The American Oscar Wilde
Aimée Crocker was accused of collecting people as others collect postage stamps. If anything, her friends were passport stamps, granting entry to worlds blossoming with art and beauty, a land called Bohemia, where the perfumed air of fantasies dance to life, and society’s misunderstood artistic souls are embraced and celebrated. Aimée collected people from all walks of life. Some of the heiress’ friends were a backstage pass to the theatrical world, some offered an exciting glimpse into the city’s seedy underbelly, and others electrified the night with scandalous shimmies.
One prize among Aimée’s collection was influential tastemaker and dandy, Edmund Warren Russell. He was an artiste extraordinaire — poet, painter, sculptor, actor — who became famous as a lecturer, lifestyle coach and portrait painter of the extraordinary heiress Aimée Crocker Gouraud. He was a star in New York’s Bohemian set. It was a purely platonic pairing founded in earnest love of art, exotic parties, and all things Indian. Russell became a favorite party host and guest in the years after the death of Jackson, husband number three.
In his mid-twenties, Russell was a moderately well-known dramatist and orator who became inspired by the aestheticism that Oscar Wilde’s 1882 American lecture tour promoted. Tall, Byronic in looks, and fond of flamboyant dress, there was a certain languor about him, a touch of effete decadence, that evoked comparison to the great Irish Aesthete. When Russell began lecturing coast to coast in the mid-1880s on House Decorating, The Art of Dress and Artistic Expression he became known to some as “The American Oscar Wilde.”
Russell’s muse and spiritual guide was François Alexandre Nicolas Chéri Delsarte, the French musician, orator and coach. Delsarte developed a system to help professional actors, singers and orators connect their inner emotional experience with outer gestures and expression. His formula was, “control at the center, freedom at the extremity.” It was a precursor to both the “Stanislavski system” and the “Alexander Technique.” For instruction in the Delsarte Science and Philosophy of Art, Russell turned to dress reformer and acting coach Henrietta Crane. Russell at once fell in love with the system and the teacher and became spiritually wedded to both. “Delsartism is the training of the body, making of it a perfectly attuned instrument through which the soul within may speak to the world,” exclaimed Russell. By the fall of 1884, Henrietta and Edmund were lovers, and on July 12, 1885, Sigurd Naourn Russell was born in Des Moines, Iowa. In late 1885 Sigurd’s parents married.
Henrietta had studied under Delsarte’s son, Gustave, in Paris. Both Russells established themselves as authorities on the Delsarte system of expression, and soon promulgated and expanded the principles. The Delsartism they preached and would later promote into a fad would have been barely recognizable to its originator. Russell wanted to develop a sense of a higher beauty in all of the expressions of life. He said, “I pray for an art of the future that may include all science and embrace all nature, until we find God’s measures and man’s measures identical in absolute truth.”
Hundreds of Delsartean experts following their lead appeared throughout the country offering instruction, primarily to women, on dress, posture, expression, home decoration, personal beauty and virtually every topic that could be of assistance in the making an art out of everyday living. The Russells blew the bugles, twirled the batons and held the banner in the fin de siècle “Art for Art’s Sake” parade.
“I am merely trying to show people how, by studying the principles of art, they may make an art of life itself. We cannot all be poets or painters, but we can convert our daily acts into graciousness and let our conversation be with beauty,” explained Henrietta.
The Russells achieved considerable national fame by taking what was originally a system and philosophy of expression and using it to build a safe harbor for middle class and elite women where they could wade safely into the swirling currents of cultural and feminist revolt. The Russells’ success was instant; and an invitation to one of their classes became a valuable social commodity in New York. Soon man and wife set off on a worldwide lecture tour. They traveled to London in June 1886 to spread the Delsartean Gospel of Beauty there. The power couple taught members of the Drury Lane Theatre, Covent Garden and the Carl Rosa Opera Company. They had lecture engagements at Cambridge University, where they taught a class of five Indian princes. During these London engagements, the Russells gave a lecture in the studio of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Moscheles that was attended by Robert Browning, James Whistler, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde himself. George Bernard Shaw reviewing one of Russell’s lectures for Our Corner noted a resemblance in attire between Russell and Wilde.
The Russells’ cultural influence was far reaching. Henrietta was a formative influence on the legendary pioneer Ted Shawn and other early modern dance leaders. After attending a particularly lively lecture, Grand Dame Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor “Mrs. Astor” exclaimed, “My Dear Mrs. Russell, you have opened a new world to me.” Soon all of the blue blood families of Gilded Age New York would follow her lead.
Winning over Mrs. Astor was a coup. Astor was a figure that promoted a high Victorianism in which the refined world of women was kept separate from the sensual world of men. Social status was based on an elaborate system of formal behavior. Mastery of that system meant the possession of good taste and respectability. It also distinguished the refined from the coarse and the arriviste from the socially established.
With the reformation of the supercilious grande dame of New York high society, Henrietta and Edmund managed to reconcile a developing new desire for bold unconventional self-expression and gratification, on one hand, and the need to retain social respectability on the other. Their lively lectures promoted personal emancipation from rigid standards of feminine behavior through individual artistic expression.
In Edmund and Henrietta’s gospel, man is the product of three environments — the body was the first envelopment, the dress the second, the home the third envelopment of the soul. Through physical fitness, dress reform, interior design and emotional expressiveness, the modified Delsartean system that the Russells preached, once given the stamp of approval from the woman who defined proper ladylike behavior, allowed women new freedoms of expressions in all areas of their lives.
Edmund was hailed as “The Apostle of Aesthetics,” “The Apostle of the Beautiful,” and the “Apostle of Delsarte.” Newspapers across the country reported Edmund’s fashion opinions as facts for decades. He was an authority on fabrics, jewels, colors, home decor; he even dictated how to faint properly. Edmund’s cultured manner, pleasant face and conspicuous androgyny endeared him to what one New York society reporter called the “sensitive set that supplies Sunday papers with sentimental poetry.”
Like Wilde, Russell gave the audiences at his lectures an endless list of house decoration taboos and fashion faux pas including: white and gold sofas, chandeliers in the center of rooms and lamps in each of the corners, gold picture frames, birds used in the decoration of hats, wearing coral or turquoise with white muslin past aged sixty, and low comedy jewels like diamond frogs, lizards or pigs. He loved wallpaper (fifteen kinds of wall paper is not too much for one room), music rooms and patronizing local artists.
Both Oscar Wilde and Russell received ridicule and praise as they roamed the world on their lecture tours. One reviewer would note Edmund’s humorous observations and anecdotes, and witty phrases. Another found him hypnotic. One society page columnist noted his serious even somber nature: “A funeral is hilarious beside him. An undertaker is gay and sparkling as compared to his gentle, deadly earnest.” Another commentator wrote that both Russell and Wilde were worse than cholera.
In the spring of 1888, the Russells embarked on what they should have realized was a foolhardy venture: they presented themselves as actors. In two matinees at London’s Princess Theatre, they attempted to show the value of the Delsarte system for the actor through their own performances. Their reviews were scathing, the consensus was that they would discourage rather than encourage anyone from taking an interest in Delsarte training for the theater.
Russell’s performance years later at Wallack’s Theatre as Hamlet was noted mostly for his tights splitting down the seam. The reviews were unenthusiastic and the production closed after two performances.
In time, Edmund’s decadent foppishness grew more extreme and he began to alienate audiences. Russell also began to alienate his wife and business partner. In spite of erupting disagreements and growing disharmony, Mr. and Mrs. Russell claimed their trip abroad a resounding triumph and marketed themselves as Delsartean gurus.
In 1890, their lectures were compiled in a book, A Delsartean Scrap-book: Health, Personality, Beauty, House-Decoration, Dress, etc. It featured the two of them as “the high priest and priestess of Delsarte” as if they were still a team, but included two to three times more coverage of Edmund than Henrietta. Presenting themselves as continuing collaborators was good for selling the book and for their individual exploitation of the Delsarte craze.
In 1893, Edmund compiled a book of poems, Readings from California Poets, which contained pieces from some of his favorite writers many of which he befriended: J.F. Bowman, Ina Coolbrith, Rollin Daggett, Lucius Foote, Bret Harte, Adah Isaacs Menken, Joachin Miller, Daniel O’Connell, and Charles Warren Stoddard. Russell loved California proclaiming, “It would seem that perhaps no other State in the Union could show more original and dramatic power. The glory of eschscholtzia, the weirdness of the madrone, the grandeur of the unsurpassable redwoods, the awe of the desert mescal, blossom into strange verse that can belong only to the Pacific Coast–to California.”
After their divorce, Henrietta would marry poet Richard Hovey who, in sharp contrast to Edmund, affected a vigorous masculinity.
With the new century Russell began to entertain and lecture at smaller gatherings in private homes and at his studio in Manhattan. Edmund Russell, aka the Essence of Aestheticism, the Prophet of Fragrancy, the Painter of Poems and the Familiar of Swamis held a Grizzly Apache Dinner in Chinatown in February of 1912. He invited all of the colorful guests that Aimée invited a few weeks earlier at her well publicized “Dance of All Nations” event. The undisputed highlight of the evening was when Mrs. Allan-Sommer terrified the souls of the assemblage by dancing the grizzly bear with a real grizzly.
The next month Russell and Crocker held an unveiling event to show a party of barons and baronesses, princes and princesses, maharajas and maharanees, Edmund’s just finished portrait of the heiress from Sacramento. The new Asian palace that Aimée bought in Paris was being renovated to house the masterpiece in a fitting setting. The painting showed Mrs. Gouraud as an Indian princess charming a snake.
The frame featured dozens of solid gold Buddhas, each holding a fiery opal. At the top were two gold cobras supporting an immense opal over four inches in diameter. The opals were once worn in a necklace by an eminent Maharanee. Mr. Russell earlier painted a portrait of Mme. Jomelli, which rested in a frame of black and silver stuffed with great Persian turquoises and inlaid with prayers from the Koran. The Gouraud frame set her back $25,000.
