Leslie, Miriam Folline Squier (1836–1914)
Leslie, Miriam Folline Squier (1836–1914)
American editor, essayist, lecturer, socialite, and, ultimately, suffragist who legally took her husband's full name to save his business empire after his death, and whose celebrity in the U.S. and abroad grew out of both business triumphs and personal scandal. Name variations: Minnie Montez; Miriam Peacock; Miriam Squier; Frank Leslie; Florence M. Wilde; Baroness de Bazus; Florence de Bazus; Baroness Leslie de Bazus; used both "Miriam" and "Florence" as first name; "Folline" was later spelled "Follin"; legally changed name to Frank Leslie on June 4, 1881. Born Miriam Florence Folline on June 5, 1836, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died of a heart attack on September 18, 1914, in New York City; daughter of common-law marriage of Susan Danforth and Charles Folline (Follin, a businessman); married David Charles Peacock, on March 27, 1854 (annulled, March 24, 1856); married Ephraim George (E.G.) Squier, on October 22, 1857 (divorced, May 31, 1874); married Frank Leslie (born Henry Carter), on July 13, 1874 (died, January 10, 1880); married William Charles Kingsbury Wills Wilde, on October 4, 1891 (divorced, June 10, 1893); no children.
Began career as an editor (1863); published first book (1877); saved Leslie Publishing House from foreclosure (1881); made American lecture tour (1890); willed $2 million to the cause of women's suffrage (1914).
Editor of publications:
Frank Leslie's Lady's Magazine (1863–82); Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner (1865–84); Frank Leslie's Lady's Journal which began as Once A Week: The Young Lady's Own Journal (1871–81); Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1880–89); Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly (1880–95, 1898–1900); Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun (1880–95); Frank Leslie's Pleasant Hours (1880–95); Frank Leslie's Boy's & Girl's Weekly (1880–84); Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine (1880–89); New York Illustrated Times (1880–81); Frank Leslie's Fact and Fiction (1884–85); Frank Leslie's Afloat and Ashore (1888–90).
California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate (1877); Rents in Our Robes (1888); Beautiful Women of Twelve Epochs (1890); Are Men Gay Deceivers? And Other Sketches (1893); A Social Mirage (1899). Wrote more than two dozen articles for various Leslie publications (1865–89); also, articles for Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1866), The Ladies' Home Journal (1890–92), and several newspapers.
The woman who was best known as the wife of newspaper and magazine publisher Frank Leslie actually had many husbands and lovers, just as she had many identities—actress, translator, editor, travel writer, dispenser of domestic advice, publisher, lecturer, clubwoman, hostess, and champion of women's suffrage. In one sense, the story of her life, which spanned the Victorian era, is a Horatio Alger-like tale of gumption and determination rewarded by riches and fame. In another sense, her many successes were paradoxical: she edited conservative family magazines while living by her own unconventional moral and social standards; she took a man's name and made millions as a publisher while remaining a celebrated beauty in high society in America and abroad; she lectured alternately on women's business success and the art of flirtation. Once an actress, she never allowed herself to be typecast, and she frequently changed her identity to suit her circumstances and needs. Her most memorable role, however, was that of the strong-willed businesswoman who saved a publishing empire from bankruptcy, building an independent fortune of her own—which, in her final surprise move, she used to help other women succeed.
In her later years, Mrs. Frank Leslie would claim to have been born in the South "during the war" (implying the Civil War); she was actually born during the Mexican War, on June 5, 1836, in New Orleans. Her name at birth was Miriam Florence Folline, though soon afterward her father would change the spelling of his last name to Follin. Charles Follin held a variety of jobs during the family's years in New Orleans, Cincinnati, and New York; though he was not always a steady provider, he sent Miriam to finishing schools and encouraged her study of French, Spanish, Latin, and German. He also encouraged her interest in writing, which led to her successful submission of an essay (about a Venezuelan patriot) to the New York Herald in 1850. It was her mother Susan Danforth , however, who took an interest in the girl's social reputation—and who insisted on a marriage when she discovered that 18-year-old Miriam was sexually involved with a young jeweler's clerk named David Charles Peacock. The couple never lived together and the marriage was annulled two years later, but it marked Miriam's passage into adulthood.
