Portraits and Personalities
In August 1893, the fashionable photographer Harry Bedford-Lemere spent several days at Rachel and Frederick Beer's mansion in Mayfair. Bedford-Lemere had made a name for himself photographing the opulent homes of the era. His work was commissioned by wealthy homeowners, architects, decorators and property agents, and it often appeared in society and lifestyle magazines. Through his still-existing photographs, it's possible to take a virtual tour of the Beers' home and to get a vivid sense of the life they shared together.
A water fountain gurgled in the marble-lined hall of 7 Chesterfield Gardens, and on a tall pedestal stood La Guerre, a statue created by the famous French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye. It was a small-scale reproduction of one of four figurative works carved in stone on the pavilion façades of the new Louvre in Paris. Frozen in bronze, a soldier sat on a crouched horse, about to unsheath his sword, as a young boy next to him raised a horn to his lips. Though impressive in its scale and execution, La Guerre hardly presented a pastoral image of welcome-instead, it created an undercurrent of unease. The Beers had eagerly acquired the statue just a few months earlier in Paris, shortly after it was cast and put on sale. Owning a piece by the most celebrated French sculptor of the Third Republic was both a statement of wealth and a projection of their sophisticated artistic taste.
Like the statue that graced their doorstep, the Beers' choice of architect was somewhat eccentric. The job went to the renowned C. J. Phipps, who had designed dozens of theaters all over Britain. Looking to the eighteenth century for inspiration, Phipps and Rachel cluttered the entertainment rooms of the house with mixed gilt French revival furniture in the Louis XVI style, colorful marbles, bronzes, crystal chandeliers, velvet drapes and Persian carpets. Heavy brocades and damasks upholstered the furniture and hung from the walls, nearly muting all sounds. Phipps's theatrical taste was clearly manifest in the house, and some of the rooms closely resembled stage settings. There was a "Moor-esque" smoking room for gentleman visitors, which suggested a harem with its draperies, poufs, hexagonal tables and hookahs.
All of Rachel and Frederick's possessions projected the image that they were widely traveled, interested in foreign affairs and world issues, and very fashionable. Their home, in all its extravagance, was the ultimate blending of Rachel's Eastern background, Frederick's adventures abroad and Victorian Englishness.
Rachel's nephew, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, spent many hours in his aunt's lavish home. He recalled sitting in the drawing room, where he and his family would wait for the chronically late Mrs. Beer. Siegfried and his brothers were dumbfounded not only by the splendor of their aunt and uncle's home, but also by the ceremonial rules by which the couple conducted their lives. Passing through the massive portico and the doors with their grille of gilded metalwork, they were "bowed to by the solemn but delighted butler." It must have felt very much like they were entering the domain of royalty, and they felt obliged to "converse in undertones."
Finally, Aunt Rachel would come bustling in, smelling of violets, fashionably dressed, with an enormous feathered hat on her head. Her ears would sparkle with sapphire earrings and her hands with diamond rings. Rather than hug or caress the boys, she would instead offer her cold, ivory cheek to each of them in turn. Responding to the beat of a gong, they would move into the dining room, which was reachable through a narrow passageway with mirrored walls and bamboo handrails down each side, suggesting a gently sloping bridge. Crowned with a metal-domed ceiling, the room was decorated in the oriental style, with blackened bamboo flooring, asymmetrical bamboo chairs, and objects from the Far East, including swords with ivory handles and a sentimental painting of two Japanese geishas.
Of all the unique decorative elements in Chesterfield Gardens, what young Siegfried remembered best was this mirrored passageway: "We always stopped to marvel at our multiplied and diminishing reflections, which couldn't be counted . . . 'I can see simply hundreds of myself!' my younger brother would exclaim. And I would outdo him with, 'I can see thousands and millions and trillions of myself, getting tinier and tinier all the time, like ancestors!' " he later wrote.
Rachel never tried to conceal her Eastern ancestry. The frequent costume balls she attended (and sometimes held) gave her a welcome opportunity to play up her exotic features by dressing as an oriental lady. These were also occasions to display a fraction of her treasure trove of diamonds, rubies and precious jewels. When she dressed in this style, she would wear several strings of pearls in various lengths, Indian-style, hanging nearly to her waist, a rope of pink coral crisscrossing her thighs, and several Indian gold and carved coral bracelets hugging her bare arms from the shoulder down.
Rachel loved this outfit and the image it projected so much that she displayed a photo of herself wearing it on the mantelpiece of her home. She also gave a copy to Theresa Sassoon, Siegfried's mother, who set it on her own mantelpiece next to a photo of Frederick Beer, his face adorned with a moustache and small whiskers, wearing a tweed tailcoat and a brown billycock, holding a stick, resting his foot on a rustic seat.
