She was an actress, an editor, a supporter of woman's rights and a business woman in the days when a woman's place was clearly in the home, and not in the boardroom. She took a failing business and turned it around, not once but twice becoming the most successful business woman in America. She hobnobbed with Presidents, and sparred with Brigham Young. A beauty who loved diamonds, with a fair complexion and golden curls. An early feminist who left her entire fortune to further woman's rights. And finally a much-married, flirtatious, social rule breaker, who many women might have called a home wrecker but never to her face.
Miriam Florence Follin (or Folline) was born in the Vieux Carre district of New Orleans in 1836. Like other scandalous women, she came from an inauspicious background. Her parents appeared not have been married, and the family's income was dependent on her handsome, erratic but cultured father. Charles Follin wandered around the country failing in one business after the other. However, he didn't neglect his daughter's education, making sure that she learned French, German, Latin and Spanish. He also encouraged her to develop her feminine charms.
Miriam grew up charming but headstrong. When the family moved to New York, Miriam met a young jeweler's clerk, named David Peacock, who let her wear diamonds from the store where he worked. Miriam's mother, Susan, worried that her daughter's virtue had been compromised, had Peacock arrested. She demanded that he make an honest woman of her daughter. Threatened with jail, Peacock agreed but on the proviso that they didn't live together and he wouldn't have to support her. After two years the marriage was mercifully annulled.
Newly single, Miriam embarked on her next adventure. It seems that Miriam's older half-brother had fallen madly in love with the notorious Lola Montez, while he was out living in California searching for gold. He didn't find any gold, but he did find Lola! After leaving countless lovers and husbands in Europe, Lola had come to conquer America. Noel was no match for the fiery Lola who thought nothing of attacking anyone who angered her with the bullwhip she carried like some people carry a purse. Several months after they met, he committed suicide.
Dramatic as always (Lola frequently gave her best performances off the stage), Lola was for onece in her life stricken with guilt. She went to New York and through herself at Susan's feet, screaming that she had killed her son. To make it up to the Follin's, she decided to take Miriam on the road with her.
They went on the road as the Montez sisters where Lola's notoriety and Miriam's beauty drew the crowds. Along the way, Miriam must have absorbed the lessons of seduction as practised by Lola because she had a host of admirers including a Senator from Tennessee, who although married, nevertheless bought Miriam a house in New York. Finally Miriam was beginning to move in the social circles to which her father had envisioned for her.
Soon Miriam met husband number 2, Ephriam G. Squier, an archaeologist who just happened to be the president of a railroad. Squier was 37 and Miriam was 21 but he was immediatly enchanted by her big blue eyes and pleasing conversation. Married in October 1857, Miriam moved into Squier's tastefully furnished home and set about on her next adventure. She was able to travel, and she attended the country's most exclusive gatherings and events including Lincoln's inaugural which led to a meeting that would change her life but Squier's as well. It was there at the inaugural ball that she met Frank Leslie.
Frank Leslie was born Henry Carter in England in 1821, the son of a glove maker. Although he loved to draw, his family discouraged him. He secretly sold some illustrations to London Magazines using the pseudonymn of Frank Leslie. Later, Leslie went to work for the Illustrated London News before finally moving to America where he initially worked for P.T. Barnum where he illustrated the programs for Jenny Lind's tour. After leaving Barnum's employ, he started his own illustrated publications, the first of their kind in America. His motto was "Never shoot over the reader's head."
At the time that Frank Leslie met Miriam, he was a married man with children. He hired Ephraim, whose railroad was not doing too well, to work as an editor of his Illustrated Newspaper, and Miriam to edit his Lady's Magazine, where she was a great success. She was able to translate her conversational skill into the written word so that in a few years, she was editing several of Leslie's many publications.
When Squier heard that Leslie had separated from his wife, he generously offered to let Leslie move into one of their spare bedrooms. This arrangement lasted for a decade and led to whispers in society about what exactly was going on with the three friends. Things got even stranger when the Squier's accompanied by Leslie went to Europe in 1867 for the Exposition in Paris. Frank Leslie had been named United States commissioner to the Exposition. When the ship arrived in Liverpool, Squier was arrested and thrown into prison, after someone alerted his impending arrival to some of his old creditors. While Squier languished in jail, Leslie and Miriam went to London. Finally after two weeks, they bailed him out of jail.
Despite this, the three of them continued on to Paris where Miriam gathered information about the new Paris fashions for her readers, and the two men worked on the Exposition. The trio lived together, worked together, and travelled together. Finally Squier began to notice that he was being pushed aside. He began to notice that his wife was wearing diamonds that he hadn't given her, and going out at night with Leslie while he stayed home. At one point, he'd had enough, traveling to Peru for a year. When Leslie's wife accused Miriam and Frank of adultery, Squier refused to believe it.
New York at this time was living it up in post Civil War ebulliance. Affairs were conducted openly and the city's demi-monde thrived. There was a certain taste for the bohemian came into style and the thin line between the demi-monde and the rich was almost invisible. While Frank Leslie and his wife were still married, the status quo between the three was kept. Once Leslie was divorced, Miriam decided that she would prefer to be married to Frank and not her husband. However, Ephraim didn't want a divorce. To get her way, Miriam arranged for Squier to attend a party at a 'disreputable house' and invited several courtesans, where several Leslie illustrators were conveniently on hand to sketch him in a compromising position. Of course when Miriam sued for divorce, the two artists were on hand to testify to what they had seen.
