Aimée Crocker’s Harem
Amy Crocker wrote in her autobiography about how she was very young “when the finger of the East reached across the Pacific and touched me.” She was drawn to all things Asian yet the swashbuckling Californienne was also undoubtedly a Francophile. In the City of Light, in the years before the war, she began cultivating a new identity as a mystic princess in glamorous Parisian attire. Madame Amy Crocker Gouraud found in Paris a level of acceptance that eluded her in the states.
France was a magic word in America in the opening decades of the new century. In painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts, France held sway. The Frenchifying of fashionable Manhattan was at times a sad and rude burlesque of the reality. East Coast urban Americans nonetheless kept their eyes fixed on France. Decaying French estates were ransacked for tapestries, doors, and ceilings that could be bought and reinstalled in American mansions. Before the Great War, Amy was bi-continental. Between Broadway seasons in New York, where she danced among Gotham’s glitterati, Mrs. Gouraud would be seen gallivanting in Paris, not just to collect baubles and furnishings but to enjoy the French capital’s artistic and intellectual vitality and cultivated tastes. Amy also thoroughly enjoyed its pompous display, frivolity and relaxed morals.
Just as Amy loved slumming in the dregs of the Bowery and Chinatown in New York, while in Paris, it was the tawdry and alluring red-light district of lower Montmartre, or Pigalle, that attracted the thrill seeking heiress. In the daylight the neighborhood was a carnival of activity animated by fortune-tellers, shooting galleries, merry-go-rounds and stands selling French fries and sugary waffles. Strong men and sword swallowers performed alongside mimes and organ grinders. At night, in the cafés that dotted the streets, small-time “apache” crooks and hoodlums and members of le milieu (the French mafia) intermingled with tourists, middle class workers and businessmen, Bohemians and swaggering showfolk, and slumming aristocrats.
Perhaps the best-known of Paris’s cabarets, the scandalous Moulin Rouge, was a haunt of France’s upper classes, a “rendezvous du high life.” It was also a regular hang of many of the Bohemian artists and writers of the period. The most famous of these, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, featured the nightclub in many of his paintings. His vivid use of color and erratic linear composition gives an idea of the level of intoxication patrons would have been under when watching the entertaining cast both on and off the stage.
At the Moulin Rouge Amy Crocker Gouraud, patron-of-the-arts and modern dance enthusiast, cheered on the venue’s cancan queens Nini-pattes-en-l’air (“legs in the air”), la Môme Fromage (“the cheese kid”), Cha-U-Kao (“dance of chaos”), Grille d’Egout (“sewer grating” after her gapped teeth) and the notorious La Goulue (“the glutton”), known for the heart she had embroidered on the seat of her drawers. Her sometimes partner was Valentine Dessose (“Valentine the boneless”). Amy no doubt shared some of her favorite indecorous moves with the company.
Actress Yvette Guilbert appeared regularly at the Moulin Rouge. The avant-garde Yvette would half-sing, half-speak her ditties, earning her the title of the “diseuse fin de siècle” (end-of-the-century teller). Her goal was, “To assemble an exhibition of humorous sketches in song, depicting all the indecencies, all the excesses, all the vices of my ‘contemporaries,’ and to enable them to laugh at themselves.” Her ingenuous delivery of songs charged with risqué meaning made her famous.
Amy would join in the fun at the late supper scene at the naughty Maxim’s, where “Grand Horizontal” courtesans and wild Russian coin tossers were the star performers along with a few daring society ladies like Amy, who arrived blazing with jewels, dancing under clouds of ylang-ylang scent and trailing yards of chinchilla.
Maxim’s was overrun with visiting Russian grand dukes, princes, and Imperial Army officers. They were eagerly catered to because their wealth knew no bounds and the country was in a state of elation over the Franco-Russian alliance. Russia’s Silver Age, the epoch of high modernism in their culture, was in full bloom. Never before or since has the Russian visual, literary, and performing arts achieved such creative brilliance.
The elegant Amy would also join the rich and well born during the “Hour before the Bois” in their carriage parade through the Bois de Bologne Park. Onlookers took notice of her lolling back on the satin upholstery twirling a flouncy parasol through her fingers in her phaeton carriage amid the more conservative vehicles, its harness gleaming conspicuously, cockades of pink carnations on the horses’ bridles and her driver’s hat.