But while she was proud of her exotic roots, Rachel felt thoroughly English and wanted to be perceived as such. Having one's portrait painted by a leading artist was one way of acquiring an English provenance, and to this end, the Beers commissioned Henry Jones Thaddeus to paint separate portraits of each of them. Jones Thaddeus was well known in fashionable London circles and he charged exorbitant rates for his work. For her sittings, the thirty-one-year-old Rachel wore a dress of deep golden silk with a low décolletage-le dernier cri- and the newly fashionable high shoulder line. Her dark curly hair was worn "drawn simply back, revealing the ears, into a French pleat," and she chose to adorn herself with none of her exquisite jewels; instead, her only accessory was an ostrich feather fan on a tortoiseshell stick. The background chosen for the portrait was the verdant English countryside; it depicted this Bombay-born London dweller as if she were a member of the landed gentry.
Normally, portraitists tend to idealize their sitter's appearance, but the painting of Rachel reveals a lack of symmetry in her face. "It certainly shows a concern for veracity and 'likeness,'_" said Dr. Brendan Rooney, Jones Thaddeus's biographer. Far more subjective, Siegfried Sassoon thought that the portrait reflected his aunt's "dark loveliness and the faintly smiling sweetness of her un-departed youth." After Rachel's death, her devoted nurse and personal assistant, Miss Ross, bought the painting. She later sold it to Siegfried, who hung it over the large fireplace in his library.
Bedford-Lemere was allowed unlimited access to the Beers' home. The photographer even placed his tripod in Rachel's bedroom and study, capturing its silk-covered walls and ceiling. The French secretaire, where Rachel did most of her writing, was positioned close to her dressing table, and both faced the huge Jones Thaddeus portrait of Frederick, which loomed over the fireplace. Over the course of years, the painting has disappeared, and its image lives on only in Bedford- Lemere's photograph.
For two people who were individually characterized as being shy and introverted, the Beers spent a great deal of time out in society and hosting events in their home. Much of Frederick's time was spent enjoying his favorite pastimes of racquets, golf and billiards, or in the pursuit of favorable connections. Often, these activities crossed paths. To keep in good physical condition, he enrolled at the Prince's Club, where he could not only enjoy the use of several indoor croquet courts and a tennis court, but also move among other illustrious members of the club, such as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge. For political discourse, Frederick joined the Devonshire Club, which was Liberal, and for conversation concerning travel and foreign countries, he went to the St. James's Club, much favored by diplomats. As a philanthropist, he supported the Newspaper Press Fund, and he was also a member of the Royal Institution, which was devoted to scientific education and research.
For her part, Rachel was active in various nurses' welfare charities and was a member of the Association of Women Pioneer Lecturers, which sent female speakers to address audiences throughout England, "instructing the people to become useful citizens, and also give the congenial employment to hundreds of highly educated women."
Society columnists, meanwhile, recorded Rachel's visits to concert halls and the theater. The Sporting Times made note of "the oriental aristocratic features and magnificent diamond tiara of Mrs. Beer," and The John Bull complimented her "pale, blue satin, trimmed with handsome embroidered gauze, and pink roses at the rouche at the hem." Owning newspapers was the couple's entrée to London's most prestigious events, where they met "royalties, the aristocracy of birth and genius, 'the salt of the earth.'_" They were also invited to the most notable weddings, including that of Henry Morton Stanley in Westminster Abbey. The Beers' gift to the African explorer was a silver reading glass.
The couple attained true social eminence, however, when they hosted the Prince of Wales, his sister Princess Helena, and her husband and two daughters at a special theatrical event held at their home. For three successive evenings at the end of February 1891, a procession of princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, arrived at the Beers' residence for the sold-out, "long anticipated Tableaux Vivant." This upper-class amusement consisted of groups of costumed actors posing in various frozen compositions. The Beers went to great expense and trouble to perfect the show, and the famous Mrs. Bancroft, who had retired from acting six years earlier, agreed to direct and perform in the event. The show consisted of fourteen specially selected scenes with elaborate lighting effects, breathtaking costumes and props.
