One of the pleasures of recent days was watching the FINA World Aquatic Championships held in Kazan, Russia. British diver Jack Laugher, a straight ally, performed beautifully in synchronized diving with David Mears (another straight ally), snagging a bronze medal, thus ensuring a place in the next Olympic Games in Rio. As for Laugher (eye candy with and without a Speedo, below), he became the first British diver to win multiple medals at a world championship with his bronze in the 3-meter springboard diving event. Celebrity out and proud diver Tom Daly did OK, too.
Openly Gay Society Columnist Lucius Beebe
Syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe (1902-1966), whose newspaper column “This New York” was read by millions each morning, was so wealthy and possessed of such a confident personality that he became one of the first members of high society who lived as an openly gay man. When questioned about his sexual orientation, Beebe could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.
He was linked romantically first with society photographer Jerome Zerbe and then Charles Clegg, an author, photographer and railroad historian. Clegg co-authored many of Beebe's best-known books. After Beebe died of a heart attack in 1966, Clegg committed suicide in 1979, on the very day when he reached the precise age at which Beebe had died.
Beebe also wrote 35 books, and I just now got around to reading one that's been on my Kindle for well over a year: The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966)
Written in florid, effusively dated language, this was Beebe’s last (35th) book, detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways. Part of the fun of reading this is being introduced to characters now long forgotten. We all know the foibles of the Astors and Vanderbilts, but Beebe introduced me to Mrs. Kate Moore (1846-1917), an heiress from Pittsburgh, who became one of the leading figures in Paris high society, especially among the expatriate Americans. She entertained lavishly, and she commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint her several times (1884 Sargent portrait below).
Sargent wrote to Henry James about her in 1884, “I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman [Mrs Kate Moore]. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying.”
Lucius Beebe’s hilarious comment about this inveterate social climber, who bought her way into society: “(she) departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips to everyone.”
Beebe then expounds on Spencer “Speck” Penrose (1865-1939), owner of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Hotel, who maintained active membership in the Pacific Union, San Francisco’s most exclusive and expensive gentlemen’s club on the top of Nob Hill, as long as he lived. When asked why he remained a member of a club he never used, he replied, “My God, man. I might want a drink out there.” The idea of drinking in a public premises never occurred to him, and the thought that he might not want a drink at any place, any time, was equally unthinkable.
Penrose and wife Julie
After graduating last in his class at Harvard, Penrose was enticed to Colorado in the 1890s by his Philadelphia neighbor Charles Tutt, and Speck was soon engaged working in Tutt’s real estate offices in Cripple Creek. He and Tutt went on to make unfathomable fortunes in real estate, gold, copper and mineral milling. Staggeringly flush with cash, Penrose once left himself a note on his bedside table not to spend more than a million dollars the next day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Penrose made a personal assay of Cripple Creek, a howling wilderness and suburb of hell whose Myers Avenue was the widest-open red-light district anywhere outside Butte, Montana, and whose three booming railroads were daily rolling up the hill with palace cars filled with additional girls, madams, hard-rock miners, anarchists, three-card monte men, tippers of the keno goose, whiskey salesmen, confidence-game artists, eastern capitalists, newspaper reporters, and real estate speculators. Penrose liked what he saw.”
Once he had left Philadelphia and resettled to Colorado in 1892, “the only criticism anybody had was of Speck’s clothes. He wore beautifully tailored riding breeches and English boots that cost $100 a pair. Apprised that the community considered him a dude in some respects, Penrose at once sent East for a suit of evening tails and a half dozen opera hats and started dressing for dinner. There were a few catcalls at first, but most of the roughnecks who took exception to his attire were out of the hospital as good as new in two or three weeks.”
After being rebuked by the management of the fabled Antlers hotel in Colorado Springs for riding his saddle horse up the front steps and into the lobby bar, Penrose’s gesture of retaliation was to build the Broadmoor Hotel in 1918 (at the then cost of $3,000,000), all the while stealing from The Antlers the hotel manager and its chef de cuisine, paying them double the salary they had been making at their former employ.
“Once in the 1930s Speck stopped briefly in Philadelphia to see a friend and visit his birthplace at 1331 Spruce Street. It had not been occupied for years, and not a piece of furniture had been moved in over a half century. An ancient butler met the master at the door as though he had only left that morning. A venerable cook appeared to get her orders for dinner. Penrose had kept it that way as a sort of family shrine, a memorial to his youth impervious to the hostile winds of change.”
Upon his death in 1939, Penrose’s $125,000,000 fortune was the largest sum ever filed for probate in the Rocky Mountain region.
If you are fascinated by this sort of thing, this is your book. Available in e-reader formats.