La Plus Belle Femme De France: The Charm Of Agnès Souret

Born in Biarritz on 21st January 1902, with her wavy chestnut hair and large dark eyes, Jeanne Germaine Berthe Agnès Souret, known as Agnès, had a charm that encapsulated prevailing European standards of beauty during the early twentieth century. After her birth, there was some confusion about her father’s identity, and her mother Marguerite was unemployed and unmarried, something that would later be covered up by press reports that she had in fact been a ballet dancer. In early childhood, Agnès and her mother moved to the village of Espelette in the Aquitaine region.

At the age of 17, Agnès, who had reached a height of 1.68 m, won a beauty contest and was crowned Miss Midi-Pyrénées; and as result, her photograph was entered into the first ever Miss France competition, launched by the newspaper Le Journal in an attempt to discover ‘the most beautiful woman in France’ along with a letter written by Agnès, which read ‘I am only 17 years old, tell me if I have to cross France to take a chance.’ Over 2,000 young women were put forward as contestants and the rigorous and widespread voting system saw more than 200,000 votes cast, with Agnès receiving around 115,000. In the New York Times, she was hailed as ‘the fairest in France,’ and the journalist Maurice De Waleffe wrote that Agnès realised ‘the ideal’ of ‘French charm.’ Continue reading

Corpse Bride: La Casa De La Pascualita

Since 1930, La Popular, a bridal shop in the Mexican city of Chihuahua has had its gowns modelled by a uniquely beautiful figure – one who has not aged a bit in 85 years, and still looks as striking as the day she arrived. So legendary has she become, La Pascualita as she is known, attracts tourists from all over Mexico and the rest of the world, eager to decide for themselves whether she is merely a mannequin, or if her origins are far more sinister.

From the first time she appeared in the shop’s window, allegedly having been shipped over from Paris, La Pascualita aroused suspicion; her hands were so realistic that she had fingerprints and faint varicose veins were visible on her legs. But it was her large brown eyes that gave La Pascualita her almost human quality and though they were made of glass, those who looked into them swore they were animated and full of emotion.

Soon, word spread that La Pascualita was no ordinary mannequin; she was actually the perfectly embalmed body of the daughter of La Popular’s owner, Pascuala Esparza. Certainly, it did not go unnoticed that the model bore a strong resemblance to Esparza. Continue reading

The Crystal Stair: Lorraine Hansberry’s Gifts

In spite of her privileged background, Lorraine Hansberry’s all too brief life was devoted to fighting prejudice and the injustices suffered by many on account of their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Born in Chicago on 19th May 1930, Hansberry came from a prominent African American family; her father Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a prosperous real-estate broker and her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a highly respected academic at Howard University. In 1938, the Hansberrys moved to an area of Chicago where there was a restrictive covenant on African American property owners, and in 1940, Carl Augustus Hansberry went before the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the discrimination in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee. The family were also subjected to shocking and bigoted attacks from some of their neighbours, with bricks being frequently thrown through their windows.

Her father’s experience was to have a lasting impact upon Hansberry and following his death in 1946, she became more politically-minded and socially aware, involving herself with campus concerns after starting a course in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Young Progressives of America as well as the Labor Youth League. Spending the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying at the University of Guadalajara, Hanberry decided to quit her formal education and dropped out of university in 1950, leaving for New York with dreams of becoming a writer.

In New York, Hansberry enrolled at The New School for Social Research and worked as the associate editor for Freedom, a radical newspaper founded by the singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who had been a friend of her father’s.  Whilst participating in a protest against racial inequality, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, and the two were married in 1953. Only a few years after her marriage, Hansberry began to question her sexuality and in 1957, wrote several letters which were published in The Ladder, a national magazine with a predominantly lesbian readership. However, Hansberry remained cautious about revealing her identity and signed the letters using only her initials. Continue reading

The Glorious Adventure: Richard Halliburton’s Marvels

Between the wars, few young American boys would not have read at least one of Richard Halliburton’s books. Chronicling his remarkable exploits and daring escapades, Halliburton travelled across the globe, undertaking and invariably completing labours that would have put Hercules to shame. Born in Brownsville, Tennessee on 9th January 1900, at first, Halliburton’s slight frame and fragile constitution made him appear to be an unlikely adventurer; however, he forbade any physical limitations from inhibiting his formidable character.

From Paris, where Halliburton spent several months in 1919, he replied to his father, who had written to express a desire for his son to adopt a more ‘even tenor,’ that instead, ‘When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.’

After returning to America, Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, and briefly toyed with the possibility of becoming an academic, but his unsatisfied wanderlust soon put paid to such ambitions. In September 1921, he climbed the Matterhorn before heading to Gibraltar, where he managed to get himself arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Egypt and India were his next ports of call; he saw the Taj Mahal and then went on to Japan, where he scaled Mount Fujiyama, before arriving home in Tennessee on 1st March 1923.

Realising that people would pay good money to hear about his incredible experiences, Halliburton gave a series of lectures and in 1925, published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance. Summing up his attitude to life, and the path he had chosen for himself, he claimed in the text, ‘Youth – nothing else worth having in the world…and I had youth, the transitory, the fugitive, now, completely and abundantly. Yet what was I going to do with it? Certainly not squander its gold on the commonplace quest for riches and respectability, and then secretly lament the price that had to be paid for these futile ideals.’ For good measure, he attempted to paint himself in a rebellious light, adding, ‘Let those who wish have their respectability – I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.’ Continue reading