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‘Mrs. Frank Leslie’ ran a media empire and bankrolled the suffragist movement

Mrs. Frank Leslie in 1880, soon after she took control of her late husband's name and business. (Abrams Books)
10 min

Searching newspaper archives for famous women can be tough, because for a long time women were generally referred to by their husband’s names. For example, “Mrs. George Putnam” was actually Amelia Earhart, and Whitney Museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was called “Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney” long after her husband had died.

That isn’t the case with Mrs. Frank Leslie. When she inherited her husband’s newspaper business in 1880, she also legally changed her name to her late husband’s, Frank Leslie. “Mrs. Frank Leslie” was her actual name, and with it she rebuilt a publishing empire and became one of the most famous and notorious women of the 19th century.

Leslie has been largely forgotten today, but author Betsy Prioleau recounts her life in the new book “Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age.” There are many startling revelations: Leslie was probably, and secretly, biracial, had been a prostitute in her youth, was both a writer and frequent subject of gossip and fashion columns, and was four times married and three times divorced in an age where one divorce could spell public ruin.

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She was also a talented linguist, speaking at least four languages, and a brilliant newspaper editor, rescuing her husband’s business from bankruptcy.

One of the biggest shocks about Leslie came when she died in 1914. Though she had never been a part of the women’s movement — and had often mocked feminists in the pages of her periodicals — she left her entire fortune to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who used the money to bankroll her “winning plan” for the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Her influence on the movement “was bigger than anybody realizes,” Prioleau said in an interview with The Washington Post. As “an outsider,” Leslie “rescued the movement when it was really in a death spiral.”

Mrs. Frank Leslie was born Miriam Follin in New Orleans in 1836. Her father was a gambler named Charles Follin; her mother was “anyone’s guess,” according to Prioleau. Charles Follin’s first wife had died years before Miriam was born; his second wife, Susan Danforth, the woman Miriam called her mother, didn’t come on the scene until Miriam was 6. Using old court testimonies and will records across several states, Prioleau points to the likelihood that her mother was a Black woman enslaved by her father.

Later, Leslie would reminisce about her privileged upbringing in aristocratic New Orleans, even claiming to be a baroness. It was all made up; Charles Follin was an absentee father who squandered his inheritance, and as young girl Miriam was sent to live with Danforth in Cincinnati and then New York City’s tenements.

In New York, the family’s financial tailspin continued, and soon a teenage Miriam, now going by “Minnie,” probably became a high-priced prostitute. She had the charm and bearing of a woman above her station and a “dusky, exotic” look, and she would have found clients easily at public balls, Prioleau wrote. Letters from her family indicate she was making enough to support all of them.

In 1854, when she was 18, she married for the first time, to a diamond dealer named David Peacock. The couple never lived under the same roof, and the marriage was soon annulled — which was fine by Minnie, who continued to see clients and joined up with one of the most famous actresses and courtesans in history, the Irish-born Spanish-pretending Lola Montez. Montez taught Minnie everything she knew and claimed her as a little sister in their successful act. But at age 21, Minnie left it all behind for another marriage, to a famous anthropologist named Ephraim G. Squier.

Now going by Miriam Squier, the young, respectable wife of a man expected to strike it rich on a Honduran railroad venture, she embarked on her first of many European tours, buying up the latest in fashion and jewelry.

She never had children and claimed to detest them — though Prioleau questions whether that was a lifelong sentiment or an attitude she adopted after struggling with fertility. Squier’s papers indicate she was pregnant while in Europe, but how that pregnancy ended is unclear. Prioleau suspects she may have caught syphilis from Squier, which may have caused her to miscarry.

Back in the United States, Squier’s business struggled, and he took on editing work for an English-born publishing tycoon named Frank Leslie. Born Henry Carter, Leslie was a gifted sketch artist who had spun his talents into publishing Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a successful and sensationalist national tabloid heavy on the pictures. Now he was one of the richest men in America, owning more than a dozen magazines and newspapers with a circulation of half a million.

He also had a wife back in England. But when Leslie met Miriam, his admiration for her was immediate. At Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball in 1861, Leslie put her at the center of his illustration, with a detailed description of her gown and “sprightly and intellectual conversation,” declaring her “the acknowledged belle of the ball.”

Over the next decade and a half, a strange arrangement poorly disguised their obvious affair. Miriam was made editor of Leslie’s ladies’ magazines, where she excelled. She also published books she translated from French and Spanish to English. Meanwhile, Leslie often lived and traveled with the Squiers, who kept separate bedrooms. Ephraim Squier became increasingly ill — probably with tertiary syphilis, according to Prioleau — so Leslie would accompany Miriam to public events in his stead.