A month after her divorce was final, Miriam and Frank were married. A month after that, Squier was committed to an asylum on Long Island. He spent the rest of his life in and out of asylums. Miriam was initially blamed for her ex-husband's insanity, particularly when it came out later that her first husband also ended up in an asylum. However, Squier's brother declared that Miriam was only one of the symptoms of his brother's problems.
Now, 38, Miriam was a wife for the 3rd time. As the new Mrs. Frank Leslie, she threw herself into New York society. They bought a mansion on Fifth Avenue once owned by the notorious Boss Tweed, and Miriam spent lavishly on carriages, horses, Paris gowns and expensive jewelry. They even bought a summer estate in Saratoga where wealthy New Yorkers retired to take the waters and to gamble in the casinos. Around this time she met the poet Joaquin Miller, the Byron of the West. Miller was tall blonde and handsome, with an outsize personality similar to Miriam's. He declared his love for her, immortalizing her in a novel The One Fair Woman. For more than 30 years, they rendezvoused all across America and Miriam wrote glowingly of his work in Leslie's publications.
In 1877, the Leslies took a cross country trip by rail to California first class of course in the finest railroad carriages of the period inclduing a Pullman Hotel car. As they travelled, Miriam kept a journal which she later turned into a book called California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate. The book received excellent reviews. During their trip out West, Miriam had the opportunity to match wits with the Patriarch of the Mormon Church Brigham Young himself about the merits of polygamy.
Just as Miriam was enjoying the fruits of literary success, the roof caved in on the couple. The first blow was Frank's financial collapse in 1877 due to the economic crisis. Frank had overexpanded his empire and the couple had spent more than the publications earned for some time. The publicatons were assigned to another publisher and Frank was demoted to general manager, only receiving a small portion of the profits.
Then came the second blow, a 24 page pamphlet was published by a Virginia City newspaper incensed at the way Miriam had dissed their city in her book calling it a 'god-forsaken place,' and accusing the women of being of the worst class. The pamphlet exposed her slightly unsavory past including her first marriage, her affair with the senator, and her illegitimacy, not to mention her adulterous relationship with Frank before their subsequent marriage. There was only one person who could have given the paper all that information and that was Ephraim G. Squier, who finally seems to have had his revenge on his wife and his former friend.
The final blow was Frank's death in 1880 from throat cancer before he could finish paying off the debt. Miriam was now a widow at 43 with a failing business, and a host of lawsuits from Frank's children contesting his will. But Miriam rose to the occasion like a phoenix rising from the ashes. She managed to pay off $50,000 of the debt, and then her most ingenious move, she had her name legally changed to Frank Leslie so that she could continue to use the name on the publications.
Once again fate was on Miriam's side with one of the biggest stories of the decade. James Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau on Saturday, July 2nd 1881. Miriam immediately sent two artists to Washington, summoned the staff back to work, and produced an issue of the Illustrated Newspaper with special assassination coverage by Tuesday, July 5th. She then took the unprecendented move of issuing a further two issues on the assassination. She was in the right place at the right time, and the genius to take advantage of it.
Like many media moguls of the 20th century, Miriam turned a profit through aggressive make-overs of the magazines, timely scoops, and modernizing the equipment. The male dominated business world was astonished at her moxie. They hailed her as a 'Commercial Joan of Arc.' and a 'miracle money-maker.' By 1885, Miriam was earning $100,000 annually while meeting a payroll of 400 employees. During her lifetime she also managed to churn out a further 6 books and nearly 50 articles.
Miriam was not about to retire her dance card however. As she herself wrote in one of her advice books for women, 'the belle is apt to be a widow who upstages ingenues with her seasoned social charms, perpetual youth and intellectual and conversational powers.' She could have been describing herself. Men wooed her relentessly at her Thursday night salons. At one point she was involved with a French marquis who wooed her with poems only to throw him over for a Russian prince, fifteen years her junior. When the men fought a duel over her, she dropped them both.
Instead she married Oscar Wilde's brother, the witty William C.K.W. Wilde, who was 39 to her 55, after only knowing him for 4 days. The honeymoon had barely begun before Miriam realized she'd gotten a lemon instead of a thoroughbred. Willie got drunk at the wedding and basically stayed that way for 6 months. While Miriam went to work, Willie could barely drag himself out of bed long enough to make it to one of his clubs. The puritan in her rebelled at this. The marriage dragged on for two years before Miriam finally had had enough. As she put it, 'He was no use to me either by day or by night. I really think I should have married Oscar.'
Miriam always kept one eye on her business despite her romantic adventures. She wore tight black gowns, while blending a masculine core of steel along with her feminine charms. After a few years, she began to sell off the remaining Leslie weeklies, keeping the popular Monthly magazine. However, she was called into rescue the magazines again, when the syndicate that she leased her remaining publications to got into financial trouble. However, she was forced out in 1897 for good.
In retirement she continued to travel and write and in 1901, she claimed to have discovered that she was the baroness de Bazus, through a distant relation. Even at the end of her life, she was still drawing admirers, including a Spanish count who unfortunately died before they could marry. When she died in 1914, she left her entire $2 million dollar fortune to Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the suffragette movement to fund the cause. Although Frank Leslie's relatives once again sued, and the amount was reduced to $1 million dollars, her bequest paid for the salaries of 200 full-time workers, aiding the cause tremendously.
Miriam Follin Leslie lived her life as intensely romantic as any novel, poem or song written in the 19th Century. She also proved that a woman could run a business as successfully or her in case even more successfully than any man while still remaining very much a woman.