January 8, 1865 – Winnaretta Singer
Isaac Merritt Singer (1811 – July 23, 1875) was an American inventor, actor, and businessman. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of what became one of the first American multi-national businesses, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. He may have been responsible for the modern sewing machine, but he also fathered 24 children, the 20th was Winnaretta Singer. When Isaac made his first fortune in 1839 with an invention that drilled rock, he retired and returned to acting, touring with his own theater troupe for five years. In 1849 he developed a wood carving machine and in 1851 he obtained a patent for improvements on someone else’s unwieldy sewing apparatus.
On her wedding night, the Singer fortune heiress Winnaretta Singer climbed atop an armoire armed with an umbrella and told her new husband: “I am going to kill you if you come near me!” You might say she never was in or out of the closet, but on top of it. She had married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard to infiltrate Paris’s artistic circles, but everybody already knew that her thing was women. Their marriage went unconsummated and was annulled in 1892.
One year later, she married Prince Edmond Melchior Jean Marie de Polignac, an aristocrat and composer. He was gay, 59 years old, and impoverished; she was gay, but her social position had been compromised by the annulment of her first marriage. They both loved music. The couple fit together perfectly: he was penniless but had an important title; she was extremely rich but needed a connection with the Parisian aristocracy.
This sham marriage didn’t prevent them from becoming fast friends and together they hosted music salons, which quickly became much sought after, and frequented by all the notable artists and writers of the time. Marcel Proust‘s descriptions of this Parisian milieu were also greatly inspired by this salon. Singer never attempted to conceal her affairs, and she never went long without a female lover. Restraint and decorum were paramount to Singer’s survival in Paris society. Gossip columnists and even her friends still found ways to make her a target of their writings. Proust took a swipe at her, when he published an article in Le Figaro suggesting that the only ”marital problem between the happy Polignacs was the prince’s propensity to catch cold, and the Princess’s love of the fresh warm air”. Polignac died eight years after their marriage, and Singer never remarried, but she had plenty of affairs with married women.
She may have been pretty when she was young; her mother, born Isabella Eugénie Boyer, was Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi‘s model for the Statue of Liberty, but Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf noted in 1936:
”Whatever she was born she’s grown into the image of a stately mellow old Tory; to look at her you’d never think she ravished half the virgins in Paris.”
She may not have been attractive, but she was quick-witted and sharp tongued. The famously beautiful Contessa Anina Morosini told her: ”How lucky you are, Winnie, to not be beautiful…”, to which Singer replied: ”Perhaps, but I have a small compensation, I am intelligent.”
An accomplished pianist, and painter, Singer was born in Yonkers, then to London, before settling in Devon where her father built a 115-room mansion modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, but she ended up living most of her life in Paris. Even after Polignac’s death in 1901, Singer’s reputation as an arts patron and donor in Paris went on. She commissioned works from young composers like Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Kurt Weill, Eric Satie, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky, and partied with the Jean Cocteau, Colette, and Isadora Duncan. Maurice Ravel dedicated his Pavane pour une Infante Défunt to her.
She also played a major role in the development of public housing in Paris in that era, sponsoring the construction of housing projects, public shelters, and hospitals. During World War I, she worked with Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie and funded the conversion of private limos into mobile radiology units and ambulances that could be used at the front.
Throughout her life, she never really made any efforts to conceal her affairs with women, of which there were plenty, and she preferred married women. Once, in her palazzo in Venice, Singer invited a woman she fancied to dinner, but not her husband. He stood outside and yelled:
”If you are the man you pretend to be, come and fight a duel tomorrow at the Lido!”
Her summers in Venice continued with prominent personalities as company and the musical soirées were as inspired as he salons in Paris. Pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, conductor Arturo Toscanini, gay impresario Serge Diaghilev and Cole Porter were regulars.
You know how everyone sleeps with everyone else at least once on The L-Word? Los Angeles in the aughts had nothing on Paris at the start of the 20th century. It was the place for lesbian groups and salons, and everyone was having affairs with everyone else.
Singer was not the only lesbian American expatriate in Paris. She had to share the spotlight with Natalie Clifford Barney, a writer who published love poems to women to get rid of attention from young males. Her list of open conquests included the most prominent names of the Belle Époque, and she held a salon for over 60 years at her place on the Left Bank. Singer worked hard to keep her distance from the flamboyant Barney and pretended that she didn’t even know her. However, they supported the same artists and traveled in similar circles. They even shared lovers like painter Romaine Brooks!
Singer’s affair with Brooks began in 1905, which effectively ended her affair with Olga de Meyer, who was married at the time (her purported biological father was the future King of England and the realm, Edward VII). Composer and conductor Ethel Smyth fell deeply in love with Singer during their short-lived affair.
In the early 1920s, Singer became involved with famed Italian pianist Renata Borgatti. From 1923 to 1933 her lover was British novelist Violet Trefusis, with whom she had a turbulent relationship. Trefusis had previously had a notorious affair with the writer / aristocrat Vita Sackville-West that ended somewhat badly. They were together for ten years, until Singer met Alvide Lees-Milne, Viscountess Chaplin, a gardening expert and landscaper, and the wife of James Lees-Milne, an important architectural historian writer. He was the lover of Diana Mitford’s (Lady Mosley) brother Tom Mitford. The two women were living together in London at the time of Singer’s death in 1943.
In 1928 Singer formed the Fondation Singer-Polignac to continue her efforts to promote music, the arts, science and literature. After her death the foundation inherited her mansion and it still exists today. Her collection of paintings including works by Claude Monet and Édouard Manet are now well-hung at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Her influence on the music and literature of the 20th Century is considerable.
Singer’s older brother, Adam Mortimer Singer (1863 – 1929) became one of England’s landed gentry and one of the first pilots in Europe. Her younger sister, Isabelle-Blanche (1869-1896) married nobleman Jean Élie Octave Louis Sévère Amanien Decazes de Glücksberg, 3rd Duc Decazes. Their daughter, Daisy Fellowes (1890 – 1962) was raised by Singer after her sister’s death and became a noted fashion trendsetter and Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Her first husband was Prince de Broglie who was gay. She had an affair with Winston Churchill shortly before marrying his cousin Reginald Fellowes.
Singer’s younger brother, Paris Singer (1867-1932) was one of the architects and financiers of Palm Beach, Florida; he had a child with Isadora Duncan. He designed the Everglades Club, the club for people who would never be seen at crappy Mar-a-Lago. There were 22 other Singer siblings, but this #BornThisDay is already long enough.
For more, look for Music’s Modern Muse (2014) by Sylvia Kahan.