On the Champs Elysees’s Sunday morning parade of frocks, frills, and furbelows, the tattooed and pearled Amy often attracted more attention than women younger and more beautiful wearing flamboyant hats preposterously trimmed into an aviary of bird wings or a flower stand of roses. She mingled with the debonair bluebloods at the racetracks at Auteuil and Longchamps. She wandered about exclusive art exhibit openings and added a colorful touch to charity bazaars.
In no time Mrs. Gouraud was a celebrity as firmly established as the top stars of the theater, and was the talk of the smart set. Amy was as clever as a steel trap and terrifyingly witty. The press devoted columns to descriptions of her jewels, her furs, the rampant aigrettes, and her parties. In 1909, Mrs. Gouraud had received a lot of publicity after full page spectacular stories came out depicting her as an international woman of intrigue…Stories about her ardent conversion to Buddhism and the strange Oriental atmosphere of her East Indian palace in New York. Stories about her three weeks in a harem near Bombay (she claimed to be the first English speaking woman to spend time in a harem). Tales about an enamored English officer who stole for her a priceless idol of Buddha in Rangoon that contained an exquisite pearl and an ancient curse. Amy was said to have learned the mysteries of most of the faiths, rituals, and magics between Port Said and Shanghai during her trips around the globe. She became an A-list party guest in the cultural capital of the Western world.
After the death of her beloved young husband, songwriter Jackson Gouraud, from tonsillitis in February of 1910, Amy fled to Paris, the City of Escape, to regroup and reinvent herself. She packed up her pearls, her Buddhas and her three devastated young children.
That lonely summer included a trip to the operating room at the American Hospital in Paris, after an acute attack of appendicitis.
While convalescing after her alarming illness, she decided to put the capstone on the adventures of her life by writing a book of short stories focusing on her Eastern adventures. It was the perfect therapy for the ailing, mourning mother.
“I felt I must do something to retain my interest in life, so I began to write,” Amy told a reporter. “What I have done may be pretty bad from a literary point of view, but I have tried to give some of my impressions faithfully, and all the stories are founded on fact, I assure you.”
“It was of this life in the East, its strange scenes, its remarkable adventures, that I wished to write,” Mrs. Gouraud concluded. “If I am encouraged I shall devote more of my time to writing of it. But I hope I shall always have time to gather delightful people around me and devise ways to entertain them out of the ordinary society rut.”
Amy was encouraged. She hired an assistant to help her with the ambitious project.
The story of the life of the worldly-wise heiress read like the tale of the search for the Golden Fleece, according to one San Francisco columnist, who suggested the title The Ultimate Satisfaction of the Great Unrest. In November of that same year, Mrs. Gouraud gave some interviews to promote her 91-page collection of short stories, “arabesques” as her publisher called them. She landed on Moon Madness and Other Fantasies for a title. The stories were described as, “the result of her world-wide experience in the higher Bohemian circles of nearly every capitol, including many cities of the Orient.” Amy referred to them as a “nosegay of reminiscences,” or “memoirs in fiction form.”
On the turquoise cover, Amy introduced a new French spelling of her name–Aimée.
Aimée explained to an interviewer:
For ten years I lived in foreign lands and as the natives lived. I wore the native costume and studied the native religion and entered into the native pastimes. I know what it is to live in a paper house in Japan, and to wear a straw skirt and grass slippers, not for a frolic, but for every-day life, in the South Sea Islands. In Burma we occupied a houseboat. There I learned the fascination of moonlight and jewels, which I have tried to depict in “Moon-Madness” and in “Paula Loved Pearls.” “The Dance of the Cobra” is not drawn from imagination. I know Turkey, not as a tourist, but as friend of native women. I saw poor, lovely “Lotus Flower” dance in the embraces of a cobra. I saw this not in a music hall, but in the harem through a marvelous latticework, and I saw her fight off the eunuchs who were trying to save her from the death-clasp of the serpent.
The Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote:
The lady is not suffering from dwarfed imagination… she doesn’t care about nice little fireside stories. They don’t attract the man with the $1.25 in his pocket, consequently one does not write them. Neither do they shock the reviewer nor elicit loud outbursts of attention from public, press, and pulpit, wherefore one should have nothing to do with them.
