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Sex Parties, Scandal, and Booze: 5 Naughty Princesses

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No one over the age of Disney really believes that being a princess is really all it's cracked up to be, that it is a viable career option, or that Prince Charming is about to come galloping up on a white steed to rescue her from the drudgery of taxes and office work.

Except that secretly, we kind of do. Witness the fascination the world has with commoner-made-good Kate Middleton, wife of Britain’s Prince William; or worse, watch any episode of any bridal reality TV program ever and their parade of unjustified Swarovski crystal-encrusted entitlement. Moreover, the last decade’s pink-and-purple marketing blitz has turned every little girl into a princess, a kind of sparkly juggernaut that most parents can’t avoid even if they try. That the glittery fantasy which toy companies are peddling in no way matches any kind of reality hasn’t exactly put the brakes on its perpetuation.

In my new book, Princesses Behaving Badly, I looked at the lives of 30 princesses whose foot didn’t quite fit the glass slipper. These are (mostly) real women who made good decisions and stupid choices, who loved the wrong people or too many people or not enough people, and on whom a ball gown might just be silly. Some were pretty fantastic, in a warrior princess kind of way, or were driven by a cause greater than themselves; some were creative, clever, and enterprising, free-spirited and willing to flaunt convention to live the life they chose. Others were, according to their times, inappropriately ambitious; others just downright ruthless, with a side of murderous. Still others were petty, mean, vain, and jealous. And some of them just liked to party. 

1. Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel: Under-washed and under-clothed

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Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, a princess and a daughter of a German Duke, was a straight-up hot mess. She was married to George, Prince of Wales—himself a casually cruel, snobbish, profligate, corset-wearing over-indulger who would later become Britain’s King George IV—but their relationship was fraught to say the least. Upon meeting her in 1795, George ran away, got drunk, and stayed that way until their wedding night three days later; she pronounced him fatter than his portrait.

After only a year of marriage, the two—though they had managed to produce a daughter together—could no longer live under the same roof (and these were big roofs). George would spend the rest of Caroline’s life unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to divorce her, and Caroline would spend it finding new and exciting ways to embarrass him.

She did an admirable job. She wore low-cut dresses that were just a wardrobe malfunction away from real scandal, washed herself and her underthings rather too infrequently, made weird, often sexual jokes, and flirted loudly, inexpertly and obviously. She liked to host parties (where she’d often sit on the floor), but would often disappear for hours with a gentleman friend, leaving her guests to try to politely ignore their absence. By 1814, all good society was pretty much done with her, especially given that her husband made it clear that anyone who befriended her would be on the outs with him. So Caroline, now in her mid-40s, left England on a trip to the Continent, where there was new society to shock. She appeared at a ball in Geneva stripped to the waist; other English travelers reported seeing her in short dresses with “disgustingly low” bodices, and more make-up, topped now with a startling black wig. She traveled with a band of musicians and itinerant show players, having shed most of her respectable entourage early on. Rumors that she was sleeping with everyone from the King of Naples to her valet abounded.

When George became king in 1820, he flat-out refused to have her as his queen. But procuring a divorce was still much more difficult than it looked; finally, a bill to legally dissolve their union was brought before Parliament. Caroline came bustling back to England, all aglow with righteous indignation and excessive rouge, and what followed was essentially a trial—had she actually been having affairs? The answer, for Parliament, however, was no—because however unpopular Caroline was, the British public hated her husband far, far more, and outright rebellion was in the air. The bill was withdrawn.

But even though the couple was still married, George refused to allow Caroline to be crowned alongside him at his coronation; he had Westminster Abbey bouncers deny her entry. Caroline died just a few months later.

2. Charlotte of Prussia: Sex party swinger

Wikimedia Commons

The eldest daughter of the Prussian crown prince and princess, Princess Charlotte grew up a rather unloved, oft-criticized girl. She seemed to channel this unsatisfactory home life into making herself the “most arrogant and heartless coquette at court” and a mean girl extraordinaire who would turn on friends in an instant. Even her own brother called her “Charley the Pretender” for her two-facedness. Her marriage in 1878, at the age of 17, left her even freer to pursue gossip (and chain-smoking) with abandon; after her brother became Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888, she became one of the most unpopular popular women at the Berlin court.

