By David Fay Smith
I RECENTLY OPENED A BOX OF BOOKS that had been in storage – usually a dubious proposition – and discovered a copy of In the Courts of Memory by Lillie de Hegermann-Lindencrone, a second cousin several generations removed. (Her mother and my great-great-grandmother were first cousins, but only a Hobbit would care.) Lillie Greenough was born into a musical family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was well known there at a very young age for her remarkable soprano voice. In 1859, at the age of 15, her mother took her to London so she could be trained by Manuel Garcia, a famous voice teacher of the time.
By 1862 she is living in Paris, married to Charles Moulton, a wealthy American banker, and partying at the Second Empire – as the court of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie was known – all the while writing letters to the folks back home, detailing who was there, what they wore, what they did for entertainment, what music was performed, and what she sang, for she was almost always asked to sing. For example, in June 1867, she entertains Franz Liszt, Prince and Princess Metternich (the Austrian ambassador) and 25 other people, including the composers Daniel Auber and Jules Massenet. Auber brought along a manuscript, which Liszt glanced at, “and said ‘C’est très jolie.‘ After dinner, and a cigar in the conservatory, ìhe went to the piano and played the ‘jolie‘ little thing of Auber’s.” From memory!
“He seemed extraordinarily amiable that evening,” she wrote, “for he sat down at the piano without being asked and played a great many of his compositions. One has generally to tease and beg him, and then he refuses. But I think when he heard Massenet improvising at one of the pianos he was inspired, and he put himself at the other (we have two grand pianos), and they played divinely, both of them improvising.”
Lillie has a sharp eye (and ear) for detail (and for human nature), and provides a vivid, sometimes acerbic image of the life and times of the very, very rich. Imagine Downton Abbey, but with appearances by people like Massenet, Liszt, Gounod, Rossini, Wagner, Jenny Lind (with whom she sings duets), and Sarah Bernhardt – not to mention all the royalty and near-royalty. Lillie is in France during the Franco Prussian War (1870) and in Paris during the Paris Commune (1871), an uprising of anarchists and Marxists who depose Napoleon III and rule the city for 72 days of chaos and bloodshed. A few years after her husband, Charles Moulton, dies, she marries the Danish minister to the United States, and travels with him to diplomatic posts in Stockholm, Rome, Paris, Washington, and Berlin.
My cousin Lillie lived in interesting times, and often had a good vantage to observe the people and events. In the Courts of Memory is only the first volume, covering 1858-1875. The second is The Sunny Side of Diplomatic Life, 1875-1912, which was not in our storage box and I intend to read on my iPad. (Both are available as free e-books at Project Guttenberg.)
Brooklyn Artisan Contributor David Fay Smith is the author of A Computer Dictionary for Kids and Other Beginners, and a former columnist for Publishers Weekly.