The cast of thirty actors and models, as well as musicians, singers and an army of stagehands, produced a spectacle worthy of commercial theater. The classical scenes of beauty, romance and death, situated in royal courts, were inspired by well-known works of art. The merry French monarch Charles II sat on his throne surrounded by his many mistresses; one court beauty in pink satin and silver lace was sitting at his feet, "and another had a black and tan spaniel on her lap." Of the five Dene sisters, all of whom were famous models, three took part in the show. Dorothy, the model for Leighton's Flaming June and the inspiration for Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, was Queen Katharine of Aragon, in scenes from her divorce, trial and death. For what seemed like an eternity, the performers had to keep motionless with upturned eyes, "until the curtain went down after several encores," recalled Lady Glover, who played the role of Marie Antoinette and whose little daughter was an angel in a flowing white gown with wings.
None of Rachel's Jewish relatives attended the performances, and if they had, they would certainly have recoiled upon hearing Gounod's Ave Maria accompanying the next tableau: a group of nuns in the cloisters who "were all chosen for their good looks." When the lights were turned back on, "there was not a dissentient voice as to the brilliant success of the whole performance." The proceeds were given to the Royal School of Art Needlework and the Home of Rest for Nurses.
While rachel was hosting, organizing and attending these society functions at night, by day she was using her opinion pieces in the sunday times to promote many of the same causes the evening events supported-the arts, women's advancement and the plight of the indigent. In a sense, she led two public lives-one as an active member of high society and another as a socially conscious journalist. She managed to seamlessly merge these two selves; but sadly, she was unable to truly have it all.
Flight from Baghdad
Less than a minyan-the quorum of ten male Jewish adults required for public prayer-remains today in Iraq, the last remnants of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Jews first arrived there when Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, exiled them from the Holy Land into the area more than 2,500 years ago. Prior to the founding of Israel in 1948, and just before reprisals against Jews in the Arab world accelerated, there were 130,000 Jews in all of Iraq. An estimated 120,000 of them fled the country between 1950 and 1951.
The first documented member of Rachel's family is Sheikh Sason ben Saleh, her great-grandfather, who was born in Baghdad in 1750. None of the sheikh's early ancestors are known to have held any official posts, though this search is complicated by the fact that neither Baghdadi Jews nor the Arabs they lived among had surnames; instead, a person was identified as the son or daughter of their father. It was only when the family settled into British-ruled India in the 1830s that they converted the first name of their progenitor, Sason, meaning "joy" in Hebrew, into a surname, modifying it to the presumably more genteel-sounding Sassoon.
For four decades, Sheikh Sason ben Saleh held a double post: Sarraf Bashi, the chief treasurer of the Baghdadi pasha, and Nasi, president of the local Jewish community. His main task was to collect taxes that were levied on the community, and he had the power to punish his subjects with fines or lashings, even when the law forbade such treatment.
Traditionally, the role of Nasi in Baghdad was filled by a descendant of King David, and in ancient times, when the Nasi rode about town dressed in a gown woven with threads of gold and silver, passersby would stop and proclaim, "Give honour, ye nations, to the seed of David." This explains the legend that the House of Sassoon sprang from the biblical king; however, that lineage cannot be verified. Nor can the claim that the Sassoons' ancestors were forced to flee the Holy Land in 586 B.C., following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The story goes that fifty years later, when Jews were encouraged to return to the Holy Land, the Sassoons chose to stay in Mesopotamia.
A different historical trail also has the Sassoons leaving the Holy Land by force, but at a different time: according to this version, they were among the exiles when the rebuilt Temple was destroyed, again, in A.D. 70. Allegedly, they were taken into captivity in Rome, from where they migrated to Spain centuries later. In 1492, refusing to convert to Christianity, they were expelled with the rest of the Jews by the Catholic monarchs and were among those who continued eastward, landing in Turkey and eventually settling in Baghdad. In later years, when the family became anglicized, they designed a coat of arms, choosing a golden lion holding a scepter over a majestic blue background-the symbol of the Kingdom of David.
During Rachel's great-grandfather's reign as Nasi, in the late eighteenth century, ten thousand of the eighty thousand inhabitants of Baghdad were Jews. While they resided in their own quarter in the northwestern part of the city, it was not a ghetto, and they suffered no humiliating restrictions. At the time, the Jewish quarter of Baghdad existed as a community heavily influenced by its Arab neighbors: the Jews there spoke Arabic, used it in their religious services, and wrote Arab words and phrases in Hebrew characters. Their manner of dress was similar to that of their compatriots, and though they observed the Jewish dietary laws their cuisine was, nevertheless, Arabic. They were liberal minded, candid and very inquiring. "The fine race of Jews at this place strikes every traveler, but their chief object is gain, and to be fruitful, and to multiply," reported the Christian missionary Reverend Joseph Wolf, who visited the city in 1824.
Excerpted from The First Lady of Fleet Street by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Copyright © 2012 by Eilat Negev. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.