Good [insert applicable time of day], readers! Hot off the presses, we’ve got a nice slice of scandal pie to brighten up your [insert applicable day], because rather than read about the Iberian campaigns of Justinian as I most definitely probably completely 100% should be doing, I decided to make much better use of my time and yours.
I’d like to introduce you all to a friend of mine, the Empress Theodora, wife of the aforementioned Iberian-campaigning Justinian. She lived in a fun little time called “the 6th century,” in this hip and happenin’ place called “the Byzantine Empire,” and whooodawgy did she get up to some shit. At least, according to the Late-Antique best-seller, The Secret History, by the imperial advisor and one of the last historians of the classical world, Procopius.
PSYCH, it was never a best-seller because not only was it unpublished for over a millennium because it was supah salacious and 99.999997% bullshit, there was no such things as a best-seller list in the 6th century! HISTORYFACT’D!!!1!
But for the sake of your average, casual, johnny-come-lately, historical-sex-scandal-reading public, we’re going to give The Secret History the historical credibility and r-e-s-p-e-c-t for which its author so long pined—and now appears to have finally achieved in the hearts of Classics majors everywhere, and as an ironic footnote in
the Pulitzer Prize winning a mildly popular internet blog.
Now there are certain things we know about Theodora that are just regular, “truth” facts, and don’t come from Procopius. I shall make a list, because I am feeling unambitious today (slorry):
- She was born in poverty in 500 A.D.
- Her father TRAINED MUTHALUVIN BEARS, and her mother was a dancer and an actress. In Late-Antique terms, I’m not even being glib when I say Theodora’s mom was a straight up prostitute.
- Her dad died and her mother sold her and her sister at a relatively early age to a low-rent brothel which catered specifically to soliders, and Theodora eventually moved up to become a stage performer. But she’s totally only doing it to pay for college, guys.
Here’s where we enter the salaciously murky world of historical conjecture (mmmmmm….). According to our erstwhile chronicler, Theo apparently made a name for herself in the redlight district of
Istanbul Constantinople Istanbul Constantinople Istanbul Constantinople with an extra special version of Leda and the Swan. I think Procopious describes the show much more better than I ever could, so to him I cede the blog floor (bloor):
“Often, even in the theatre, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.”
‘Round about this time, at the weary old age of 16, Theodora became the bangmaid of an imperial official named Hecebolus, who whisked her away to that most romantic of second-rate late Roman military outposts, the Libyan Pentapolis in North Africa. She put up with his abandonment, beatings and sleep apnea, for no apparent reason (aside from the glaringly obvious) for four years before returning to Constantinople. She gave up actressing and became a woolspinner near the palace, but her reputation for—WAIT FOR IT—her wit, beauty, and character—DIDN’T EXPECT THAT DID YOU NO NEITHER DID I IT’S OK—drew the heir apparent, Justinian’s, eye.
Welp, ladiez, he was a romantic, and wanted to hit-it-and-not-quit-it. Unfortunately, not only was there a law against marrying those of the hooker persuasion, his aunt was not down with having a trollop prancing about the royal digs, dropping goosefeed out her vajay for all to see and sample. But, then his aunt kicked it, and Justinian’s uncle, the emperor, changed that law, since he had a soft spot for interpretative dance, and Justinian Put.A.Ring.On.It. in 525. This was good of him, considering he’d knocked Theodora up in the interim period (or maybe somebody else had, whichever you prefer, we don’t actually know, hey! this is a fun game).
Two years later, she was empress of one of the largest and richest empires in the Late Antique world. I have to assume that this is the highest an illiterate, homeless, stripping single mom has ever climbed, without her own Lifetime movie…. YET. According to Procopius, she continued to skank-it-up with basically e’rybody and their brother, and Justinian was too blinded by her magic thighs to notice. Because, as we all know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, or break a biddy of her sex-addiction AMIRITE??
