Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reviving Skittles: Life of a Victorian Courtesan

Click here to read Part 1 of Reviving Skittles: Life of a Victorian Courtesan, my 10-part Bad Girl biography of Catherine Walters, a.k.a. Skittles, the most popular, remembered and notorious courtesan of Victorian England. For the other nine parts, click on the links located on the right-hand side of this blog.
Illustration by Shaina Ortiz

Reviving Skittles, Part 10: The End and a Beginning

 Contrary to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt's poetically gloomy thoughts, Catherine Walters wasn’t soulless. She was just unwilling to let her heart be broken again. After the first few days of their affair, Skittles returned to her familiar round of social and intimate engagements, and when Blunt visited, she would casually brush him aside, telling him she was busy and would have to see when she could fit him on her calendar.
Illustration by Shaina Ortiz
In truth, Skittles now found it easier to enjoy a simple romance than to fall into an emotional abyss, which she had done with Lord Hartington. If anyone was to suffer, better it should be a poet. When with Hartington, Skittles had done the hard work of imagining herself a duchess, moving into Hartington’s world, adapting herself to its expectations, and perfecting the role of dutiful and loving wife.
          Now, where could love with Blunt lead? To serial postings in foreign cities over which Skittles would have no say? To endurance of his exhausting emotion, his gloomy moods and romantic wanderings? She preferred staying in the world she knew, with skilled older lovers like Achille Fould, who enjoyed her for herself and made few demands.
          It was just as well that Skittles let Blunt down gently. Her fool’s talk and superficial social whirl would have driven him mad. Jealous by nature, could he have coped with the attention she received from the many former lovers who still adored her?
         Still, his three days with Skittles were enough to ruin Blunt for life—no other woman could ever compare to her, his first love. This, of course, was convenient for Blunt because he would always struggle to reconcile his religious upbringing with the passionate lust he knew he could feel. The search for pleasure was its own punishment, and allowed the wounded orphan boy to avoid intimacy throughout his life.
        The sex stopped, yet Skittles and Blunt began a friendship that was to last for the rest of their lives. It was built on genuine affection and a shared history that continued to grow between them. She could and did tell him anything, as was her way, and Blunt also felt he could reveal himself to Skittles because she didn’t shock easily.

Throughout 1864, Blunt made occasional visits to Skittles’ house in Paris. She was as mercurial as ever, and his melancholy personality showed signs of becoming more entrenched. Now with his sexual initiation behind him but his good looks very much at the fore, Blunt had engaged in a series of affairs and was developing a reputation for promiscuity. In 1865, Blunt’s chief at the Foreign Office posted him to Lisbon, and the former lovers bid each other a platonic farewell.
Blunt eventually married Lady Anne Isabella King-Noel, the only known descendant of the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Knowing the history of Byron surely appealed to Blunt as he courted Lady Anne, who like her good-hearted grandmother became embroiled in a troubled marriage to a womanizing poet.
After initially meeting in Venice, Blunt and Lady Anne wed in 1869 and he retired from the diplomatic service in 1872. When their marriage was in the early, happy days they had a daughter, Lady Judith Wentworth, born in 1873.
Like Skittles, Lady Anne was a delicate little woman with searching eyes, and Catholic. But where Skittles might have been “soulless,” as Blunt says in his poem, Lady Anne was all soul. She had converted to Catholicism as an adult, and had a convert’s zeal. Animal lust repelled her; she sought a life of the spirit and quiet meditation. This was exactly what Blunt wanted in a wife. And yet, something about the sensible Lady Anne’s companionship left Blunt cold. She would never toy with him, never “pursue her whim just where it led her, tender, sad, or gay.”
In this sense, Skittles would never be replaced. Not that she would have wanted to be Blunt’s wife, or even continue a long-term affair with him—she was happy he had found a suitable woman to marry.
Years later, Blunt's rebellious and passionate nature brought him back to his relationship with Skittles, but in poetry only. He sympathized with the Irish independence movement, and at one midnight meeting he advocated a home rule plan that got him arrested for charges of resisting the police and sedition under Chief Secretary of Ireland Arthur James Balfour’s Coercion Act of 1887. He spent a two-month sentence in Galway Gaol writing poetry.
           In an 1889 review of Blunt’s work, Oscar Wilde thanked Balfour, saying: “It must be admitted that by sending Mr. Blunt to gaol, [Balfour] has converted a clever rhymer into an earnest and deep-thinking poet. The narrow confines of a prison cell seem to suit the ‘sonnet’s scant plot of ground,’ and an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” Several years later, the now mature poet published “Esther, A Young Man’s Tragedy,” a work that had obviously been in the making for years.
           As for Skittles, during Blunt’s time of tumult, her life grew steadier. When the poet left Paris in 1865, Catherine Walters quickly put their passion behind her, ignored letters from her former lover Hartington, and immersed herself in life with her undemanding older lover, Achille Fould. At the age of 26, Skittles saw that her charms as a courtesan wouldn’t last forever. With Fould’s help, she put her finances in order and found satisfaction in pursuits other than men. He died in 1867 at age 67, and she missed him terribly. Paris wasn’t the same with him gone, and Skittles traveled extensively.
           She was now welcome most everywhere she went, especially back home in England. The notoriety she had gained in the yellowback biographies that purported to tell her life story made her very popular with the British public, which cheered for the socially rebellious girl who had made a name for herself.
            Skittles also appeared in novels such as Ouida’s Under Two Flags, published in 1867, where a character called Zu Zu is a pretty courtesan who rides and hunts. A well-dressed girl with “a vulgar little soul,” Zu Zu does silly things such as throw expensive peaches into the river in hopes of hitting dragonflies, and she thinks it’s “the height of wit to stifle you with cayenne slid into your vanilla ice.”
         The 1860s gave way to the 1870s, and the most suffocating aspects of Victorian oppression also began to give way. With so many women now finding work in the cities with the industrialization of society, their public appearance was no longer shocking.
          At the same time they began pressing for the right to vote, they were making names for themselves in society, on magazine covers and on stage. This fresh perspective put Skittles at the forefront of London life. “Skittles, thanks to the continued friendship of the Prince of Wales, blazed as brightly as ever in the London ‘hemisphere,’” writes biographer Donald MacAndrew. “She had become a sort of institution, or public monument, half-canonized by respectability.”

            As the century turned and World War I came and went, Catherine Walters’ life stayed remarkably consistent—perhaps because she wasn’t a great intellect and had no desire to challenge herself, and perhaps because her early years had been turbulent enough that she sought peace at all costs. A lifelong horsewoman, she maintained her erect carriage and trim figure as she aged, even though she suffered from sometimes crippling arthritis. For years and years she lived at the same South Street address in Mayfair and is believed to have continued receiving Hartington’s £2,000 annual income up to the very end.
          Wilfrid Blunt remained one of Catherine Walters’ closest friends, and their affection for each other became truer and more tender as the years passed. She saw that his poet’s passion for her had run deeply, much as she had mocked it, and he saw that she was far from being the soulless angel of his fantasies. They wrote to each other, and sometimes in good weather, she would visit him on his family estate, where he would greet her wearing an Arab burnous and show her the horses he had bred from the Syrian desert studs.
            “Though deaf and partially blind, Skittles is still unconquered in talk, and gave us all the gossip of the hour though it is too piecemeal for reproduction,” Blunt wrote in his diary after one such visit. The last time they saw each other was at Newbuildings in the spring of 1918, when they talked about the war’s end and he gave her a basket of farm butter and eggs to supplement her London rations. Two years later, Skittles suffered a stroke while sunning herself in a bath chair at home on South Street and died two days later.
Calling herself a “spinster” in her will, Catherine Walters stated: “I declare myself to be as I was born a member of the Roman Catholic Church and I desire and direct that I may be buried according to the rites of the said Church in the burial ground of the Franciscan Monastery at Crawley in the County of Sussex as has been arranged for me with the Superior of the Monastery.”
Gerald saw to it that her burial request was honored, and Wilfrid Blunt, whose brother had founded the monastery, arranged it. 
Blunt died just two years after Skittles, and like his first love received Catholic extreme unction, but was buried like a Muslim at his request.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Mad Men Avatar

It's Mad Men night tonight--the start of Series 4--and I'll be watching with friends in Brooklyn and drinking Manhattans and feeling fun and glamorous.

And! I can't stop playing with that new "Mad Men Yourself" toy on the AMC site. You can create an avatar cartoon of yourself, and put yourself in different Mad Men scenes and create a JPEG.

Here's what I look like while drinking a cocktail & saying something very important yet sociably glib:

And here's me in a different pair of glasses, looking sensible and ready the next morning to get back to work (only not in the secretarial pool; in my mind I'm a witty and highly successful yet attractive boss lady type):
And now, to end with a quote from Connie to Don:  
What do you want from me, love? Your work is good. But when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Argan oil lover's Moroccan tagine of lamb and prunes

I've been to Morocco, and I can tell you that along the southern coast near Agadir there are packs of goats who spend their days climbing into argan trees and nibbling the fruit they find amongst the branches.
These goats know a good thing. Argan oil, pressed from the fruit of the argan tree, is a staple of traditional Moroccan cooking. I've experienced argan oil in Morocco and will always remember the nutty smell because bare-breasted Berber women slathered it all over my naked body in the hammam baths when I stayed near Agadir while on a yoga retreat.
I'm glad I enjoyed the oil's richness then, because here in New York City a tiny 8-ounce bottle of the stuff costs about $35, and the only place I know where you are certain to find argan oil here is at Kalustyan's.

I love Kalustyan's. For a dinner party I gave this weekend, I was almost happy to pay that crazy-expensive price for a tiny bottle of the precious oil because it gave me an excuse to go to this specialty foods shop at 123 Lexington Ave., where I splurged on not just argan oil but orange blossom water, preserved lemons, cumin seed, cinnamon sticks, saffron and the spice mix called ras el hanout.
Dinner was lush, with little thanks to me. The thanks go to Kalustyan's, the herbs I found at my local produce market and the Cafe Morocco cookbook by Anissa Helou, who has become my new friend in the kitchen. With her comprehensive recipes and the flavor profiles she sets forth, I have begun to understand the complexity and aromatic tastes of Moroccan cuisine.

Here, then, is the tagine I cooked this weekend, taken from Cafe Morocco. Although the recipe calls for the cheaper and more available olive oil, I used argan oil, which has properties similar to olive oil.

Tagine of Lamb with Prunes (Tajen Lham bel Barquq)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or argan oil)
2 and 1/4 pounds boneless neck or leg of lamb, cut into big chunks
1 medium-sized onion
2 bunches cilantro, tied together
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of saffron filaments, crushed
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
sea salt and finely ground black pepper
2 cups prunes, pitted
3-5 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

1) Put the oil, lamb chunks, peeled onion, cilantro and cinnamon stick into a wide Dutch oven. Add the saffron, ginger, a little salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover with 3 and 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then cover and let boil for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the meat is tender and the cooking broth has become very concentrated.

2) Remove the cinnamon stick and the cilantro. Turn the meat in the sauce, and add the prunes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for a further 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, and add a little water if you think the tagine is becoing too dry. If the sauce is too runny, increase the heat to high and boil uncovered until reduced.

3) Stir in the honey and simmer, still covred, for 10 more minutes. Add the orange blossom water and let the tagine bubble for a minute or two. The sauce should be thick and unctuous, the meat very tender, and the prunes plumped up.

4) Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Transfer the meat to a serving dish, making sure the prunes are evenly distributed, and pour the sauce over. Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Brooklyn Blogfest Is Baaaaack--June 8!

Blogfest. Brooklyn. June 8, 7 p.m. I'll be there. Will you?

The 5th Annual Brooklyn Blogfest on June 8th at 7PM will be held at the Brooklyn Lyceum on Fourth Avenue and President Street in Park Slope.

Big news: Blogfest is FREE thanks to our sponsor Absolut Vodka (who are also sponsoring the awesome after-party)

--Please register for Blogfest at There will be a snazzy name tag waiting for you at the Blogfest.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Daydreaming Out Loud

I attended a Daydreaming Workshop back in February at the Trade School on the Lower East Side because I've been creatively blocked and was seeking inspiration. Having failed to write about the experience, I'm happy to report that Dirty Hands NY blogger Samantha Stark did--and she recorded my voice telling the bad-girl daydream I envisioned.

Samantha wrote: "Everyone picked two found images from a bucket–one had to be a 'place,' and one a 'character.' Then they got five minutes to insert themselves into the worlds they had created. Here’s one of the fantastical daydreams that came out of that exercise."

Lucky me. I don't have to do a thing now except post a link to Samantha's podcast here: Daydreaming Out Loud

And in the spirit of my daydream, here's a picture of me with a showgirl when I went to Vegas.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pippi Longstocking Rules

I just spotted this post about one of my most favorite fictional Bad Girls, Pippi Longstocking.

Now I finally know what Pippi's creator, Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, looks like.

And, of course, here's what Pippi looks like: