The Unraveling

The exploits of Jancsi and Clara are very poorly documented. Most of what’s written in regard to their years together is culled from gossip columns. They were married for seven years, during which passions ran high in all senses. They loved loudly and fought loudly all around Europe and the Mediterranean. By some accounts they moved to Hungary. By others they traveled to Egypt where it was said that Clara bought Jancsi casks of precious jewels and built him a white marble palace. Yet they remained highly visible, spotted at the best hotels in cities around the Continent.

While it’s popularly thought that they lived a life of semi-exile which resulted in semi-poverty, there is no evidence of that at all. It’s true that Clara did perform so-called “tableau” acts in music halls around Europe, during which she’d strike utterly still “plastic poses” in flesh-colored leotards that gave the impression of nudity. These performances were as infamous as they were popular (among men, anyway).

Here’s a picture. This image appeared on countless cards, which were no doubt treasured by countless schoolboys.

Clara is said to have earned up to $6,800 (roughly $150,000 in today’s dollars) per month doing these sorts of shows. Why would she do such a thing if she didn’t need the money? Or so argue some historians. My response to that is: why do the Kardashian sisters keep doing reality TV? The attention, obviously. Of course the walkin’ around money doesn’t hurt. But it was Clara’s desire to remain in the public eye that was behind her poses plastiques, or so I’m betting.

For despite the continuous rumors that Clara had been cut off from her family fortune in retribution for her free-spirited lifestyle, there is no evidence that she lived in anything less than opulence. Indeed upon her death in 1916 she left her two two children and then-husband something on the order of $1.5 million — half her original fortune. You don’t earn that kind of green doing burlesque shows, folks. But I’m ahead of myself as usual.

What became of Jancsi? He and Clara divorced in 1904 when it’s said she finally became exhausted with his serial infidelities. But who knows what to believe? Clara’s third husband, a train waiter, divorced her because she’d supposedly had an affair with their chauffeur. So it seems neither of them were what you’d call “inclined” to fidelity.

Following their divorce, Jancsi returned to obscurity. Clara married at least once, possibly twice, more. She died in Italy at the age of 43, one of the most admired, desired and reviled women of her era. Quite an achievement for a poor little rich girl from Michigan.

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