As empress, any time Theodora (apparently) had between doling out handies and blahjays to every Thomas, Dickus, and Harricus, she spent engaged not in the ways of the secular flesh, but in charity and progressive legislation for women, since they were considered second class citizens or property or some historyfact shit like that. She passed laws that prohibited forced prostitution, closed brothels, expanded women’s divorce and property rights, instituted a death penalty for rape, gave mothers guardianship over their children were they to leave their husbands, and forbid killing a woman for adultery. This elevated the status of women in Byzantium far above their contemporaries in the Middle East or the rest of Europe. She also opened a convent specifically for ex-prostitutes where they could either live the rest of their lives or learn another trade to support themselves. Blerg. She was the S’est of the SBWs.
Incidentally, Procopius described Theodora’s convent as being the forced confinement of 500 prostitutes, who wanted to go back to having sex with multitudes of faceless, abusive men for pennies so badly that lots of them committed suicide to escape being “transmogrified against their will”!!!!!!1! But, he did also drop the TMZ x-clusive truthbomb that Justinian and Theodora were demons whose heads detached from their bodies and roamed the palace at night. Soooo, Imma go with Procopius. On everything.
Anywho, Theodora died in 548 and Justinian was genuinely like super sad about it, and continued to carry out a lot of causes she believed in and put her in official portraits with him and stuff like that. So it was nice. The end.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recall that I have moved from my wintry collegiate home of Western New York to a new, far away land. A place where Subarus and Farmers Markets abound, and where the term “harvest” no longer refers to seasonal gourds or early 17th century Puritans. If you’re thinking Northern California, congratulations, you win a prize. It’s a gluten-free cupcake.
Although NoCal (makes it sound like it’s good for you) is now one of the crunchiest places on the planet, it didn’t used to be that way. In fact, back in the good ol’ days, it was just as swanky as the hanky pankiest of American cities. (Like Reno or Cleveland.)
And what made the land of vegans and gays and vegan gays so scandalous back then, you ask? Guys like William Randolph Hearst is what. You probably remember him from APUSH as the creator of “yellow journalism.” And as the leader of our country’s first media conglomerates, he bought dirt, spun it into scandal and sold it faster and harder than Taylor Swift could fall in love, break up with someone, and write a top 40 hit about it. He was THAT good.
So good that Bill found himself in the middle of a scandal or two himself, earning him early 20th century northern California’s most prestigious award: “most hanky in the panky.” This is not an award that will be given at tonight’s Golden Globes, although I think we all know who it would be be going to if it wasn’t a totally fictional thing that I just made up.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to just add another tier of Award Season relevance to the already decadent scandal cake we’re baking here. Mr. Hearst was known for throwing the best parties in California, and he partied mostly with a bunch of Hollywood moving picture actors and producers in a castle that he built about half way between LA and Frisco. It’s actually still standing and it’s called “Hearst Castle.” (I haven’t been there because it costs like $25 to get in, but supposedly it has like THE best private art collection in the world). The building was designed by architect Julia Morgan and has a pool that looks like it belongs at a Vegas hotel. But what’s really important about it is that A LOT of Hollywood big shots (who had a lot of awards probably — you’re welcome, relevance) went there to have orgies.
Yeah, you heard me. Orgies. Like the kind at, like, Bacchae temples in ancient Rome. Although probably instead of like pouring wine all over each other, it was like High Balls and G&Ts.
This was not particularly surprising considering the frivolity of Hearst’s early adulthood. He was born and raised in San Francisco but after prep school in New Hampshire, he attended Harvard, like any millionaire’s son. Even though he was in a fraternity and a Finals Club (JUST LIKE IN FACEBOOK THE MOVIE), he didn’t finish (ALSO JUST LIKE FACEBOOK THE MOVIE AARON SORKIN IS A COLOSSAL DOUCHEBAG) on account of being expelled for throwing beer parties in Harvard square and sending chamber pots to professors. (Kids! Amiright?)
Turns out though, Bill didn’t really need that education shit anyway. He just bought, like, all of the major newspapers in the country, made bank, and started partying with celebrities instead of college kids. Sounds good to me, amiright ladiezz?
I should also add that while doing all of the illicit party throwing and media moguling, when he was 40, he met and married Millicent Wilson, a 21 year old chorus girl who was the daughter of a brothel owner. HOTT. About 15 years and five sons later, Hearst started an affair with actress and comedienne Marion Davies. Hearst and his wife separated (she moved to Manhattan and founded the Milk Fund), and he shacked up with Davies until his death. He was super possessive of her supposedly (even though he was the one with a spouse on the other coast), especially since she used to go steady with none other than silent film star, Charlie Chaplin.
