Mrs. Frank Leslie was a titan of her time– one of the most famous, celebrated women of the Gilded Age. For twenty years she ran the largest publishing empire in America in an all-male industry and made a fortune. The “Empress of Journalism,” she was the fashion arbiter of her generation, an author, a lecturer, social leader and born lady. “I was raised,” she said, “on a plantation,” nursed by a dear “old mammy” and brought up in “formal courtesy” by her genteel mother and cosmopolitan father, a prominent cotton broker. Then married at fourteen to the great publisher Frank Leslie.
But what was America in the postbellum years except an opportunity to reinvent yourself? To make it up as you go along, be who you like and nobody the wiser.
And her story is one for the books. Miriam Leslie, in fact, was born illegitimate—likely to an enslaved Black woman (the “mammy”?)—and grew up in poverty with a chaotic home life. Her father was a congenital drifter and bankrupt and her “mother” boarded men “no questions asked.” By eighteen, Miriam was working as a sex professional, already a veteran of a shotgun marriage, sugar daddy, and escapades on the stage with infamous courtesan, Lola Montez.
If there were exposés—and there were—who would believe them? After all, Mrs. Frank Leslie as a “trademark,” and established “public idol” who dressed and behaved like a duchess. Nobody did it better than Mrs. Leslie, the past master of masquerade.
Learn more about Miriam’s Life in Betsy Prioleau’s novel, Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age.
Available March 29, 2022.
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