Goodwin’s Weekly wrote:
The book is making a sensation. Most of her stories are of the harem, and her study of French literature has evidently been a great help to her. Her short sentences would make a space writer weep with envy. Mrs. Gouraud is one of the acknowledged queens of New York’s Bohemia, and as it is announced that when her palatial apartment in Paris is completed she will entertain more startlingly and more daringly than heretofore in New York, she may be reckoned on in the race for international leadership in her particular specialties…
When Moon Madness hit the stores, Aimée commented to the press, “I do love to do the thing that everyone thinks I cannot do. Everybody said I couldn’t write a book. Yet the first edition was sold before the reviewers had finished paying me their respects.” In a year’s time, her publisher would be ordering a fifth printing.
After the success of her book, Mrs. Gouraud began looking for a suitable châteaux in Paris to raise her children and began to resuscitate her once spectacular social life. She resumed her bi-continental career as a guest and hostess of sensational shindigs of the swagger set. Her appearances at these sometimes scandalous parties received international acclaim. In New York, she danced the the Striped Zebra Pivot Dance, a variation of the famed “Apache” dance at the home of actress Valeska Suratt. A donkey served coffee. She also performed the Argentine tango, the forbidden dance, at her home on 56th St. billed as “Soirée de la Danse Excentrique,” also “The Dance of All Nations.” The headliner that evening was “headhunter” dancer Dogmeena. Aimée played herself in a Broadway vaudeville revue called Hell, written by Rennold Wolf, with music by Robert Hood Bowers, Maurice Levi and future legend Irving Berlin (George M. Cohan would later introduce an Aimée Crocker character in his comedy Broadway Jones).
In Louveciennes, Aimée won favor appearing at a costume ball playing the part of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson; the marchioness of Pompadour, the official chief mistress of Louis XV. Aimée’s friend, the Countess de Lancay, had become the owner of the magnificent Pavilion du Barry estate, former home of the Countess du Barry, Louis’ other favorite courtesan. The Countess de Lancay had become so thoroughly imbued with the history of her surroundings that she decided to give a costume party.
Aimée was asked to be her chief lieutenant in carrying out the illusions of the affair and to recreate the epic cat fight between Du Barry and De Pompadour. The atmosphere of the famous salon was recreated faithfully. The Countess de Lancay endeavored to out-wit Aimée as Mme. Du Barry. They amused the other guests with barbed conversation and dastardly sallies at the expense of each other, just as Mme. Du Barry and Mme. De Pompadour had done.
In Paris Aimée stole the show at iconic fashion designer Paul Poiret’s lavish Arabian themed “The Thousand and Second Night” fête. All guests were required to dress in Persian-styled costumes. The magnificence of Aimée’s costume and jewels outshone all the splendor around her. In the middle of her forehead she wore her famous immense emerald, held in place by a magnificent rope of pearls. The most dazzling accessory that she wore that evening was her date, Romanian actor Édouard de Max, “The Most Beautiful Man in Paris.”
High culture in Paris and all the other European capitals were, at that time, under the spell of Oriental exoticism. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes overwhelmed Paris with the Oriental styled ballets Schéhérazade, L’Oiseau de feu, and Les Orientales.
With Schéhérazade, which was set at an orgiastic party at Shahrivar’s harem, fascination with tales of the Arabian Nights and Orientalism had reached new heights. The day after the premiere, Parisian fashionistas placed orders with their favorite designers for bright, luxurious and exotic Oriental dresses. Aimée found herself at the center of a Schéhérazade frenzy. The Parisian couturiers and the Orientalist art scene helped guide the elites and later the masses out of the prim and grim, repressed and corsetted Victorian era.
The ballet was based on the first story from A Thousand and One Nights in which the women of the Sultan’s harem persuade the Chief Eunuch to admit the male slaves to their quarters while their master was absent. During the orgy that follows the Sultan returns to discover his favorite concubine Zobéïde consorting with the beautiful Golden Slave. The talented Ida Rubinstein played Zobéïde. The legend Vaslav Nijinsky played the wily slave.
Impresario Diaghilev, choreographer Mikhail Fokine, composer Rimsky-Korsakov and set and costume designer Léon Bakst artfully married French Orientalism, which found its inspiration in Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, and other desert civilizations, with the sensuality and exuberance of the Russian Orientalists who became the vector of Eastern, Turkish, Persian and Caucasian cultures. Aimée added some Indian, Chinese and Japanese flavor to this North African and Middle Eastern bouillabaisse.
It was during this time when Schéhérazade and Paul Poiret was in vogue that Aimée Crocker, former harem inmate, skyrocketed to superstar status.