So possessive in fact, that he might have dialed M for MURDER ifyouknowwhatimsayinnnn. Allow me to elaborate. One fateful night in 1924, Hearst’s yacht was BUMPIN’. Among the guests were Davies (obvi, she was probably pouring the Jager bombs), Mr. Chaplin, and one Thomas Ince, noted film producer and screenwriter. Hearst, convinced that Davies was screwing around on him, invited his girlfriend’s ex just so he could keep tabs on them. Later in the evening, he caught Davies and Chaplin together and, enraged, went to find his pistol. He returned and shot his lover’s lover (ew) only to find out that it wasn’t that freak mime, Charlie, but his buddy, Tom Ince, who joined them on the yacht to celebrate his 42nd birthday and wasn’t actually doing anything compromising with the lady at all.
What actually happened is that after leaving the yacht because of a bad case of the acid reflux, he probably died of a heart attack. BUT the story of Hearst mistaking Ince for Chaplin is an old Hollywood legend and it’s so scandalous, I had to share it. And it’s so juicy it could have been a movie (so that ties nicely into the award season theme I’m awkwardly pushing). OH WAIT IT WAS A MOVIE. Starring Kirsten Dunst so it was probably terrible.
Speaking of movies based on the lives of real people: I’ve never seen it (don’t hate me JAF), but the “best movie of all time,” Citizen Kane is based loosely on the life of William Randolph Hearst. And, yes, you’re doing the math right, Hearst was still around when the film was released and he used a yacht-load of cash trying to prevent that from happening. While he failed, at that and at keeping it off of literally everyone’s “Best movies of all time” list, he and his muckity-muck friends were able to make sure it played at very few theatres. Fun fact, that’s why it kind of tanked in the box office.
I think what we’ve all learned here is that:
- I should probably get my act together and see Citizen Kane.
- JAF is going to kill me.
- No matter how much fun it looks like all those pretty people are having at the Globes tonight, none of them have ever partied as hard or as fabulously as media mogul and party god, William Randolph Hearst.
Except for Lindsay. But I doubt she’s invited to the Globes anymore.
I know what you’re thinking: “Man, I’m real fucking tired of reading sentences on this here blahg that begin, ‘I know what you’re thinking.'”
But counterpoint: I know what you, our dear, sweet acolytes of sin and scandal, are thinking. How can your Aunt MRG, a connoisseur of (read: holder of a useless minor in) architectural history, a maven of mullions, a lover of lintels, an epicure of entablature, completely disregard the EXCEPTIONALLY SCANDALOUS life of the man who changed the face of American architecture 4ever, Mr. Frank Lincoln Lloyd Wright? How?! HOW??!?!
Welp, MRG doesn’t have an answer other than she only recently discovered that good ol’ FLW (which is ALMOST 3LW, GUYS) was REAL ADULTEROUS for a REAL LONG TIME and shit ended REAL BADLY after reading two-thirds of a shitty historical romance novel about it that her mom got for free at the end of a library book sale.
Before we get into it, I just need you to know that I wasn’t joking when I said shit ended badly. This might be the saddest, most emotionally confusing story we’ve ever done or will ever do. Go grab some tissues and cake to absorb your eye-rain and your mind-feelings, respectively. I’ll wait.
Okay, ready? Excellent.
Frankie was born in 1867 in Wisconsin to good, honest, hard-working prairie people. Mommy was a country school teacher and Daddy was a music instructor/itinerant preacher/salesman/smalltime mafioso (one of those is not true, but he was sort of a jack of all trades). Kind, pure, milk-drinking Midwesterners, they were. I’m over-emphasizing this because Midwesternism was really the ideological and aesthetic center of Frankie’s architectural schtick and also the psychological center of his adultery schtick. We’ll get to that.
When Frank was 14, MommyWright had had enough of DaddyWright’s occupational instability and subsequently, his inability to keep the bratwurst and head cheese on the table, and HE GOT SERVED with divorce papers and probably a complimentary glass of milk.
