Monday, March 7, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Strong Women

Queen Elizabeth II visiting The Morris-Jumel Mansion (where Eliza Jumel lived for over 50 years) during the Bicentennial. Photo: MJM
by Liz Smith

Scarlett O' Hara's Northern Sister — Eliza Jumel.  She was a Sister Doing it For Herself, Way Back in The Day!  Also — Barbara Cook's "Then and Now" show ... and getTV  showcases one of Judy Garland's Greatest Moments.

"A REALLY
strong woman accepts the war she went through and is ennobled by her scars," says Carly Simon.
Click to order "The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel."
RECENTLY, in the flood of books that arrive in this office, I found an amazing true-life story, "The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money In the Early Republic," by Margaret A. Oppenheimer.

This is the tale of a New York woman — Eliza — who came into this world the child of an illiterate prostitute, raised in a brothel, slaved as a servant in various low-down places and spent time grinding out a life in a workhouse, during her mother's frequent absences — usually jailed.

But somehow, Eliza, who seemed predestined to follow in her mother's footsteps, or at least never rise above her low station, learned to read, write, speak several languages, collect — and sell — fine art, and in time become one of the most successful real-estate women/landowners in the young and vital United States of America. She also snared several husbands, including the controversial vice president, Aaron Burr.

A good deal of her early, and even later life, is shrouded in mystery. What Eliza did during her formative years — those years she so astonishingly improved her education — cannot be pinned down. But she emerged as a woman of burning ambition, high-style pretensions, and had a clever way of turning disadvantages to her benefit. She would claim to be on intimate terms with French royalty. She was not, but she was convincing.
Eliza Jumel with her great-niece and great-nephew, by Alcide Ercole (1854).
She was initially devoted to her first husband, but he was not ambitious enough for her taste, nor as clever with money as she'd hoped. The marriage to Aaron Burr, which arrived toward the end of his colorful career, was one of convenience — higher social status for her, money for him. Eliza was quite wealthy. She loved to show off, and was never bothered by criticisms of ostentatious display. In fact, taken to task, she would generally do more of same, only bigger. Her carriages grew larger, the horses that drew them more numerous, and to put a fine point on it, she packed a pistol, too.

When it became clear Burr was a bit too free and easy with Eliza's hard-earned cash, they quickly divorced. But, he died almost immediately afterward, and clever Eliza simply ignored the fact of their divorce, and claimed to be the widow of Aaron Burr, which gave her even greater entrée and respect. (News didn't travel then as it does now, and apparently Eliza had a way about her.)
The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, and home of the possible ghost of Eliza Jumel.
An 1864 print of the house. NYPL Collection
She was also involved in several sensational lawsuits, over — you guessed it — money. And there were even rumors, quite unsubstantiated, that she'd murdered her first husband — the merchant who eventually didn't come up to snuff, in the matter of holding onto his money, or making more. Some even said Eliza had him "buried alive." Although one might certainly call Eliza a hard case, she had good, devoted friends and loved her various nieces and nephews and even children unrelated to her. She had none of her own. She lived until the age of ninety, and afterward, her considerable estate became the subject of unpleasant, highly-publicized family wrangling.

Eliza as a young red-haired beauty.
What struck me, while reading this meticulous and sprightly history, is that I'd never heard of this woman before — perhaps I did in reading about Aaron Burr at some point, and her named popped up. Also, I kept thinking about Scarlett O'Hara. Now, Eliza's life was not quite that dramatic. No great wars, no great loves unrequited or unrecognized (until it was too late.) Nor was she a sensational beauty, though attractive, for sure.

But, like Katie Scarlett, Eliza Jumel allowed nothing to stand in her way to get what she wanted. What she wanted was out of poverty, want, neglect. Scarlett was born to wealth, lost it, and never forgot what it was like to be poor and hungry. Eliza began life poor and hungry. She never lost sight of her past — despite her natural tendency to embellish everything: the worth of her art, the size of her jewels, the grand people she knew. She was pretentious but amazingly focused. Eliza was upwardly mobile and became more than respectable. (A status we can't imagine Scarlett ever achieving!)

Eliza was a modern woman in a most un-modern time. Her tactics were considered unseemly by some, but reading her story today, one can only raise a glass, tip a hat, bow down and say, "Brava!"

I think Eliza's story is ripe for a cable mini-series. It would probably have to be "goosed up" a bit (cleavage and sex), but the bare bones of this astonishing rags to riches story is red meat for a sensitive screenwriter. Starz, HBO, Showtime — the ball is in your court.
THE LEGEND who is Barbara Cook — Broadway-musical comedy-queen-turned-fabled-concert-chanteuse — returns to Manhattan this spring in "Barbara Cook: Then and Now." This "musical memoir" was conceived by James Lapine and will be directed by the one and only Tommy Tune.

The show happens at New World Stages, Stage One (304 West 50th Street) Performances begin April 13th and finish on June 26th. Sixty-five performances only. Get your tickets now. Do I need to tell any of you how luminous Ms. Cook is onstage? What a national treasure she is? For tix info call Telecharge at 800-447-7400.
ON MARCH 28th getTV will present one of the most astonishing moments in the career of Judy Garland and in fact, one of the most riveting four and a half minutes of television that medium has ever enjoyed.

"This is for you, Jack."
I do mean the episode of "The Judy Garland Show" in which she performs "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This was meant was a tribute to the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, who was Garland's friend. The star had initially wanted to scrap her scheduled show, and do a concert of "great American songs, uplifting songs, we need it now!" The CBS-TV high-ups were having none of Judy's patriotism, or her personal distress, and ordered Garland to carry on as if nothing had occurred.

And so Judy sang along with her guest star, Ethel Merman, and endured the unfunny "comedy" skits that CBS thought would endear her to the audience. But, she kept "Battle Hymn" up her sequined sleeve. She demanded that it not be on the official line-up of musical numbers for the week.

At the end of her program, where she generally sang several solos, Garland looked straight into the camera, and said, "This is for you, Jack," and launched into a rendition of the old song that is unequalled in passion and emotion. The audience gave Judy a rare and tumultuous standing ovation. (Those were the days before TV and Broadway audiences stood up for everything. A standing O meant something then!)

CBS would remove Garland's spoken tribute to JFK, but grudgingly allowed the number to stay. Thank goodness. Check your local listings for getTV. But be prepared. Miss Garland, in the full flower of her genius, will put you on the floor!

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.