Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1799:
MIRIAM F. LESLIE

by John H. Lienhard

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 created them.

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 seventies.

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 work.

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For biographical material on Miriam Florence (Folline) Leslie and Frank Leslie, see the articles about each in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.

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 http://cprr.org/Museum/Leslie%202-9-1878%20p389.html.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miriam_Leslie

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.



luxury Pullman car
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. Lienhard.