Thus Frank set forth into young adulthood from a broken home, which totally sucks in an almost Greek-tragedy/O. Henry kinda way, because ~*gEt tHiS*~ he wanted to be an architect. He wanted to un-break homes professionally. This is deep shit. So Frank kissed his Ma and his two sisters bye-byes, boarded the next train for Chicago, got a job at a mid-level architectural firm, and started sending checks home.
Frankie was sort of a prodigy. And really, he was the worst kind of prodigy: that pompous, unbelieveably innovative kind that can’t tolerate the what the plebians are consuming because it lacks soul and truth, or whatever. <architectural boner time real quick> In this case, what the plebs loved was cutesy, gingerbready, machine-made gew-gaws and whosy-whatsits that you could order from a catalog and nail on your house, the central structure of which probably came from a pattern book (which was essentially a cookbook, but for houses instead of food). Frank. hated. this. shit. and wanted to design houses that were beautiful and true and born from their surroundings, not ordered from page 52 of this season’s JCrew catalog. </architectural boner time> So he skipped around a couple more firms, working as a draftsman, and eventually settled at the firm of Louis Sullivan, who invented the skyscraper. Cool. Modern. Closer to Frank’s jam. You get it.
Also, around this time he marries Kitty Lee Tobin, who is a JAF-level beautiful ginger whom Frank meets at church (he’s still a good Midwesterner, you know). Believe it or not, she’s also a bit of a snooze. Wants to have babies to pass off to an Irish nanny, embellish hats, maybe prune an indoor topiary or two. Your basic 1890s lady-activities. But she’s nice. Nice and bland.
Professionally, Frank’s also doing ehh, just okay. He and Louis pal around for a handful of years in the way a curmudgeonly-but-talented-and-once-#1 older guy and an ambitious wunderkind are wont to do, but towards the end of his apprenticeship, Frankie designs a bunch of houses in secret. Like, he just has to. He’s an artist. This job has been more challenging than the last few, but he’s like, not growing anymore, you know? So he leaves Louis and sets out to fucking turn the architectural world upside-fucking-down.
He opens his own practice, starts getting commissions, starts doin’ his prodigal thang. And at just the right time: Chicago’s upper crust are reeeeeally looking to separate themselves from the ever-growing population of Muggles that comes with life in a burgeoning industrial city. I mean, this is when and where The Jungle took place. People are falling into meat grinders. Babies are drowning in sewage puddles. City life is becoming real gross, real smelly, and real real.
So the wealthies are like, “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH MY HOUSE AS LONG AS IT’S EXPENSIVE AND NOT UGLY AND NO ONE ELSE HAS IT.” Lucky for Frank, that’s essentially his business plan to begin with. Lucky for us, one of those wealthies, Edwin Cheney, was married to the latest in what’s quickly becoming a recurring ForShame! character type — a stunning, strong, smart, other-positive-adjectives-that-begin-with-S SLAMmotherfuckingPIECE named Mamah. Pronounced like MAY-muh (I don’t like it either).
Mamah Borthwick Cheney was beautiful, had serious conviction, and held two Master’s degrees. TWO. OF. THEM. Basically, she was the anti-Kitty Wright. Well, she did have two kids and tried to play housewife for a while (after she got learned), which was a Kitty kinda thing to do. But she also went to lots of women’s rights meetings in town and did other cool things like translate German texts and stuff. She had intellectual and social and cultural interests outside of her house and family in a time when a lot of women really didn’t, is what I’m trying to say.
Another of her interests was Frank Lloyd Wright’s big ol’ dick.
It was really the perfect storm. In 1903, Edwin Cheney commissions FLW to get architecturin’ on their Oak Park property. But Ed (who, it should be said, seems to have been a pretty good guy) had a traditional 9-to-5 and therefore couldn’t make a lot of let’s-look-at-blueprints-type meetings with Frank. Mamah fucking hated housewifery, had free time, and was more than capable of talking business (gasp). So Mamah and Frank spent a lot of time talking about abstract things like his philosophy and her feminism and real, phallic-shaped things like columns and beams. You see where this is going. Notably, though, both Real History and that novel suggest that they totally didn’t fuck until the house was finished.