The International Line-up
The fabulously wealthy Aimée Crocker was back on the market. An international line-up of gentlemen callers quickly gathered. The San Francisco Call, profiled the leading contenders which included a Russian opera singer, two composers (one with a flair for ladies’ fashion, the other a part-time Argentinean diplomat), an editor, a French actor who starred opposite the great Sarah Bernhardt, and the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Sahara.
Some were most assuredly tabloid fodder. Aimée told reporters that she had no interest in a fourth matrimonial venture choosing instead to give all of her affections to her pet snake. “The marriage game is one I hope I will never play again. I have fortified myself against any such possibility by giving all my love and affection to my snake and I fully sympathize with Mother Eve’s weakness in the Garden of Eden when she had to cope with the serpent. It was a wise old devil that conceived such a form of temptation.”
First out of the gate competing for the heiress’ affections was composer, performer, director, arranger, musician and fashion designer Melville Ellis who was linked romantically to the heiress only months after Jackson died. Born in Phoenix, Arizona around 1878, Ellis spent the earlier years of his life in San Francisco where he was very talented on the piano. When he arrived in New York, he quickly established himself as a musical comedy favorite. Melville’s specialty was the pianologue.
Ellis would cart his piano around to film locations and play as filming was taking place for inspiration. He played piano for the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Carmen.” This type of piano playing was also called “music off stage” and created the tempo for the actors to move with as well as extra inspiration for emotions they needed to create.
Melville Ellis was also a designer and consultant on women’s fashion who preferred designing for the stage, “After all, it is the only place where we can express our own ideas. Artists have faith in their designers and courage to wear something they have not set eyes on. Your bourgeoisie lady on the other hand could not be induced to wear a gown she had not seen another woman look well in.” He worked with famed interior designer Elsie de Wolfe on the popular Very Good Eddie in 1915. She headed up the scenic department and he designed the costumes for the “swagger fashion chorus.”
Asked whether feminism will tend to masculinize women’s clothes, he replied, “Oh, dear me, no for if it does there will not be any feminism. I am most strongly for sex in clothes. Sex appeal is after all one of the greatest assets we have in life. Why not keep it strongly marked? Asked what type of woman he considered the most beautiful, he declared, “Women are a matter of taste, just as foods are. Some like them highly seasoned some do not.” Though Aimée loved show folk, Ellis was in the end not robust enough for her Tabasco taste.
Prevailing gossip after one of Aimée’s extravagant parties was that Harold Magnus Sussman, an editor and magazine writer, was mooted to marry Aimée. Sussman was hired to assist her in writing her book and was rumored to have a few of the stories that she was promoting. Aimée denied Sussman was anything more than a literary advisor. “Isn’t it peculiar,” she told a reporter, “if times are dull, no war, train wreck or sensational murder, they immediately start wedding bells for me — then follow columns on columns about parties I never gave to people I never met.”
Sussman, sometimes known as Harold Melbourne, was a 24-year-old dilettante, globe trotter and boy of the world. He was well known as a writer of fashionable fiddle faddle. He reported that during Aimée’s convalescence after her operation she conceived writing her book Moon Madness and called on the young writer. It was Sussman’s claim that he, in fact, wrote four of the stories “Our Lady of Red Lips,” “The Painted Mrs. Perry,” “Betty and Buddha” and “Mrs. Pepper in Paris.”
“In all my unusual and strange life I have never met a more interesting woman than Mrs. Gouraud,” said Sussman. He denied a romance declaring emphatically, “Those newspaper clippings connecting my name with Mrs. Gouraud’s as her possible future husband are bosh. That is the most impossible thing in the world. I am not even ready for marriage, for love, you know, is only for old people.” He further said that he shuddered at the memory of certain uncouth persons that composed Aimée’s salon and was unable to see them as his social equals. In 1912, Sussman would marry Mrs. Lilly Annette Coe, a 57-year-old rich widow from New Haven.
Gossips were buzzing again after Aimée spent an evening dancing with the young Genia D’Agarioff, an opera baritone singer, not long after the death of Jackson. D’Agarioff was born in Orel, Russia in 1889 and was educated first in Switzerland and then in the Imperial Military Academy of Petrograd. While attending school, the Grand Duke Constantine, supervisor of all the Imperial Cavalry Schools, advised him to go on the stage, and, much against his parents’ wishes, he took the advice. At the age of sixteen, D’Agarioff started at the Imperial Theatre at Petrograd where he sang for one whole season. He then went to Paris, where he studied for three years under the famous Jean De Reske (who also trained Aimée’s number two — Harry Gillig). Genia was the first to sing in the Russian language in Paris and London. He sang almost exclusively old Russian folk songs, and was a tremendous success for two seasons.
Genia was young, Russian and talented, three big checks on Aimée’s Wish List, but if there was a romance beyond the dance floor, it was short lived. He was also linked to the married Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff-Gordon, a leading British fashion designer and Titanic survivor. (He would later become a naturalized citizen, join the army and die tragically in October of 1918 of pneumonia).
Baron de Bernicey Hungarian nobleman…handsome, distinguished looking and much noted at the Bois de Boulogne for wearing white polo breeches, loud clothes, and for driving a conspicuous high trap with a prancing horse, made a play for Aimée by buying her daughter a fine dog. He was kicked to the curb when he asked for money after losing at the racetrack.
A duel between Senor Ernesto Alvarez & Monsieur Pierre de Barbaron to win the affections of Aimée in St. Germaine received a lot of press.
Aimée was linked romantically to Jacques LeBaudy, the mad Emperor of the Sahara Desert. She met him through her father-in-law Col. George Gouraud who was named Jacques’ Governor General. George was called by LeBaudy to organize the empire’s new military establishment and to help create an empire on 185 miles of coastline in Spanish Morocco.
One night in the foyer of the Savoy Hotel in London, the Emperor caught sight of Aimée harnessed to four ropes of pearls. Naturally his Mental Majesty immediately saw her as Lady in Waiting or Mistress of the Robes. Madame Gouraud offended the Emperor by saying that she thought he was crazy—a rumor he never denied—and added that he should be crowned—but not with a coronet.
Aimée, like the rest of the world, did not recognize him as Jacques I, Najin-al-Den, Emperor of the Sahara, or Commander of the Faithful, or King of Tarfaia, or Duke of Arleuf or Prince of Chal-Huin. And she definitely did not claim him as the next Mr. Aimée Crocker.
Born at the Argentina Legation in Washington DC, on January 7, 1871, the great composer and career diplomat Eduardo Garcia-Mansilla formally began his musical training in Vannes, at the Jesuit College. A nephew of the famous ruthless Argentine dictator, President Rosas, Eduardo’s father was the Argentine minister to Vienna and acted as intermediary in the marriage of Napoleon and Eugenia. In 1888, Eduardo joined the diplomatic corps, wore a button of the Legion of Honor and was an attaché to the embassy of Argentina for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna. In St. Petersburg, then capital of the empire of Russia, he was assigned the post of Charge d’Affaires, which lasted ten years.
An outstanding personality in the world of culture, a musician and composer whose works were heard in the main theaters of Europe, Garcia-Mansilla was known for his unique, tasteful musicianship. In addition to its lyrical piece The Angelic Manuelita, Garcia-Mansilla is best known for the opera Ivan which premiered in St. Petersburg in honor of Tsar Nicholas II.
His works were the fruit of his temperament, his spontaneous and sincere artistic nature, and his passion for the divine. Garcia-Mansilla had the virtue of modesty, and was endowed with a broad general sense of culture that was refined by daily contact with the intellectuals that he met through his diplomatic positions. He was active, fun, a man of erudition, vastly prepared, used to addressing any issue knowingly. His personality became very famous in Paris, during the last years of the 19th century and in Russia during the reign of the last tsars.
A romance was reported between the heiress and the composer in many newspapers. In September of 1910, the Oakland Tribune wrote that she denied a report that she was to marry Eduardo. Aimée did collaborate with him in writing a song, “My Love” or “Mon Amour,” which they went on to copyright in 1914. Aimée wrote the lyrics in English and French. Eduardo wrote the music.
It would seem that he was a perfect match. Was it harmony and compatibility that the lovelorn widow was after or thrills and passion?
Mrs. Gouraud was linked most persistently to Romanian actor Eduard-Alexandru Max Romalo, stage name Édouard de Max.
Born in Jassy, Romania, in 1869, De Max graduated from the Conservatory of Paris with many honors and was a leading man and star of the French stage. He appeared with many popular leading ladies, including Gabrielle Réjane and Ida Rubinstein, but his best known and most frequent partnership was with the great Sarah Bernhardt.
De Max made his film début in America in 1908, in the Vitagraph short MacBeth (the earliest known film version of Shakespeare’s play). He also appeared in two silent films versions of the Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers).