The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The Evening World wrote:
Mrs. Gouraud is not alone a handsome woman of striking figure. There is something mystic about her. She is a deep student of the occult. She thinks in terms of the mystic and the metaphysical. Metapsychosis is one of her hobbies. She is an avowed worshipper of the Oriental art, poetry and song. Mr. Russell has caught all this in his wonderful portrait.
The portrait depicted Mrs. Gouraud to the eye as an East Indian princess garbed in wondrous draperies, which are studded with an even $1,000,000 worth of diamonds and emeralds. She is shown dancing before a gold statue of Buddha, on which all the light is concentrated. There is a great wicked eyed serpent coiled at her feet. There is a background of mysticism and a foreground of the same.
The program for the evening included a scene from the second act of “Carmen,” sung by Henri Leon, tenor of the Paris Opera Comique, and Mme. Rosalia Chalia, Spanish prima donna. The next number was a solo on the balalaika, by Vladimir Pogareoff. “The curse of Kail,” a dance pantomime, and a serpent dance was given by Prince Imail and Princess Ishtar. Edwin Walker played the accompaniment.
To aid her own ingenious mind, the Queen of Bohemia secured the services of her portrait painter as an extraordinary master of ceremonies for a pink tea party at his studio. There were two special guests that evening. Princess Sita Diva of India obliged Aimée’s guests from every stratum of New York society with a dance. The other guest of honor was H. H. Kaa, Maharajah of Amber, who, much to the astonishment of the crowd turned out to be a twelve-foot boa constrictor. Kaa was reportedly a lineal descendant of the Kaa in Kipling’s Jungle Book — the one that devoured young monkeys in the moonlight of an ancient city. Guests that evening included Congressman William Sulzer, who would become the first and only Governor of New York to be impeached. Aimée couldn’t have been more thrilled to see some of the more squeamish guests run for the exits over her well executed practical joke.
A year later Russell invited famous Presbyterian minister Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst to mingle and forsooth at one of his studio tea gatherings. Two decades earlier, Parkhurst conspired with Aimée’s brother-in-law and candidate for governor Jacob Sloat Fassett on a bombastic campaign to rid New York City of vice, corruption and graft at Tammany Hall. He was now in his seventies and deriving part of his income by giving advice to readers of the Hearst newspapers.
Parkhurst had turned over a new leaf. He enjoyed fraternizing and frolicking with the eclectic group. He gasped rapturously at the graceful glidings and sinuous vermiculatings of Mlle. Lisa Gluck of the Imperial Russian Ballet, and later in the evening was happily photographed talking to the lovely dancer in her abbreviated costume.
Russell sat on a throne on which the Balbat of Omzoon once sat. Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Maharaja of Baroda, outfitted Russell in a princely choga and a necklace of diamonds, rubies, pearls, and emeralds. Aimée meanwhile spoke French to some young Parisian counts who gazed ecstatically at her diamonds.
Celebrated savant and baboon specialist, Dr. Richard Lynch Garner gave a talk, while the guests munched fruit cake and sipped rose leaf punch and pale pink tea. Garner was a self-taught zoologist and atheist from southwest Virginia credited with bringing some of the first live primates to America. Beginning in 1892, he lived on and off in the French colony of Gabon with the Nkomi people, studying primates and trying to sell American academics on his theories. He claimed that he could teach apes to speak human languages and that he could speak primate. He would demonstrate these communications in his traveling scientific wonder show with a chimpanzee name Suzie.
Mrs. Allan-Sommer returned, this time bringing her charming baboon Prince Joko with the hopes that Dr. Garner would converse with him. Edmund borrowed a monkey from the Central Park Zoo. Garner refused to entertain Russell’s crowd by talking with the monkey guests, but felt compelled to speak a bit about evolution to the guest reverend. The Bible-thumper was absolutely charmed by the sordid guests. He told Russell, “I really have not enjoyed myself so much for almost twenty years.”
When a Polish princess was asked to describe Russell’s studio, she said that it reminded her, “of a scarlet poem without words that tortures the soul.” Another guest commented, “It is so overwhelmingly subtle in its orientalization, in its mystic grottoes and dark, romantic, cozy corners, in its recessed niches, containing hideous grinning idols, bronze billikins and other dim-glimmering Moorish lanterns, that mere words cannot express its occult charm.”
Few besides Edmund Russell and Her Royal Highness Queen Aimée of Bohemia, could induce grand opera prima donnas, maharajas and other hifalutin highbrows to mix with highly paid geniuses, men of letters, Broadway showgirls and Bowery scallywags for simple informal afternoon teas. Newspapers often reported on Aimée and Edmund’s parties. They portrayed them as outrageous and ridiculed their extravagance and mystical notions, seemingly missing the essence of their mission: bring together people from all walks of life. Illuminate, inspire and entertain.
Coming Soon Part Two–Edmund Russell: The Mystic