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Lilian Russell: The Goddess, the Gormandizer and the Golden bicycle of the Gilded Age

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Who was the woman who rode around Central Park on a golden bejewelled bicycle? The true story of the aberrant starlet of vaudeville, Lillian Russell. 

Mark Twain described America in the 1870s as being in the ‘Gilded Age’; he defined this era as a time when widespread ills were hidden beneath a thin gold gilding. During this age, which lasted until the turn of the century, the most desired sex-symbol was one Lillian Russell. Voluptuous, charismatic and blessed with perfect comic timing, it is easy to see how she wooed America. Audiences roared with approval as she entered the stage in her trademark diamond-studded corset, and were thrilled by her melodious singing voice. She was a vaudeville star: the queen of operetta. 

Though she oozed stage presence and possessed a prodigious talent, what really marked her out was her extraordinary beauty. However, as the daughter of a suffragette, Russell was not enamoured with her looks and insisted that with the right make-up anyone could look like her. She grew so tired of the world’s fixation with her pulchritude that she once thanked a magazine interviewer for the rare treat of conducting an entire interview without once mentioning her face.

It is said that when Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell set up his first long distance telephone service, Russell’s was the first voice to be sent: she sang the ‘Sabre Song’ in New York, and it was heard in Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Her boyfriend, the tycoon ‘Diamond’ Jim Brady, shared her love of glitz and jewels. Diamond Jim was a trend-spotter par excellence, so when the bicycle craze hit in the mid-1890s he smelled a chance to make money. This trend was seized on with alacrity by the upper echelons of New York society; the elite ‘Four Hundred‘ (a group of rather daft individuals) formed the Michaux Cycle Club in 1895. Not content to merely cycle, they set up elaborate bicycling events, notably the ‘Balaclava Melee‘ based on an existing event conducted on horseback. The ‘Balaclava Melee’ involved four male cyclists donning fencing masks and using canes to strike at plumes attached to their opponents’ headwear (Note to self: try this as soon as possible. Note to readers: do not try this at home- try it at somebody else’s). They even held dances performed on bicycles!

Diamond Jim was determined to stand out in this new scene, so he set about creating the most ostentatiously decorated bicycles ever created. Before I describe the appearance of these fantastical machines, I should tell you something about the appearance of Jim himself: he was a large man. In fact, describing him as ‘large’ may be polite to the point of inaccuracy. For Diamond Jim, a true gormandizer, it was reported that a ‘normal’ lunch consisted of two lobsters, devilled crabs, clams, oysters and beef. After this, if he was peckish, which he invariably was, he had some pies. This would tide him over till about 4:30, time for a seafood platter, with a few carafes of lemon soda. An evening meal began with two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup. The main course was two ducks (as they’re more more-ish than moorhens), six lobsters, a steak and two servings of terrapin (yes, terrapin). As this might be seen as a little unhealthy, he would accompany it with some vegetables. Brevity forbids us from describing dessert, but I think you get the idea. The owner of his favourite restaurant described Jim as being his “best 25 customers”.

Lillian was almost as keen on food as Jim and they were both generously proportioned individuals. So when Jim asked for a golden bicycle, the bicycle-maker replied that gold would not support the required load. Reluctantly, Jim settled on heavy gold plating. The pride of Jim’s fleet of grandiose cycles was the one that was created for Lillian: the mother of pearl handlebars were monogrammed in diamonds and emeralds. The hubs and spokes were festooned with even more diamonds, more emeralds and even rubies and sapphires.

As Lillian rode around Central Park in her scandalously short skirt, the machine glistened and twinkled like it had arrived from another world. This paradisiacal image puts one in mind of a line from H.G. Wells, who sagely observed that: “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”

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