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.