Today, Miriam F. Leslie. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1869, the Golden Spike was driven at
Promontory, Utah, and America's Atlantic coast was
finally linked to the Pacific by rail. Eight years
later, Miriam Leslie rode those rails and riveted
the country's attention with her article about the
adventure: California: A Pleasant Trip from
Gotham to the Golden Gate.
Three years earlier, Miriam had married her third
husband, Frank Leslie, who published Frank
Leslie's Lady's Magazine, The Illustrated
News, and other periodicals. That article was
a major step toward asserting a place for herself
in field of publishing.
She and her husband made the trip in a specially
appointed luxury Pullman Hotel
Car. But she took time to walk through the
"emigrant class" cars as well. Those poor souls,
stacked up like cordwood, had paid 47 dollars for
the cross-country journey.
Miriam Leslie looked on their plight with cool
detachment. She made no bones about being
upper-crust New York. If her Pullman quarters and
serving staff were not quite home, she understood.
But she warned ladies of her class not to leave the
car in the rough town of Sydney, Nebraska, nor to
let their children learn manners on the roiling
streets of San Francisco -- even though it was,
otherwise, almost up to the standard of an Eastern
city. Despite the tone of all this, Miriam Leslie
was about to surprise us.
Three years later, Frank died, leaving the Leslie
publishing empire in debt. Miriam took over, had
her name legally changed to Frank Leslie,
and began a series of legal battles and corporate
reorganizations. She saved the company.
Then she took an extended European tour and ran
with people like Gladstone, Tennyson, and Browning.
At the age of fifty-four she married her fourth
husband, Oscar Wilde's brother William.
Back in New York she had to reorganize the
publishing house once more. She also introduced the
new magazine Popular Monthly. Finally,
after William died in 1899, Miriam Leslie bowed
out. She now took the title of Baroness de
Bazus (which she claimed to've inherited from
her Huguenot forebears) and returned to Europe,
where aristocrats courted her all the way into her
She always exuded enormous charm, beauty, and
charisma. She'd been the belle of the ball at
Lincoln's first inaugural. When she dumped her
second husband, anthropologist Ephraim Squier, to
marry Frank Leslie, Squier went insane with
heartbreak. Biographer Don Jackson writes:
Think of her as a combination of Ann Landers,
Gloria Steinem, Katherine Graham and Elizabeth
Taylor, with Clare Boothe Luce and Pamela Harriman
thrown in for good measure.
But the iron will that'd saved the publishing house
remained. She fought effectively for women's causes
and the suffrage movement; she wrote books of
social commentary. When she died in 1914, she left
her two-million-dollar fortune to support
suffragist causes. And she left behind a world that
she had altered -- by the sheer force of her
whirlwind presence in it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For biographical material on Miriam Florence
(Folline) Leslie and Frank Leslie, see the articles
about each in the National Cyclopaedia of
Richard Reinhardt, 1967, Out West on the Overland, The Frank Leslie Party, 1877, The American West Publishing Company, Palo Alto CA
Smithsonian Magazine, November 1997.
I am grateful to Sara McNeil, UH College of
Education, for calling my attention to Miriam
Leslie and for providing excellent web sources.
Images and some of the text of M.F. Leslie's
cross-country rail-ride may be seen at
The full text of her book can be found at the
Library of Congress web site; look under Leslie in
the index of authors: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/cbhtml/cbhome.html.
A late 19th-century luxury Pullman car, Colorado
Railroad Museum, Golden, Colorado. (Photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.