Sacrifice: The Sacred Voice of Belkis Ayón

On 12th September 1999, the Cuban art world was left reeling reeling by the news that one of its brightest stars had fatally shot herself at the age of 32. No note was found, and she had been considered in good spirits by her family and friends. To this day, as her sister Katia has sadly remarked, the reason for Belkis Ayón’s suicide remains a secret that she took with her ‘to the grave.’ Her legacy is a collection of images that are at once terrifying, tragic and haunting, yet exuberant, invigorating and exhilarating. As a visual manifestation of Ayón’s perceptions of her native Cuba, her art is both powerful and valuable; furthermore it speaks not only of her feelings about life, but also her attitude towards death.

Born in Havana on 23rd January 1967, Belkis Ayón Manso was one of two daughters from a relatively affluent Afro-Cuban family. At the age of 6, she began to show an interest in painting, leading her parents to enter her into a school competition, which she won. In 1979, she enrolled at the School of Plastic Arts, and two years later, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” – Cuba’s most prestigious art school, graduating in 1986 before starting a degree in printmaking at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). As she studied for her degree, her work was displayed in over thirty exhibitions across Cuba and Latin America. Continue reading

Prisoner Of Love: Carole Lombard And Russ Columbo

Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo was born into a large Italian immigrant family in Camden, New Jersey on 14th January 1908. A musical prodigy, encouraged by his father, a theatre musician, he learned to play the violin at an early age, followed by the guitar, the clarinet and the accordion all by the age of 13, he was also a classically trained pianist. After the Columbo family moved to California’s Napa Valley, Ruggiero began to perform professionally with a number of bands as a violinist and singer. In Hollywood, he found work on film sets, providing what was known as ‘mood music,’ which was intended to aid silent movie stars get into character. It was on one of these sets, that he met Pola Negri, a Polish actress who had previously been romantically involved with Rudolph Valentino, whom Ruggiero strongly resembled. Using her influence, Negri helped him to get minor roles in several films including The Wolf Song (1929) with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, and The Texan (1930) starring Cooper and Fay Wray.

At the same time, Ruggiero, who by then had adopted the name ‘Russ’ Columbo, had been hired as a violinist and vocalist by the bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, providing the lead vocals for many of Arnheim’s hits, such as Sweet and Lovely and I Can’t Do Without You. In 1931, Columbo was offered a radio slot in New York with NBC, with fans calling him the ‘Radio Romeo,’ a recording contract as a solo artist with RCA Victor Records soon followed. Columbo’s manager Con Conrad never doubted that his protégé was destined to become a star, thanks to his remarkable talent and the fact that, as one contemporary critic remarked, ‘while he may have been born of Italian parentage, when he stepped into the spotlight on stage with his glistening black hair, chiselled facial features and athletic physique he looked to all the world like the statue of a Greek god come to life. And with his flashing black eyes and gleaming white teeth, he had a smile that could melt a sphinx.’

Above: Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra with vocals by Russ Columbo – Sweet and Lovely (1931)

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The Snow Queen: Astrid Of Belgium’s Appeal

The birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid Sofia Lovisa Thyra of Sweden in Stockholm on 17th November 1905, was a cause for celebration. As the third daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland the brother of the popular Swedish King Gustav V, and his glamorous wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark, Astrid was born into a life of immense privilege, but with it, also came certain expectations, such as the idea that when she married, it would most probably be for dynastic reasons, like the union of parents, which though happy, as her mother admitted, ‘I married a complete stranger!’

Her childhood at Arvfurstens palats was an idyllic one, and Astrid, along with her siblings Princesses Margaretha and Märtha, as well as Prince Carl, who was born in 1911, was adored by her parents and the household’s staff,  so much so, that the family’s cook created ‘Princess Cake,’ for the youngsters – a cream covered sponge wrapped in green marzipan, which has since become a national favourite.

Considered as a potential bride for the Prince of Wales, it was announced that Astrid was to marry Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium in September 1929, with the Belgian Queen Elisabeth declaring to news reporters who had gathered outside the Royal Palace of Brussels, ‘It is a marriage of love…tell it to our people. Nothing was arranged. Not a single political consideration prevailed in our son’s decision.’ Continue reading

The New Mrs Simpson: Zsuzsi Starkloff And Prince William

On 28th August 1972, at the Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green Airport, in the village of Bobbington, Staffordshire, a crowd of nearly 30,000 people had gathered to watch a dashing pilot put on a skilled display in his Piper Cherokee. Within minutes of take-off, the aircraft began to lose altitude at an alarming rate; clipping a tree, one of its wings was torn off, causing it to crash before it was engulfed by flames.

Horrified spectators raced towards the burning wreckage, but were overcome by the heat, leaving the pilot and his single passenger trapped inside and facing certain death. The passenger was Vyrell Mitchell, an experienced airman and demonstrator pilot who had worked for Piper Aircraft since 1967; the pilot, Prince William of Gloucester, also a highly competent aviator, was ninth in line to the British throne.

Born in Hadley Common, Hertfordshire on 18th December 1941, William was the son of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, the daughter of John Montagu Douglas Scott, the 7th Duke of Buccleuch. As a member of the Royal Family, he served as a page boy for the wedding of his cousin, The Princess Elizabeth, when she married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on 20th November 1947 and also attended her coronation on 2nd June 1953.

Above: Prince William prepares for the Royal Wedding (1947)

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