Amazons of Paris

More stories from the work-in-progress kicked off by
a Paris Review Daily essay series.

Amazon of the Month: Countess Anna Ugarte

Anna Ugarte's story is another true work in progress – I'm going to leave you with more questions than answers but I hope I will at least introduce you to this singular aristocrat. I first came across an 1891 mention of her in a US newspaper by a much-syndicated columnist called the "Marquise de Fontenoy". The headline was "A Countess in the Ring". The Countess Anna Ugarte, the piece went on, would soon be appearing as a haute école écuyère at the Nouveau Cirque in Paris as, following her separation from her husband, she was short of funds. The "Marquise" said that the Moravian countess was "one of the most superb horsewomen with whom I have ever ridden".

Except that – and by now, you know how this goes – I can't find evidence that this "tall blonde" performed in a circus, and the "Marquise" turns out to be a more slippery character. A sort of Hedda Hopper to the European aristocracy, de Fontenoy was the pseudonym of Marguerite de Godart, Comtesse du Planty-et-de-Sourdia. She married an American journalist, Frederick Cunliffe-Owen, and they emigrated to the USA in 1885 when their money ran out. That's where Marguerite set herself up as an expert on European aristocracy and royalty, churning out columns and books under her elegant pseudonym. I am not convinced that she ever rode alongside Anna Ugarte. I'm currently fact-checking the more colourful things she wrote about her and torn between respect for a hustle and the hope that Marguerite has only performed some creative smudging of facts and not a complete forgery. I like her stories. I don't know if I can trust them.

But what about Anna herself? She was born into an aristocratic Moravian family with Spanish roots whose family seat was Jaispitz, now Jevišovice in the Czech Republic. She was part of the Empress of Austria's circle of beautiful, gifted horsewomen who rode with the Gödöllő drag hounds, and was still only a teenager when she married the extravagantly moustachioed Hector Baltazzi in 1875. It seems she was soon out of her depth.

The Baltazzis were wealthy Greeks from Constantinople – outsiders who wanted to advance in the Hapsburg court but were regarded with suspicion by that clique-ridden circle after they met "Sissi" while hunting with the Belvoir pack in England. Empress Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting, Countess Marie Festetics von Tolna, confided to one correspondent, "no one knows exactly where these people come from with all their money, but they are pushing and make me feel uncomfortable. The brothers are devoted to sport, ride splendidly, and shove themselves in everywhere; but they are dangerous to us, because they are quite English [they attended British public schools and were friends with the Prince of Wales], and because of the horses!"

Hector was a brilliant jockey who won the Velká Pardubická three times and also the trainer of the European champion racehorse, Kisber. Anna hunted on a mare that he'd brought on to finish second and third in the Grand National. The couple's equestrian ambitions were justified but rapidly ruinous – within a few years, Anna had spent so much money that she was placed under a curatorship. By 1888, Hector's niece, Mary Vetsera, was reporting that the couple wanted to divorce. A mere year later, the same niece was inseparable from a far-greater scandal.

Mary's ambitious mother (Hector's sister) had manoeuvered her into position as a mistress of Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the empire. She was the teenager he shot before killing himself at his hunting lodge in Mayerling in 1889. The Baltazzis were cast out, and Anna was fairly shortly granted both her divorce and the right to return to her maiden name and title.

Already, most of this mini-essay is about people other than Anna – she left no memoir or letter collection to rely on. I've been combing through the archives, finding things here and there: she did divorce Hector; she did have to sell half her inheritance; she moved to Leicestershire to hunt and live a genteel sort of life; she was much loved by locals both there and in Moravia; she kept dachshunds, had seven sidesaddles and a mare called Pelisse: fragments of a life strung very sparsely along a narrative that's beginning to emerge.

I wish I had a happier ending for you, but sadly I don't – she took her own life at just 46. The letter that triggered her death is absent from the inquest but I have an idea of where it might be, and a few more clues about where to discover if she really did exhibit her excellent haute école skills in the circus ring in the 1890s. Here's hoping I can tell her story.

Minor Hippodramas: Barbare

I was recently asked to contribute to a round table on horses as social agents using the Amazons of Paris material and said no, because the horses in these stories are generally little more than accessories. They are described by breed, colour and often skill but rarely have more agency of their own – they are the "docile instruments" that showcase the skills of a Loisset or a de Rahden.