Meaning they sat across a desk from one another, having extremely hot brain sex, for YEARS before finally having extremely hot body sex.
Frank respected Mamah, with her feminism and her translationism, as his intellectual equal, and probably missed talking to her (and peeking down her shirtwaist, knowwhatimsayin) on the regular. So a couple years after the house is complete, Frank comes up with the idea to design the Cheneys a garage and also give Mamah neck massages until suddenly they make out and then woops everyone’s naked and then boom, adultery is official.
They manage to keep it a secret for a little while, but pretty soon the extremely bored housewives of Oak Park are gossiping/pearl-clutching/face-fanning at the thought of the douchey architect next door and the amoral feminist around the block boning each other. It becomes even bigger news when Edwin Cheney and Kitty Wright refuse to give their respective spouses a divorce, and Frank and Mamah (celeb name Framah) react BY GOING TO EUROPE TOGETHER INDEFINITELY.
He meets with Very Important Architects and gets a folio of his work published. She meets with authors and starts translating their work into English. They fuck in Paris. They fuck in Berlin. They fuck in Florence. They fuck allllllll over the EU. Eventually, Edwin (who, again, is a great dude considering) consents to the divorce, and Framah return after more than a year. Pearl-clutching is less vigorous. Kitty’s still pissed, though, and makes Frank’s personal and professional life in Chicago a nightmare.
So in 1911 Frank uses his mom’s money to purchase land in the Wisconsin countryside on which to build Taliesin, a home and studio and one of the definitive examples of American architecture. Also, Taliesin means “adulterous fuckpad” in Welsh (no it doesn’t) so it was the site of a LLLLOTT of boning, as it was meant to be Framah’s private retreat from the Oak Park Mean Girls (GUYS just realized Mean Girls takes place in Evanston, which is close to Oak Park. GUYS, Regina George is a Time Lord).
Anyway, it’s an architectural and personal triumph, since Frank thought the affair ruined his rep in America and the house was meant to be a giant, beautiful middle finger to all the nay-sayers. It was his most innovative structure yet and it was built solely for the purpose of continuing the affair that should have ruined his career. Oh Frank, you old so-and-so.
So Framah are fucking blissfully happy now, because they can be together and see their kids and she can keep being an intellectual goddess and he can keep being an architectural messiah and they can keep making out all the time and eating farm fresh Wisconsin eggs and just live a wonderful, quiet, happy, settled life.
Until, that is, MAMAH AND HER TWO KIDS ARE MURDERED WHILE TALIESIN BURNS TO THE GROUND.
I told you it was sad.
I mean, even if you weren’t on board with Framah because of the adultery and the child abandonment, and even if you didn’t care about their attempts to alter the American cultural landscape forever for all time, or that they eventually tried to do right by their respective families, you can still recognize that that shit is sad.
In 1914, Taliesin was almost-but-not-quite finished. Mamah and Frank were living there while construction was wrapping up. Mamah invited her kids to the loveshack for the first (AND LAST, SHIT) time. Frank had to go to Chicago one day to do a little work in his office. “Alright,” Mamah said, over a plate of organic, farm-to-table breakfast sausages made from jolly Wisconsin swine, “not like this is the last time we’ll ever see each another haha kiss kiss BUHBYE.”
Then Julian Carlton, a Barbadian dude who was either a vengeful butler or member of the crew finishing construction on Taliesin, set the house ON FIRE, trapped Mamah, her son, and her daughter in the burning dining room, and murdered all three of them with an axe. Four more employees die. The novel wants you to think that this Carlton fellow just really hated adultery, but that’s dumb, and in reality, no one ever figured out the motive. Your heart hurts as you contemplate the purpose of justice in a world full of madmen.
Frank moves on. He rebuilds Taliesin, starts dating another socialite, Kitty gives him a divorce, he marries said socialite, keeps on building, cements his reputation as the most important American architect there ever was, and generally forgets about Mamah. You wonder if life is just a series of futile actions and useless associations that inevitably end in suffering and loss.
Through hot tears of rage, confusion, and despondency, you choke down a hunk of that cake I told you to have ready. It is salty from your weeping, but still cake. You have channeled Liz Lemon, as I said you would. “Blerg,” you say. “Blerg those fuckers.”