And then, the sex party. In November 1891, Charlotte threw a party for a select group of nobles at a palatial hunting lodge just outside of Berlin. But the next day, after the cavorting nobles had all departed with fond memories and who knows what else, they all began receiving anonymous blackmail letters threatening to reveal just what they’d gotten up to that night. The letters helpfully included pornographic drawings, just in case the swingers couldn’t remember. Suspicion immediately fell on Charlotte—she was just catty enough, everyone agreed, to have thrown the party herself to entrap the nobles. Charlotte wasn’t the blackmailer (she was bad, but not that bad), but the investigation into the letters took years, ruined one man’s reputation, left another dead in a duel, and fully destroyed Charlotte’s relationship with her brother, prompting her de facto exile to a quiet German backwater.

3. Christina of Sweden: The cross-dressing princess

Wikimedia Commons

Christina of Sweden wanted to be the kind of queen who shaped the course of history, whose opinion mattered not only in her own kingdom but everywhere else in Europe; she wanted to be taken as seriously as she took herself.

Except, not really. After spending nearly all of her early life preparing for the role, she only sat a few years on the throne before realizing that being queen was a lot less fun than she’d thought. In 1654, she abdicated the throne to her cousin and cleared out of town before the banquet dishes were even cleared. Christina took off for the Continent dressed as a man, with newly shorn hair; perhaps more galling to her Lutheran former kingdom, she also went as a newly converted Catholic.

Catholic or not, queen or not, her behavior was, for the time, shocking. She cursed like a sailor, dressed like a man, and, when she did dress in skirts, didn’t let the underwear-less fashions of the day stop her from putting her legs up wherever she could. She made rude, sexual jokes and gleefully fueled speculation that if she wasn’t a hermaphrodite, she was at least a lesbian—she once embarrassed an ambassador at court by declaring that her favorite lady-in-waiting, a beautiful woman with whom she shared a bed, was just as beautiful on the inside. And she didn’t mean her personality. (Notably, Christina’s naughty talk probably was all talk—there’s really no evidence that she had sex with anyone, much less her lady-in-waiting.) She had a habit of talking in church and a somewhat irreligious affection for nude paintings and sculptures. She spent buckets of money on everything from fine art to hiring a troupe of actors to perform just for her every night for a month; by the time she reached Rome, her servants had taken to stealing the silver in lieu of a salary. You can’t necessarily blame them: She had a tendency to smack them around, a violent habit that proved fatal for one man in her employ—though she was a queen without a kingdom, she had him executed after believing him to be betraying her confidences.

But Christina found that life as a kingdom-less queen also wasn’t nearly as fun as she thought it was going to be, and she involved herself in several plots to either take back her throne or find another to occupy for a while; these all came to nothing. By the end of her life, she was still wearing her men's clothes, but the zeal with which she’d pursued bold, shocking behavior had certainly diminished.

4. Srirasmi of Thailand: The birthday party in her birthday suit princess

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Nothing about this story makes any kind of sense whatsoever. Princess Srirasmi is the wife of Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and, as evidenced by one of the weirder videos to ever surface on the Internets, has lovely breasts. In 2009, a lucky Australian TV station got a hold of footage from a lavish poolside birthday party the crown couple hosted for their dog, Foo Foo. Princess Srirasmi is clad in naught but a G-string and a hat; everyone else, including the dog, is clothed. Meanwhile, strains of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” are audible in the background. Another thing to note: Foo Foo evidently holds the rank of Air Marshal in Thailand.

5. Gloria von Thurn und Taxis: The original punk princess

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In the 1980s, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was a hard-partying German princess with a pronounced flair for making it onto the pages of glossy entertainment rags. She was all about excess, partying with princes and Prince, barking like a dog on David Letterman, and dyeing her hair every shade in the Manic Panic catalogue. She threw her husband, the Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, a million-dollar, three-day, lobster-laden birthday party that saw celebs like Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall dressed as the doomed aristocracy of 18th century France and drinking from champagne fountains in rooms decorated with links of German sausage (really). Gloria, of course, dressed as Marie Antoinette, complete with a pearl tiara once owned by the doomed French queen herself, without so much as a whiff of irony.

But while the comedown from the greed-is-good decade wasn’t nearly so devastating for the likes of Gloria as it had been for the French nobles, it wasn’t easy. Gloria’s husband died in 1990, leaving her with an estate in debt and death taxes to pay; Gloria’s response, however, wasn’t to retreat. Instead, the punk princess quit partying, traded in her chainmail mini-dresses for Chanel suits, taught herself corporate law and economics, and dragged the centuries-old Thurn und Taxis estate into the 20th century. By the end of the decade, and after selling off millions in art, family treasures, and wine, as well as opening up the family schloss to renters and the public, the estate was finally in the black.

For more princess stories, order Linda's new book, Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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