Her next adventure was an indirect result of the accidental death of her half-brother Noel, who drowned while traveling as the companion of the stage actress Lola Montez . When the grieving Montez met Noel's family, she became friendly with Miriam and invited the young woman to join her company. Billed as "Minnie Montez," Lola's "sister," Miriam toured the northeast in several plays during early 1857. Her beauty quickly drew admirers. In April, she became the mistress of the married William Churchwell, a banker and a former Tennessee congressional representative; by fall, that romance had ended but another had begun with Ephraim George ("E.G.") Squier, a 36-year-old
archaeologist and agent of the Honduras Interoceanic Railway.
On October 22, 1857, 21-year-old Miriam became Mrs. E.G. Squier. When E.G. established a Spanish-language newspaper company in South America, he turned to Miriam for help with the language. She also took on an editorial project of her own, a translation of The Demi-Monde, a play by the younger Alexandre Dumas. The couple's travels in Europe and South America enabled Miriam to keep her language skills sharp—and provided E.G.'s first opportunity to write travel pieces for his friend Frank Leslie.
Born Henry Carter to a family of glovemakers in England, Frank Leslie had taken a new name when he came to the United States in 1848 as an illustrator, and in only a decade he had revolutionized the American newspaper business with the introduction of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a New York-based weekly with a circulation of 164,000. In 1860, when Frank separated from his wife Sarah Leslie , he became a boarder in the Squier home on East 10th Street. At about the same time, he asked E.G., whose contributions to the newspaper had increased, to become its managing editor. In March 1864, after the Squiers' attendance at President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural ball, a flattering illustration of Miriam and her dress appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
The trio were together at home, in the social world of New York, and—after Miriam assumed the editorship of Frank Leslie's Lady's Magazine in 1863—at work. Miriam's fashion sense, combined with her editorial skills, turned the monthly into a huge money-maker for Frank Leslie. In 1865, she proposed the idea for a new monthly magazine for the whole family, Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner, and became its founding editor. Its circulation quickly grew to 80,000.
In early 1867, Frank Leslie was appointed a U.S. commissioner to the Paris Universal Exposition, and he took the Squiers along. They traveled first to England, disembarking at Liverpool, where—as only Miriam knew—E.G. had an unsettled business debt. Mysteriously, they were met at the docks by police responding to a complaint from E.G.'s creditor, and he was thrown in jail. Miriam and Frank (who, as it turned out, had cabled ahead to the creditor and set this plot in motion) traveled on together to London and Paris, while E.G. sat in jail for two weeks until payment could be arranged for his release.
When he was finally freed, E.G., amazingly, joined Miriam and Frank in Paris and acted as if nothing had happened. He remained unperturbed as the three of them summered at Saratoga in 1868 and made a second trip to Europe in 1870. His faith may have stemmed from Sarah Leslie's continuing refusal to give Frank a divorce, but when a large financial settlement removed that obstacle in 1872, E.G. found himself on the losing end of his own divorce. (For reasons too complicated to summarize, it was he who was proven the adulterer.)
On July 13, 1874, Miriam became Mrs. Frank Leslie. By then, she was also the editor of three magazines. In 1871, she had taken the helm of a new weekly fashion magazine, Frank Leslie's Lady's Journal (initially called Once a Week: The Young Lady's Own Journal), while continuing to edit the Lady's Magazine and Chimney Corner. At that point, the company had nearly 400 employees and was producing a dozen publications—a combination of weeklies and monthlies. Miriam studied all aspects of the business, including the technical production of the magazines and newspapers.