All right, all of you History Buffs (or History Lightweights, as I might call myself). You probably already know about Catherine the Great.
Tsarina CZARina of Russia, rebellion smiter, border-expander, general ass-tamer. She was one of what those History Weaklings might call THE ENLIGHTENED DESPOTS, a.k.a. monarchs who throw money at people like Voltaire and then ignore hordes of starving serfs.
BESIDES THE POINT. Catherine is known for more than taming the asses of rebellious Cossacks. She also tamed the asses of numerous (indeed, innumerable) Russian lovers.
Let’s get a few things straight. First of all, Catherine wasn’t even Russian. She was Prussian (/German). Frederick the Great made an alliance with the Czarina of Russia, Elizabeth, by wedding Catherine to her son Peter III, a deal that I reimagine going down in a series of text messages:
- Freddy: yo lizzie i got a sweet piece of german ass 4 ur boi. u down?
- Lizzie: omg ship that shit overnite pls. kisses~
Catherine visited Russia and completely transformed herself to win the Czarina’s favor. She changed her name (from Sophie to Ekaterina) and converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Czarina Elizabeth fell in LOVE with this girl, but her son (a.k.a. the guy who was supposed to marry her) was not digging her so much. But believe me, the feeling was mutual.
Catherine, predictably, ends up marrying Peter and living in Russia. Predictably, Peter proceeds to the throne as Czar when Elizabeth kicks the bucket. Perhaps predictably, he makes about as good of a king as he would a porn star. After only five months of rule, Peter III is removed from the throne and supposedly assassinated, a conspiracy which may have involved Catherine.
Either way, Catherine proceeds to the throne without so much as batting an eyelash. Her marriage produced one son, Paul, and sources aren’t even positive that he was a legitimate heir to the throne. (Seriously, BBC and Biography cannot agree on this topic. The History Channel basically admits they have no fucking clue.)
The reason people are hesitant to claim that Catherine’s offspring are legitimate is because she was the Russian court horse. Anybody that she deemed worthy took a ride. Although, contrary to the popular myth, Catherine DID NOT die attempting intercourse with a horse. Let’s just straighten this out here and now: Catherine was a decent woman. An extremely horny, but decent woman.
Catherine embraced her unwritten regal right to bang whoever she wanted whenever she wanted. She entertained two lovers before she was even crowned Czarina: military officer Sergei Soltykov and Stanislaus Poniatowski. These are the rest of her KNOWN lovers:
- Gregory Orlov – A military commander, he helped her to the throne and she promoted him to Count. Makes you wonder who was on top in the bedroom.
- Gregory Potemkin – A brutish military type, he continued to be friends with Catherine after their affair died out. He actually helped search for future lovers, who would sleep with Catherine’s ladies in waiting before receiving the stamp of approval to enter the Czarina’s boudoir.
- Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov – Keep your pants on; it’s not the composer. Their affair was short-lived. Catherine found out he was also banging one of her BFFs, so she had the two of them ousted from court. #sorrynotsorry
- Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov – I really think this guy’s face looks weird, but apparently he spoke French and that did the trick for Catherine. This guy fell in love with one of her chambermaids. I guess Catherine didn’t really give a shit this time around, and let the two of them get married.
- Vladimir Putin – JOKES ON JOKES.
- Alexander Lanskoy – He was 21 and Catherine 50 when they started their affair. Apparently he wasn’t interested in the titles or favors that Catherine often bestowed on her lovers. Finally, a man who only wants a woman for her body. Unfortunately, he died four years later of diphtheria.
- Ivan Shuvalov – Shuvalov was the Minister of Education at the time, and used his post-coital sweet talk wisely: Catherine helped him establish the first university in Russia, Moscow University, and an academy in St. Petersburg that was open to the children of peasants. Aw. I bet he liked spooning.
- Platon Zubov – He was only 22 when he got in the bag with Catherine, but he milked their relationship for all it was worth. When she died, he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Russia.
I could go on to talk about her issues with the clergy, her alliances with Prussia and France, the splitting up of Poland… But instead I’m going to post this picture of a young Catherine with a unicorn for LHB.
С Новым годом!