Eventually, Squier’s venture in Honduras failed, leaving him in financial ruin. He had also become too sick to work, and he was delusional and sometimes violent.

By 1872, Leslie had finally obtained a divorce from his estranged wife. Not long afterward, a few of Leslie’s sketch artists invited Squier to a night out on the town. Soon, they drew up detailed illustrations of Squier cheating on his wife with prostitutes — sketches Leslie promised to keep from the public if Squier granted his wife a divorce. Leslie and Miriam were married the next year.

The marriage was a happy one, but it wasn’t faithful. Miriam certainly took lovers, including one of the most handsome catches of the day, frontier poet Joaquin Miller. Mostly, the Leslies spent and spent — on mansions, parties, clothes and a ridiculously lavish train tour of the American West, about which Miriam wrote a well-received book.

When Frank Leslie died in 1880, his fortune was spent and the business bankrupt. He left it all — the business, his debts and his trademark — to Miriam, who fought off challenges to the will by changing her name to Frank Leslie.

“It gave her the authority and the strength that she needed to bail this company out,” Prioleau said. “She was in charge of 400 men, some of whom had testified against her when the will was contested.” Worse, a board of trustees circled, eager to buy her out as soon as they could.

First, she secured a short-term loan for $50,000 from another rich widow. Then she got to work, reshaping the business, watching balance sheets and editorial content. She started to turn a profit, but it wasn’t enough to save the company.

Then, on July 2, 1881, she was handed a break. While walking through a train station in D.C., President James Garfield was shot by a crazed gunman. Within 10 minutes, she received a telegram in New York telling her of the shooting, and she immediately dispatched two artists by train. Two days later, Mrs. Frank Leslie’s newspaper had illustrations and details of the incident that none of her competitors had.

For two months, Garfield lingered in his sickbed, and her newspaper covered every gruesome detail. It interviewed the attempted assassin, Charles Guiteau, from his jail cell. When Garfield died on Sept. 19, the paper had breathless coverage of the funeral. The public couldn’t buy her newspapers fast enough, and the company was saved.

Leslie helmed the business for another two decades, becoming one of the richest women in America. She earned the respect of the men she employed, and of her competitors.

“She practiced this sort of female judo, where you use the enemies’ weapons to disarm them,” Prioleau said. Leslie “adopted this extraordinary persona of the ideal Victorian lady, the womanly woman.” Meanwhile, Prioleau added, she “ran the company like a field marshal.”

It was a good business strategy, but it didn’t endear her to the burgeoning feminist movement. Her fixation on clothing and jewels were seen as catering to male lust, and the rumors about her sex life alienated the more puritanical elements of the movement. Leslie gave it right back, saying feminists “were not often charming and seldom comely, and as a rule they abhor the society of men.”

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At the same time, she secretly funneled money to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Prioleau said, and published bold statements in her ladies’ magazines rejecting the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. Women “are like oaks in ironclad flowerpots,” she wrote, and would one day be physicians, lawyers, preachers or even the president of the United States.

She traveled widely, married and divorced again (to Oscar Wilde’s brother), and at different times was engaged to two titled European gentlemen — a fake French marquis and a real Spanish one.

Then came her death in 1914 and the shock of her willing her fortune, worth more than $50 million in today’s dollars, to the suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who had met Leslie only a few times in passing.

Catt spent three years fighting off claims from distant family members who wanted a piece of the pie. In the course of that legal battle came the “accusation” that “Mrs. Frank Leslie [was] a mulatto,” as one headline put it. It had long been rumored Leslie had “Creole” or “dark” looks, and she had always been careful to wear heavy white powder in public. Now, a long-lost half sister testified that Leslie’s mother was Black.

As with many White suffragists of the era, Catt has a legacy tarnished by racism and white supremacist views, and that includes her defense of her inheritance in court, where she sought to “prove” Leslie was White. By the time she won her case in 1917, half of the fortune was gone to legal fees.

Leslie hasn’t made it into the “pantheon” of feminist history, as Prioleau put it, but it’s hard to imagine how Catt’s “winning plan” could have gone ahead without Leslie’s gift. Over the next three years, it supported the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission, the Leslie Bureau of Suffrage Education — a world-class publicity operation — and the Woman Citizen magazine, which many credit with convincing members of Congress to support a constitutional amendment.

Each issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Mrs. Frank Leslie.”