discriminatory casting denied her major roles even when the characters themselves were Chinese. But she had an exquisite, elegant beauty and a screen presence in which she radiated exotic sensuality, outshining Gilda Gray in ‘Piccadilly’ (1929) and matching headliner Marlene Dietrich in ‘Shanghai Express’ (1932) arched eyebrow for arched eyebrow. Our top Valentine’s Day date.

Handsome Chaps from History – A Valentines Top 10

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday and with love in the air, and romance on the breeze, how could we not dedicate our latest blog post to the enduring theme of ‘amour’? To be perfectly honest, perhaps the theme is more lust than love. Let me explain. Over the last year, TV viewers have been treated to a feast of lavish historical drama, with, for some of us, characters who remain indelibly stamped into our consciousness forever more. Damien Lewis gave us a simmering alpha male Henry VIII in ‘Wolf Hall’, fans of the epic ‘War & Peace’ may have fallen for the proud and troubled Andrei (though personally, I rather preferred the sexy swashbuckling arrogance of Dolokhov), and need we say any more about Poldark’s scythe or Philip Lombard’s towel in ‘And Then There Were None’?

Inspired by such a parade of historical and fictional romantic leads, we thought it would be fun to share with you a top ten of handsome chaps from history, illustrated, of course, with images from our archive. Here’s our rundown of who we’d like to share an intimate Valentine’s dinner with. And before we’re accused of sexism, we plan a similar list of ladies the minute we find an excuse!

10. Captain Leslie St. Clair Cheape Cheape (1882-1916). We always promise the obscure as well as the well-known at Mary Evans, and Leslie Cheape may not be a familiar name but in his day was hailed, ‘England’s greatest polo player’ – playing for England in the Westchester Cup three times in 1911, 1913 and 1914. He was pivotal in bringing the cup home in 1914 despite a ball breaking his nose during practice just a couple of days earlier (what a hero). Seated here on his polo pony, with, thrillingly, the hint of a tattoo on his muscular forearm, he’s the very essence of the upper class sportsman, many of whom lost their lives during the Great War. Unfortunately Leslie was one of them. He was killed on 23 April 1916 while commanding a squadron of the Worcestershire Yeomanry in Egypt.
9. Gary Cooper (1901-1961) There are so many movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to choose from but Gary Cooper made the top ten because lurking behind those chiselled good looks, is the sense of masculine potency and seductive promise. Talullah Bankhead said there was only one reason she accepted a role alongside Cooper in the 1932 film, The Devil and the Deep, but you’ll have to look it up as it’s unprintable here.
8. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967) As Cuban revolutionaries go, Che had his fair share of good looks, and excellent facial hair to boot. Surely not everyone who wore a T-shirt with his face on it did so purely out of political empathy?
7. Anthony Wilding New Zealand tennis player Tony Wilding reputedly caused lady spectators at Wimbledon to faint when he made an appearance and it’s easy to see why. Tall, blond, a dedicated athlete and with matinee idol looks, he won Wimbledon four times between 1910 and 1913. He was also romantically linked with the actress Maxine Elliott, his elder by some fifteen years. Contemporary accounts testify to him being a proper gent and thoroughly nice chap – an ideal Valentine’s dinner companion. He was killed during the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915.  Read more about him on our WWI blog here.
6. Paul Newman Undeniably, dazzlingly, perfectly handsome, Newman once joked, “I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.’”
5. British WWI flying ace  Captain Albert Ball (1896 – 1917) was our highest scoring fighter pilot during the conflict. Combining heroics with aerial wizardry and devastating boyish good looks, Albert was something of a pin-up but, like so many heroes of the skies, died tragically young, just before his 21st birthday. Special mention must also go to Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918) whose cheekbones were as finely honed as his cockpit skills. May we recommend Michael Fassbender for any forthcoming biopic?
4. Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to AD 30–33). We should point out that Mr Powell remains hale and hearty but his portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film saw him give a mesmerising and swoonsome performance as the son of the Lord. Those rippling locks, those piercing eyes…it’s enough to convince the most ardent atheist to attend a Last Supper.
3. Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926). If anyone has any doubt over why the greatest movie idol of the early C20th attracted such global adulation, then this photograph of him in the character of the faun for a proposed film version of the erotic ballet, L’Apres Midi d’un Faun, might prove to be that moment of revelation. Valentino’s sensual on-screen seductions were enough to make millions of women fall under his spell. Here, with oiled limbs and smouldering gaze as the priapic faun, the world may have quite simply imploded with unsuppressed lust had this film ever made it into cinemas. If the Internet had existed nine decades ago, Valentino would definitely have broken it.
2. Leslie Hutchinson (1900-1969). Better known simply as Hutch, clubland crooner and serial womaniser Leslie Hutchinson numbered Edwina Mountbatten, Tallulah Bankhead (and Ivor Novello!) among his many conquests. Suave, sophisticated and a talented tickler of the ivories, Hutch was not only the biggest cabaret stars of the 1930s, he was also rumoured to possess a member of legendary proportions (Sir John Mills once witnessed him in the shower in a men’s changing room and confirmed the rumours by simply commenting “What a man,”). Locker room secrets aside, being serenaded by Hutch might just have been the perfect Valentines treat.
1. King Charles II Claiming the top spot is the Merry Monarch himself, whose lust for life and bawdy bedroom antics marks him out as the king to have a fling with. Swarthy and sensual, he famously stood six feet two inches tall, an impressive height in the C17th. Lavishing apartments, jewels and other gifts and money on his succession of demanding mistresses while the kingdom went to pot, John Evelyn commented that the libidinous Charles would have made a good ruler, “if he had been less addicted to women”. More interested in fleshy delights than government business, the King might not have been the most dedicated ruler, but who wants sensible when it’s Valentine’s Day? Ruled by love, rather than duty, Charles II is our naughty but nice choice for a Valentine’s dinner companion.