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Sunday, July 08, 2012

ETERNAL TRIANGLE Pt. One


I wonder why they call it “news”? The one thing it never is, is “new”. Every headline merely documents a  sad, sustained repetition of scandal, sin, stupidity and sex . History does not repeat itself. People do. As an example, I give you the obtuse triangle of “Big” Jim Fisk, Helen Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes; a triangle which would have been familiar to Pythagoras and would have bemused Sigmund Freud, and might have informed John Edwards and Governor Mark Sanford - among others - if they were to consider themselves as not quite unique.
Jim Fisk was born in Vermont on April Fools’ Day in 1835. His father was a traveling “bummer”, selling pots and pans and trifles. W hen he was 15 Jim ran away to join “Van Amberg's Mammoth Circus and Menagerie”, and returned three years later with a splash of color and bombast which he marketed into a fortune. In the midst of the Civil War, together with Jay Gould - the most hated man in New York - “Big” Jim took over the Erie Railroad.
But it was “Big” Jim who moved the Erie’s corporate offices into the upper three floors of the Grand Opera House (above), which he owned. For while Gould had no interests outside of making money, Jim Fisk was a man of prodigious appetites, many of them involving divas of one kind or another. Jim had been married to his dearest Lucy when he was 19, but she resided in far off Boston with her own lady love, Fanny Harrod. And while Jim kept both ladies in luxury, and even visited them occasionally, he spent most of his free time with “actresses” in New York, and was a regular visitor at the business house of “the notorious Annie Wood”. And it was there one night that Anne introduced Jim to his personal Helen of Troy, Josie Mansfield.
Josie was a beauty in an age when a sexy woman had some meat on her bones. One admirer noted her
“…full, dashing figure …Her eyes are large, deep and bright…Her voice is very soft and sweet”. It was Josie’s mother who first recognized the girl’s talent as “an incorrigible flirt”, and used her as bait in a badger game, played in Stockton, California. A pettifogging local attorney named D.W. Perley , while in a state of undress, was caught "courting" the girl.  He wrote at least one check at gunpoint. There was some quarrel over the proceeds of this venture, and shortly thereafter Josie secretly married and ran off with Frank Lawlor, an actor.
She followed Frank cross-country on the music hall circuit, arriving in New York City in 1864. Here, two years later, Frank came to the shocking discovery that Josie “was going astray” on him. Although why that should have shocked him, considering where they met, seems an open question.  In any case, they divorced, and Josie sought a career more suited to her talents, in the bordello of Annie Wood. There she enticed Annie to introduce her to the genial and generous Mr. Fisk. He was enchanted. She was enriched.
Over night Josie went from being behind in her rent to the “Cleopatra of West Twenty-third Street”, the owner of record of a four story brownstone (after some $65,000 worth of improvements) - conveniently located just around the corner from "Big" Jim's Opera House – with four servants, a wardrobe filled with dresses, and a jewelry case accented by real jewels. But having achieved everything she had hungered for, Josie was now bored. And that was when she made the acquaintance of one of “Big” Jim’s business partners, Edward Stokes, and fell head over heels in love for him.
It was understandable. Where Big Jim had few social skills, Edward had an excess. Where “Big” Jim was physically blunt and crude, Edward was handsome and dashing. He was a privileged, pompous and prideful dandy, with a trophy wife and a 9 year old daughter. Josie was experienced enough to recognize that Edward was also a spendthrift and an inveterate gambler, losing a small fortune on race horses. An affair would be dangerous for them both. Josie depended on "Big" Jim for her income, and Edward was partnered with “Big” Jim in a Brooklyn oil refinery. Edward ran the place, and “Big” Jim’s Erie Railroad transported the refineries’ oil at a discount.  But for reason, in 1869, the suggestion self delusion and self destruction drove Edward and Josie to began an affair -  they thought behind “Big” Jim’s back.
Such a triangle could be maintained only so long as all the parties carefully judged the angles. But algebra was a skill that none of the three possessed in quantity or quality. In January 1870 Josie announced that she no longer wanted to see “Big” Jim unless he made her financially independent. She reminded him,  “You have told me very often that you held some twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars of mine in your keeping…a part of the amount would place me where I would never have to appeal to you for aught” And now, she said, she wanted "her" money.
The entire point of their relationship, as far as “Big” