There is nothing quite like a cultural history or a great biography of a once famous, now largely forgotten person. When those books are written with verve and wit worthy of their subjects. But too often, a fascinating life results in a book that begs for its primary source darlings to be slaughtered. Some stories cry out to be a great Vanity Fair article, not a full-length book.
Still, Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age (out now, Harry N. Abrams) has much to recommend it in terms of its subject. Mrs. Frank Leslie was many things over the course of her long life. All evidence points to both a biracial heritage—whispered about even at the time—as well as a stint as a sex worker in her teens. But she traveled and performed with Lola Montes; she lived in an almost open menage a trois with a cuckholded husband and the wealthy Frank Leslie; and she ran a publishing empire with, at her best, an almost eerie insight into what the public would read. And she did it all by flattering male egos and entreating women to aspire to the arts of feminine perfection, while simultaneously exerting more power than most women of her day could have dreamed of.
The story itself is fascinating—as is Miriam Leslie’s short-lived marriage to Oscar Wilde’s brother—but here the book falters is in author Betsy Prioleu’s liberal use of contemporary accounts throughout. Every quotation is another stutter in the narrative, particularly when it’s a word or two in the middle of a sentence. Yes, that gives us the flavor of the era, but I have less faith in the accuracy of the press than most others do and I tend to take everything printed in a newspaper with a grain of salt. Still, Prioleu navigates the story’s wild tangents and abrupt shifts in tone with aplomb, rendering Miriam Leslie at turns a social climber, a survivor, a joke, and an inspiration. Just as she was in life.