The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 1, 2012

A princess with Conneaut connections

Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay, spent childhood summers on Main Street in Conneaut

Staff Writer

— The atmosphere in the Cafe Falillard reeked of illicit romance.

It was, after all, Paris in the late 1890s, reason enough to give eyes and heart opportunity to roam. In a dim corner of the cafe, a young, beautiful, rich and married woman who had spent her childhood summers in Conneaut swooned to the Magyar melodies of Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian violinist with eyes dark enough to charm a princess.

And the Princesse de Caraman-Chimay was in a mood to be charmed. Better known to the folks back in Conneaut as Clara Ward, she was the daughter of Capt. Eber Brock Ward, “The King of the Lakes” and at one time the wealthiest man in Michigan.

Her connection to Conneaut was established with several threads, beginning with Eber’s brother, Samuel Ward, who moved to Conneaut in 1816 and built his Salem packet on Conneaut Creek. The Salem is believed to be the first Great Lakes boat to be built at Conneaut, and it would launch a shipbuilding career for Sam that extended to Detroit, where he and brother Eber began building their Michigan dynasty in 1819.

Eber Ward, at his death in 1875, reportedly held more than $3 million in real estate. His shipping interests spanned the Great Lakes and he had a hand in establishing glass and steel industries. He built railroads, ships, developed silver mines, founded Detroit’s largest bank, owned Detroit’s Republican newspaper and was an abolitionist who put thousands of dollars into John Brown’s Free-Kansas movement.

His money enabled him to marry well — his second wife was Catherine Lyons of Conneaut, who was 30 years younger than Eber. Catherine was the niece of Senator Benjamin Wade of Jefferson and one of four Lyons children who were raised on Main Street in Conneaut, where the Conneaut Savings Bank building stands today.

Eber B. Ward died just two years after Clara was born, providing her with a sizable bankroll that Clara would devote her life to exhausting. Catherine remarried to Alexander Cameron, a Canadian lawyer she met in New York City. They relocated to Toronto, but the tradition of spending summers at Grandma Lyons’ home in Conneaut continued for Clara and her mother until 1888.

That was the year Clara went to London to attend school; actually a series of schools because Clara had a penchant for expulsion as a result of her “unconventional deportment” for a proper Victorian lady. London being too restrictive for Clara, she returned to New York at the age of 17. Her conduct was too raunchy for even New York, and her mother decided that her attractive daughter needed a noble husband to channel her naughtiness into monogamy.

Lucky in Belgium

With American bank notes backing her quest for a husband, Clara hit the Riviera in search of a mature prince who would appreciate a trophy wife. Clara and Catherine found their man in Nice, France — Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay, 15 years a senior to Clara’s 17.

The Belgian prince could provide a title for the lady, while the lady supplied cash for the prince. The prince could use the cash; he had a debt problem, about $100,000, which Clara agreed to pay off. She also funded the reconstruction of his crumbling chateau, estimated at around $300,000. By the time all the checks were written, Clara enriched the prince and his family with more than $1 million, according to one biography.

A papal nuncio officiated at the wedding ceremony in Paris on May 19, 1890. American and British ambassadors were among those who witnessed  Clara Ward become the second American-born princess. The first was Catherine Gray, the grand-grand niece of George Washington. Gray married Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

With an annual income of $50,000 from her father’s estate, plus the vast resources of her mother and uncle, Clara had no financial worries in Belgium. But compared to New York City, Paris and Detroit, life was boring in the village of Chimay. To amuse herself, the princess would toss gold coins from her castle and watch the ensuing fights among the villagers.

Clara bore two children for the prince: Marie Elizabeth (1891) and Joseph Anatole (1894).  Childbearing apparently had no detrimental impact upon Clara’s voluptuous figure. Indeed, King Leopold II took an interest in Clara and when the queen discovered his interest, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay found herself unwelcome in Belgian society.

The prince made the blunder of removing his family to Paris, which leads us back to the Cafe Falillard in Paris on that December night in 1896.

After five days of listening to Rigó Jancsi’s passionate violin, Clara jumped ship and ran away with him.

“The night I saw her first, she turned from (her husband) to smile at me,” Rigó would later tell reporters. “Ten days later, like two gypsies, we stole from her palace in the dead of night.” They found refuge in the mountain hut where Rigó’s mother lived. Clara, out of gratitude, purchased the entire mountain for her mother-in-law and gave her a pearl necklace with a diamond clasp. Rigó’s mother, not having much use for the jewelry, hung it on a nail by the fireplace.

The following month, the prince was granted a divorce.

Clara, in an interview, placed the blame at the doorstep of King Leopold’s door:

“I did not leave home from caprice, but because I had lost my position and was too proud to remain anywhere under sufferance. From the very first moment that I arrived in Brussels, King Leopold showered me with attentions. At last came the celebrated garden party at the palace at Laeken.

“The king neglected his guests for me. By his favoritism, the jealousy and hatred of the entire court was aroused against me. I defied them, as I have all my life defied everyone. The attentions of the king were pleasing to me, and I encouraged them ...

“At last, at a certain fete, during a moment which will live in my memory till I die, I stood alone on one of the steps of the great staircase leading to the palace conservatories.

“As I entered the great hall every woman there turned her back on me, or gazed at me contemptuously.

“What I suffered in that moment of insulted pride, no one will ever know. Then it was that I broke the strictest law of court etiquette, which demands that no one shall retire from the assembly until the queen has left.

“An officer stood near me. I turned and asked him to give me his arm out of the palace. He refused. I left alone, banishing myself from the court forever.

“I am done with it all. I wanted to be free. I am at least out of the rotten atmosphere in which modern society lives. It does not want me, and I do not want it — so we are quits.”

Quits, indeed. The prince won a court order that awarded her two children $15,000 annually for their education. Clara was forbidden to have contact with them.

Back in the United States, her uncle, Thomas R. Lyons, conservator of the estate, did the math on Clara’s spending. In just seven years, she had burned through nearly $1 million — $750,000 of it spent on Rigó. They lived in Egypt for two years, where the princess built a white marble palace on the Nile for her love at a cost of $150,000.

“She bought a menagerie of baby elephants, lions and tigers to amuse me,” Rigó told reporters. “She gave me my $5,000 violin and caskets of jewels.”

Six weeks in Paris cost the estate $32,000. One pair of diamond earrings for the royal lobes (she retained her princess title despite the divorce) cost $35,000. She later pawned them for $4,000.

Her mother brought court action that halted the flow of money from the estate to Clara. At first, the loss of income was not a big issue; Clara had a stockpile of jewelry she could sell to support herself and gypsy husband. When the money ran out, Clara turned to her natural assets to make money.

She and Rigó devised a stage act that played both the Folies Bergére and Moulin Rouge. The voluptuous, and by today’s standards overweight, Clara appeared on stage wearing a skin-tight costume of flesh color. Her husband played the violin while Clara gave her tableau, “poses plastiques,” performance.

The (male) audiences loved it. When Clara and Rigó played Berlin, they pulled down $6,800 in one month. That would be about $170,000 in today’s money.

The Hungarians could not get enough of this hot couple, nor could photographers, who paid to have “private performances” by Clara. Postcards of the lovely Clara and charming couple were licensed and sold. The French artist Toulouse-Lautrec even created a lithograph of Clara and a lover in “A Princely Idyl, Clara Ward,” now owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Her beauty was deemed so “disturbing” by Kaiser Wilhelm II, he forbad the publication or display of her photograph in the German Empire.

Three and four

Alas, Rigó grew jealous of those private performances and they separated three or four years after they had their first trysts in Paris. Rigó found love with another American woman, Mrs. Casper E. Emerson, Jr., who left her husband for Rigó. In an interesting example of coming full circle, Rigó moved to the United States and played his violin in the Little Hungary Restaurant, a small tea room owned by his wife. Rigó died in 1927, practically destitute, and is buried in Kesico Cemetery, Westchester County, N.Y.

It is said that Rigó once told a customer that when he and Clara were married, she often spoke of returning to Detroit, and told him, ‘Ah, Jancsy, la belle Paris is not more beautiful than Detroit when the lights are shining on the river.’”

Those lights did not draw Clara to the Great Lakes, however. Her next husband was Peppino Ricciardo, perhaps a Spanish, perhaps an Italian waiter on a train on which Clara was riding. They married in 1904 and divorced seven years later, quite a record for Clara!

Clara once again found love on the railroads. Her fourth, and final husband, was Signore Cassalota, station manager of a little Italian railroad that helped visitors tour Mount Vesuvius.

The years of fast and high living took their toll on Clara Ward, who died of pneumonia on Dec. 9, 1916, at her villa in Padua, Italy. She was 43.

The New York Times obituary reported that her last big splash in the news was in 1913, when she sued Rigó for $100,000 she had loaned to him.

There are varying accounts on the size (if any) of Ward’s estate. One biographer states that she left a fortune of $1.1 million in cash and $50,000 in real estate, or over $23 million in today’s dollars. She had forgotten to change her will after marrying Ricciardi and he inherited one-third of the proceeds. The two children received the balance.

Princess Clara did more than inspire men to romance. The Parisian chef Escoffier created two dishes in her honor. And when Clara and Rigó were a hot number in Budapest, a decadent chocolate and chocolate cream pastry was created and named  — Rigó Jancsi.

It is said that the character of Simone Pistache in Cole Porter’s musical “Can-Can” is based, in part, on Clara Ward, no, make that Princesse de Caraman-Chimay.

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