By the mid-1870s, though the circulation of Frank Leslie's flagship publication, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, had dropped to 50,000, the company as a whole was thriving. Frank brought the same energy to his social life as to his business life, and he and Miriam lived in style. Miriam, always considered well-dressed, became known for her jewelry: at a reception for poet William Cullen Bryant at the mansion of New York Governor Samuel Tilden in 1875, she wore $70,000 worth of diamonds. That summer, the couple bought their own yacht, the Frank Leslie, to enjoy at Interlaken, their lakeside country estate in upstate New York where they entertained Cornelius Vanderbilt and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil.
In 1876, the year Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly magazine was launched, the Leslies served as official delegates to the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The following year, they embarked, with an entourage of employees and friends, in a private railroad car on a two-month, cross-country journey, during which Miriam interviewed Mormon leader Brigham Young in Utah. Miriam was fascinated by the Western land and people, and her notes on them turned into her first book, California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate, published later that year (and now considered valuable as an early record of the settled American west).
The couple's high living ground to a halt, however, when the depression of 1877 hit the Leslie Publishing House. Business losses—combined with a $15,000 bill for the cross-country trip, a new printing press that had cost $70,000, and some bad real-estate investments Frank had made—left them more than $300,000 in debt. During the next two years, Frank reduced the debt but developed inoperable throat cancer. When he died on January 10, 1880, leaving Miriam in charge of the company, he was still $50,000 in debt, and his creditors threatened to foreclose.
The old order is changing and the new coming. Woman … must free herself from her swaddling clothes and go out into the world with courage and self-reliance.
At the same time, Miriam faced a court battle against Frank's two sons from his first marriage, who were contesting his will. Frank had already been involved in legal struggles with his sons, who (though neither was named Frank) had tried to use the valuable name "Frank Leslie" in their own commercial ventures. After the will was upheld, Miriam legally changed her name to Frank Leslie to prevent future interference. In the meantime, she borrowed $50,000 from a wealthy New York widow, leaving her diamonds for security, and paid the company's debts.
The firm's coffers were soon replenished thanks to an extraordinary news event: on July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot. Miriam sent two artists on a train to Washington, where they got a full description of the event, made sketches, and returned the same night. In just three days, an edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper with full pictorial coverage of the assassination attempt was on the stands, followed by an "extra" edition a few days later. During the two months the president lingered, Leslie artists depicted his sick bed, the worried Lucretia Garfield , the assassin in prison, and, finally, the president's death and funeral. When he died—two days before the paper was due on newsstands—Miriam Leslie literally stopped the presses, ordering her engravers to work around the clock to remake the front page and centerfold. During the Garfield drama, the circulation of the weekly Illustrated Newspaper jumped from 30,000 to 200,000. By its end, Miriam Leslie had repaid her debt and retrieved her diamonds.
Though the paper's circulation declined in the aftermath of the big news event, it remained about 50,000 above its previous level thanks to other changes Miriam Leslie made—hiring new writers, improving the quality of the printing of woodcuts, and switching to a heavier paper stock. Within a few years she would build another Leslie publication, Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly magazine, into an equally successful property, with a circulation reaching 125,000 at the end of the decade. In 1885, she pared the company's holdings down to two weeklies and four monthlies, so that she could focus on the money-making publications. The Leslie Publishing House was solidly back in the black, and, as "Frank Leslie," Miriam—who by then was taking home a salary of $100,000 a year—was hailed as "The Empress of Journalism" in the domestic and overseas press.
The crisis averted, Miriam again journeyed abroad. In London, she attended the Sunday-afternoon salons of Lady Jane Wilde (mother of the writer Oscar), and their atmosphere inspired her to begin her own Thursday-evening salons when she returned to New York. She was especially drawn to European men with titles: in New York, she was briefly engaged to a French marquis, and a few years later she was courted by a Russian prince (though both men's claims to their titles were disputed). The publicity surrounding her relationships, along with her success as a publisher of popular periodicals, inspired her to write a series of essays on romance for her "dear sisters" across America. They were published in 1888 as Rents in Our Robes, a book that might now be called "self-help," with themes ranging from flirtation to marital happiness to keeping one's flesh firm through exercise.