This month's Minor Hippodrama bucks that trend (yes, PUN). The mare Barbare got her own billing and her own posters. She was exhibited "at liberty" by circus director Louis Fernando, and he is always given his due as a trainer, but it's clearly Barbare ("barbarian" or "savage") who commands the attention. The black mare is variously referred to in her press clippings as "la Terrible Barbare", "the mare of fire" and "the untameable mare". She was supposedly an English thoroughbred originally bought as an officer's horse but entirely resistant to training. A Paris dealer then acquired her to break for harness and ended up with a lot of broken harnesses and carts. Then Louis Fernando transformed her.

In her act, she "roared like a lion" and was surrounded by fireworks. Fernando commanded her to walk, trot, gallop, halt, do flying changes, volte, pirouette, and jump a 1m 80 fence. I'd imagine that a lot of the "untameable" schtick was as much of a performance as the rest – rather like this clip of Bartabas playing the cowardly trainer to the "ferocious" Zingaro in Cabaret Équestre or the horses who played Mazeppa's wild mount in so many hippodramas. But in 1884, when the public crowded backstage to see her, she double-barrelled an idiot who let himself into her stable because he thought it was all an act. This would-be caresser claimed not to be in pain afterwards but was reportedly "very pale".

It's a measure of Barbare's fame that she was able to come back after five years' off due to an injury, and once more get excellent billings. This time, she was ridden by "the brave Sioux Hampa", who hustled her over a two-metre-high jump.

Miss Zenobia in La Culture Physique. Screengrab via Gallica/BNF.

Supporting Acts: Miss Zenobia

This 1883 poster by Kampf of the performer Miss Zenobia looks like a lost cover for Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus: an aerialiste, a steam engine, flying locks and pistols. Miss Zenobia was a stalwart of the continental circus at the end of the century – she had a lengthy performing career and there are hundreds of mentions of her in the archives, even if I had a frustrating time finding any sort of detailed account of her act. I know she excelled on the flying rings and that she also performed "iron jaw" tricks, travelling down a cord from the roof of the circus to the sawdust held only by her teeth, but how the guns, horse and locomotive fitted into it are anyone's guess.

She's billed – through what seems to be an evolving and increasingly emphatic process – as a Canadian Iroquois, and I did think of tracing her through North American circuses, but other than a Zenobia who was being fired out of Roman catapults in John Robinson's Great World's Exposition in the same era, nothing has yet turned up. I also found a "Miss Zenobia of Zoulouland" performing in national costume in Berlin in 1879. "Zenobia", like "Selika" is a kind of generically "exotic" name for the period, so whether she was native or not is unknowable, as there was quite the vogue at the time for white performers to pass themselves off as any ethnicity they fancied. One French newspaper describes her as "an Indian who is far from a redskin" (whatever that means).

In a Viennese skit from 1875, a bourgeois girl goes to an elite ball where she knows no one. The young aristos crowd round. Is she an opera singer or ballet girl? Perhaps a Loisset or a Miss Zenobia? When she's revealed to be nothing of the sort, she's abandoned as a wallflower. I hope Miss Z did get to go to a ball or two to be celebrated. She married an Italian strongman in Florence in 1884, undergoing first baptism, then confirmation, communion and finally her wedding in a single day with Princess Strozzi as her godmother.


April saw the sale of the UK's only surviving flea circus in Essex at Sworders auction house. The same catalogue was full of bizarre goodies like Fiji mermaids and zebra skulls and some beautiful circus art. It also included a taxidermied flying unicorn, which sold for £8,000. [LINK]

"I have goals to make the circus world a more welcoming and comfortable place for trans people to be able to express themselves however they want." CircusTalk has a round table with young trans performers. [LINK]

You can read the first issue of the Amazons of Paris newsletter here.

Bonus Acts-Lost-to-History: the clamorous and busy advertisement for John Robinson's Great World's Exposition included such intriguing attractions as "9 Female English Bicycle Riders!", "Long-haired Belmont Sisters. Length of hair, 7 feet. Thickness, 4 in", "Ox with 3 separate horns distinct eyes", "$5,000 school of walrus!", "Mlle Zerate, Ceiling Walker" and – the pièce de résistance – "20 Female Siberian Roller Skaters in their native dances – acrobatic feats and wonderful skating". And with that marvellous image, I'll end!

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