Monsieur de Max followed the spectacular widow from Paris to New York, during the Broadway season. He went on drives and walks with her, and dined daily at her half-Oriental home in New York. He even escorted her bull terrier Cherub and her white spaniel Babette for their daily waddling constitutional in the park in full view of the gaping public.
De Max, according to some reports, asked confidants about his international courtship and a proposed alliance between them. He wondered aloud if it would interfere with his success as a star in America if he were to marry Aimée. Édouard was reassured that Mrs. Gouraud was known from coast to coast as a most liberal patron of the theater who was always seen at opening nights.
Aimée caught wind of his inquiries. She wondered aloud, “Would a woman’s pleasure in contemplating her undisturbed bank account outweigh the aesthetic joy of a close view of the most classic profile of any living man, the most talented actor that ever paced the stage with the great Sarah Bernhardt, or the most elegant figure to stroll through the Bois to a luncheon at Armenonville?
It was reported that De Max suspected she was contemplating marriage to Prince Colonna Lecce, a Corsican who would introduce her to the glamorous social set led by the Duchess de Rohan. He was a definite threat. In an ungovernable rage, rebelling and rebuffing, the tempestuous De Max denounced Mrs. Gouraud as a coquette. There was a definite streak of passion between them.
Édouard de Max was however a famous and unapologetic seducer of men. That fact certainly wouldn’t have taken the great actor out of the running. It wouldn’t have been the heiress’ first “lavender marriage.” She was so enthralled with him as an actor that, according to one San Francisco Examiner report, she staged, at great expense, a play called Le Typhon about Japanese expats in Paris by the great Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel, which premiered at Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt on October 11, 1911. Aimée attended all the rehearsals, superintended the costumes and even gave stage directions.
Such a powerhouse pairing between the Romanian star and the American heiress from the Wild West could prove to be a fruitful alliance…
The House of Fantasy
In 1911, Aimée spent her Paris season living at the Hôtel Biron, perhaps the most vital, earth shattering artist colony of all times with dynamo tenants including the actor Édouard de Max, the writer Jean Cocteau, the painter Henri Matisse, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and the dancer Isadora Duncan. Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and monstre sacré Pablo Picasso were frequent guests/collaborators. The honeypot, the chief inspiration among this pantheon of creative gods, and the eye of the storm was certainly San Francisco native, modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Diaghilev saw her performance in Saint Petersburg and claimed “Isadora gave an irreparable jolt to the classic ballet of Imperial Russia…She pointed the way and we followed.” Nijinsky was reported to have made the claim that “Isadora opened the door of the cell to the prisoners.” Duncan inspired several Rodin paintings.
At Biron, Aimée, as usual, played the part of master of ceremony, hostess extraordinaire and chief instigator.
Meanwhile she searched on for her own Paris play-house.
In June of 1912, Mrs. Gouraud paid $150,000 (4.6 million today) for a fine residence in the Passy-La Muette district of the 16th arrondissement, near the Bois de Boulogne, a fashionable quarter of Paris. It stood in spacious gardens and contained a little theater in which her gentleman friend Monsieur de Max performed. She brought over 12 servants and all of her household goods and announced that she would reside permanently in Paris. Aimée would become one of the many self-exiles, the expatriates, who chose to leave a homeland that was considered artistically, intellectually, politically, racially, or sexually limiting — or even oppressive.
“I prefer the artistic atmosphere of Paris to the more commercial environments of New York or San Francisco,” she remarked.
Mrs. Gouraud’s Parisian salon was declared “The House of Fantasy” by members of the press. It was a surrealist abode, filled with Dali-esque touches, jeweled gates, precious souvenirs from her travels, Buddha statues throughout…
A tour of Mrs. Gouraud’s Bohemian mansion would spark not just conversation but an inquisition. Perplexed and somewhat petrified tourists would be led on a higgledy-piggledy journey both around the Occident and the Orient and through the deeper recesses of the heiress’s complex psyche. Her friend screenwriter Gertrude Orr, aka actress Gertrude Barrett, aka Baroness de Beckendorff described her first visit to Mrs. Gouraud’s extraordinary home, which she dubbed the “Court of Pearls”:
It was like entering the treasure chamber of a Bagdad caliph who has looted king’s palaces in every quarter of the globe. A Crusader in full armor guarded the reception hall. A Peruvian sun-god rubbed shoulders with an Alaskan totem pole and a Malay war drum. Machetes, dueling pistols, Zula assegais, Arabian scimitars, a cowboy’s spurs, shared the wall space with photographs of theatrical beauties, Japanese prints and paintings that ranged from a Paul Gauguin original to several of Raphael Kirchner’s voluptuous opium princesses.
Her salon was modern, lively and liberal. Constitution Magazine furnished a detailed description of her Parisian salon, her “Palais D’Orient,” describing it as “a riot of undiluted paganism.” There were splendid lacquered chairs and settees from ancient China. There were iron storks and porcelain dogs and bronze pythons in the act of striking. There was a mantel-piece from India and above it a large painting of a nude woman with a sinuous boa constrictor caressing her shapely limbs. There were quaint kakemonos, Chinese wall paintings, paneled brocades from Japan, beautiful Persian rugs, elephants, dragons, and delicate silk embroideries. A permanently growling Siberian tiger’s head and hide laid ominously on the floor. There were countless Buddhas, bronze and copper, silver and gold, fat and thin, smiling and serious, with halos and without. They were Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Singhalese, Burmese and Indian. One of the finest shrines featured a carved enthroned Confucius. There were figures of Siva and the jolly Japanese god of happiness, guardian of children, and patron of bartenders–Hotei .
Mrs. Gouraud had a truly catholic taste in gods.
Pictures of world celebrities, all personally given to Madame Gouraud, adorned the walls. Her bathroom was turned into a veritable art gallery with photographs of handsome actors, dancers, acrobats and prize fighters.
The heiress had two portraits painted of her that she would hang in her new Parisian mansion. One portrayed Aimée as the Buddha with one hand giving and one hand receiving, which was painted by Irene Prahar, who once worked under Rodin. The second, painted masterfully by Delsartean demi-god Edmund Russell, depicted Aimée as an Indian snake charmer.
The house included a “vert pistashe” dining room (named after the nut?) with a toy railroad on the table.
Hand-wrought bronze doors taken from an Indian harem opened into her bedroom. The chief ornament was a wonderful Chinese bed made of solid ebony encrusted with ivory. Huge white polar bear-skins spread underneath the bed provided a sharp contrast. The general design was that of a boat. The carvings were said to represent “the fantastic progress of an opium smoker’s dream.”
One reporter claimed, “It is without exaggeration, the strangest house in Europe.”
Among her harem of flatterers and sycophants, were such celebrity regulars as actresses Gaby Deslys and Claudia de Lamar, Princess Eistoroff, the painter, and Sash Vatichenko, who gave dazzling performances on his tympanon, Also dazzling the crowd was kinsman of the Romanoffs and favorite of the Czar, Baron André de Beckendorf and his friend and fellow countryman Prince Alexandre Miskinoff.
Mystic, hedonist extraordinaire, and channeler of esoteric philosophy Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast, was a frequent guest. He was her court magician. They cast spells on each other. He was very different than the other men lingering in Crocker’s harem and definitely caught Aimée’s eye.
It was whispered in gossip columns that snakes had a part in orgiastic rites held behind dark, heavy curtains that keep out the daylight.
Aimée’s summer entertainments at her new home in Gay Paree in 1913 were très extraordinaire. First was a fancy dress ball for 150 guests, where Aimée dressed in harem attire in a costume of black and gold designed by master couturier “The King of Fashion” Paul Poiret himself. Mrs. Gouraud had a $1.5 million worth of jewels adapted to suit her costume. She was carried down the grand staircase by four stalwart slaves covered with bronze paint. The diverse costumes of the guests made a brilliant medley of color, but the oriental predominated. Long processions of the jeweled Maharanees, followed by trains of black slaves, Turkish harem beauties, and Egyptian princesses passed through Mrs. Gouraud’s reception rooms. The disguises were so perfect that it was difficult to identify the guests.
De Max, who assisted in receiving the guests, impersonated Hamlet. Princess Eristoff was in an Egyptian costume with genuine antique headdress. Renee Chappelle, La Tapierkowsky, and Countess Swiska danced. The invited guests included Prince Nicholas Ouroussoff, long-time partner of artist Erté, Prince Troubetzkoi, the sculptor, Jan van Beers, the painter, Count de Govinne, actresses Anna Held and Gaby Deslys, and poet (later Benito Mussolini’s chief political rival) Gabriele d’Annunzio.
The Chicago Tribune reported another party at the House of Fantasy two weeks later that featured performances by the young and graceful Yetta Rianza, who was appearing at the Moulin Rouge; two unnamed principal dancers from the Russian ballet; and Mme. Ida Rubenstein, who had just finished a run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in the Orientalist La Pisanelle ou La Mort Parfumée. This delightful ballet was written by Gabriele d’Annunzio with music by Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, costumes by Leon Bakst and costarred Edouard de Max. Ida Rubinstein had left the Ballets Russes after performing in several productions in 1911 to start a competing company, taking some of Diaghilev’s talent with her.
The Ballets Russes had just weeks early premiered Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) at Théâtre des Champs Elysées with music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Nijinsky and set and costume designs by Nicholas Roerich. It was not your typical ballet. So avant-garde and cutting edge was the choreography, the costumes and Stravinsky’s score that violence erupted. The second act had to be performed in the presence of the police.
Both companies successfully seduced their easily jaded French patrons, coloring their shows with an eroticism that found its justification in Oriental exoticism.
Rubinstein would become very much a soul sister and torch carrier to the great Bohemian Aimée Crocker. Born in 1883 in Kharkiv (Ukraine) into a wealthy, cultured and Russified clan, Rubinstein began her training too late to make becoming a major talent a possibility, but to improve she took dance lessons from Mikhail Fokin and diction with Sarah Bernhardt. Her shortcomings didn’t stop her from staging massive productions with 150 players and 600 costumes, performing larger than life characters like Salomé, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and Saint Sebastian and becoming a major and important patron of the arts. She had, like Aimée, charisma up the wazoo and to the tips of her fingernails.
Both Aimée and Ida were very much in cahoots, aiding and abetting the shifting frontiers of art, music and dance that were jolting Europe and North America.
The evening went off without a hitch.
Aimée’s International House of Fantasy, her Bohemian wonderland, was the meeting place of genius movers and shakers and a harem of talented young men. Her affections were engaged with many of them. Some of her enchantments led to proposals, some to passion and some to scandal. After wading in her vast dating pool for a few phenomenal years before the Great War, the heiress did finally, formally become engaged to an admirer in December of 1913….
To Be Continued…
Banner Painting–The Harem by Joseph Milon. From the Collection of Aimée Crocker Gouraud.
“Amy Crocker Hailed ‘Maid of Mystery’,” The San Francisco Examiner, Aug 13, 1910.
“Amy Gouraud is Crafty,” The San Francisco Examiner, September 24, 1911.
“Be Bride Four Times! Never! But Former Miss Crocker Will,” San Francisco Call, December 31, 1913, p1.
“Californians Dazzle Paris,” The Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1913.
Cholly Francisco, “Among the Swells and Belles,” The San Francisco Examiner, August 20, 1910, p9.
Francaise, “Paris Gayety at Height: Berry Wall ‘Comes Back.’”Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1913.
“Gouraud to Wed,” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 19, 1910.
“La Grande Semaine of Paris’s Season,” New York Times, June 28, 1913.
“Mrs. Gouraud as Pompadour, Joins Countess’ Du Barry Fete,” The San Francisco Examiner, November 13, 1910.
“Mrs. Gouraud Brought Up To Date,” Herald Republican, November 6, 1910.
“Mrs. Gouraud in Apache Dance; Donkey Looks on,” The San Francisco Examiner, November14, 1910, p1.
“Mrs. Gouraud Takes Fling at S.F.,” Oakland Tribune, June 9, 1912, p1.
“Mrs. Amy Gouraud Spends Three Weeks in a Harem,” The San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1909.
“Mrs. Amy Gouraud to Change Name Again,” Oakland Tribune, October 20, 1912.
Patricia Vertinsky, “Ida Rubinstein: Dancing Decadence and The Art of the Beautiful Pose,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, No. 26 (Spring 2014), pp. 122-146.
Peter Ostwald, Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap Into Madness, (Lyle Stuart, 2000).
Powers Gouraud, “My Amazing Mother-in-Law Aimée Gouraud,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 12, 1922.
“Prefers Love of her Python to that of Suitor,” Buffalo Courier, September 8, 1912, p34.
“Scheming Baron Tries to Victimize American Women,” The San Francisco Examiner, October 8, 1911.
“The Woman Who Tried Everything,” The San Francisco Examiner, August 21, 1910.
Vance Thompson, “Mrs. Gouraud Finds Stolen Eye of Idol in a Paris Pawnshop,” The San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1909, p1.
“Why I worship Buddha,” The San Francisco Examiner, December 12, 1909, p12.
“Writes a Book on Experiences,” Elmira Star-Gazette, October 10, 1910, p7.