I’ve been reading and watching a lot of books and documentaries about the Gilded Age, when Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Morgans ruled the United States. I thought I knew all the major players, but I was wrong. There was another titan, this one of publishing, that I’d not heard of before: Miriam Leslie. Her life is a fascinating story. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age (Amazon) from NetGalley and Abrams Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
“Among the fabled tycoons of the Gilded Age—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt—is a forgotten figure: Mrs. Frank Leslie. For twenty years she ran the country’s largest publishing company, Frank Leslie Publishing, which chronicled postbellum America in dozens of weeklies and monthlies. A pioneer in an all-male industry, she made a fortune and became a national celebrity and tastemaker in the process. But Miriam Leslie was also a byword for scandal: She flouted feminine convention, took lovers, married four times, and harbored unsavory secrets that she concealed through a skein of lies and multiple personas. Both before and after her lifetime, glimpses of the truth emerged, including an illegitimate birth and a checkered youth.
Diamonds & Deadlines reveals the unknown, sensational life of the brilliant and brazen “empress of journalism,” who dropped a bombshell at her death: She left her entire multimillion-dollar estate to women’s suffrage—a never-equaled amount that guaranteed passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In this dazzling biography, cultural historian Betsy Prioleau draws from diaries, genealogies, and published works to provide an intimate look at the life of one of the Gilded Age’s most complex, powerful women and unexpected feminist icons. Ultimately, Diamonds and Deadlines restores Mrs. Frank Leslie to her rightful place in history, as a monumental businesswoman who presaged the feminist future and reflected, in bold relief, the Gilded Age, one of the most momentous, seismic, and vivid epochs in American history. “
Like I said, I had never heard of Miriam Leslie, also known as Mrs. Frank Leslie, in all my reading about the Gilded Age. But there she was, the head of a publishing empire upon the death of her husband. The periodicals she produced are not known today, but in their time, they were some of the most highly circulated magazines in the country. The story of how she got there is fascinating.
The beginning part of the book was very confusing because there was so much confusion about Miriam’s early life. There’s so much about Miriam’s early life that is purely conjecture, some that is based upon written letters, some by Miriam herself and others. What is alleged in this book is that Miriam was actually born illegitimately in the south and was biracial. As an adult, she used plenty of powders to hide her darker olive complexion, and “passed” as white. She may or may not have been a prostitute at some points in her life, she most certainly had a lot of lovers and racked up four husbands in an era when divorce was shocking.
Miriam accumulated not only husbands but great wealth through them, most importantly through her third husband, Frank Leslie. But lest one think that Miriam simply inherited the publishing empire and then went to work, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. During his lifetime, Frank Leslie gave his wife control of several publications and trusted her judgment and style. The two traveled to Europe once a year and she had her entire wardrobe designed by Worth’s in Paris, meaning she was always the height of fashion. Frank also bought her copious amount of jewels, which she draped over herself for their many society outings. Women looked to her, through her publications, to see what was fashionable, and how to be a better woman.
Miriam may not seem like a suffragist the way she constantly concentrated on jewels, clothes and makeup, and how a polite lady behaves in society, but later in life, she befriended Cary Chapman Catt, the suffragist. During the last years of her life, she changed her will no less than six times, and ultimately, at the time of her death, left the bulk of her estate to the suffragist movement. The amount was approximately $2 million. After lawsuits and lawyers’ fees were paid, the final amount was around $1 million. That money was used in a variety of ways to aid the movement and was a big reason the 19th amendment was passed when it did.
Diamonds and Deadlines will be released to the general public on March 29, 2022.
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