By 1889, Miriam was 53 (though she told interviewers she was still in her 30s) and tired of the pace of producing weeklies. That year, she sold Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and another publication to W.J. Arkell and Russell B. Harrison, the publishers of Judge, for close to $400,000. In her new free time, she produced another book, Beautiful Women of Twelve Epochs, a history of feminine beauty, and wrote articles for a newspaper syndicate and a popular new women's magazine, The Ladies' Home Journal. A promoter persuaded her to go on a month-long lecture tour for which she was paid $200 a speech, an unprecedented rate for a woman speaker. In 20 cities across America, she declared her opinions on European royalty, American journalism, opportunities for women, and whatever else was on her mind—though her audiences were less interested in her topics than in seeing the famous "Frank Leslie" and her clothing and jewels.
Back in New York, Miriam devoted her attention to her remaining three monthlies and her activities in, among many organizations, the Professional Woman's League, the American Press Association, the Woman's Press Club of New York City, and the National American Women's Suffrage Association (for which she would host a suffrage debate at the Leslie Publishing House three years later). In October 1891, her personal life was again in the news when she abruptly married William ("Willie") Wilde, brother of Oscar, whom she had met eight years earlier at his mother's salons and who happened to be visiting America. Though Miriam briefly called herself "Mrs. Florence M. Wilde," she soon legally changed her name back to Frank Leslie.
The marriage was a mistake from the start. Willie, 16 years her junior, was fun but a free-loader and an alcoholic. In 1892, the couple sailed to Europe, but Miriam came back alone. Willie was doubtless the inspiration for her fourth book, Are Men Gay Deceivers? And Other Sketches, published in 1893, the year their divorce became final. The same year, Miriam tried her hand at playwriting with The Froth of Society, an adaptation of the Dumas work she had translated 35 years earlier; it opened in New York but met a quick demise after poor reviews.
In 1895, Miriam relinquished day-to-day control of the only remaining Leslie property, Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, to another executive of the company. Three years later, distressed by a sharp drop in its circulation, she took over again and—in a feat much like her rescue of the Illustrated Newspaper 15 years earlier—made the magazine competitive with the several new monthlies on the market (such as McClure's). She improved its content, decreased its page size, and lowered its price from twenty-five cents to ten cents, and soon circulation soared to 200,000. "Frank Leslie" left the magazine for good in 1900 and sold her interest in it in 1903; two years later, it became The American Magazine.
In 1899, Miriam published her fifth and final book, A Social Mirage, which contained more essays on love. By then, however, she was in physical decline, suffering from a kidney condition and, after a minor stroke in 1901, mobility problems. No longer the toast of New York, she retained the interest and favors of society and club women by promising to remember them in her will. Upon her return from a European trip, she claimed to have traced her father's family to French nobility and took the title "Baroness de Bazus." Ironically, five years after she had created a title for herself, Miriam became engaged, at age 70, to an actual nobleman, a Spanish count
with whom she had two happy years (though no marriage) before he died in 1907.
Seven years later, Miriam herself was dead, of a heart attack suffered on September 18, 1914, in New York City. But she had one more surprise for the American public. Despite her promises, Miriam left the bulk of her fortune—nearly $2 million—to "Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt … to the furtherance of the cause of Woman's Suffrage." Catt spent half the money fighting a two-year court battle against outraged "friends" and descendants of Frank Leslie who contested the will. Fittingly, the rest of the legacy was used to publish a suffrage newspaper, The Woman Citizen, issued by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, and then by the League of Women Voters until 1932.
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vols. II, III, IV. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.
Stern, Madeleine B. Purple Passage: The Life of Mrs. Frank Leslie. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741–1990. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Willard, Frances E., and Mary A. Livermore, eds. American Women. NY: Mast, Crowell, and Kirkpatrick, 1897.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. December 1855–June 1889.
Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. January 1876–May 1895; November 1898–October 1900.
Leslie, Miriam Florence Squier. California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate. NY: Carleton, 1877.
Carolyn Kitch , former editor for Good Housekeeping and McCall's, and Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois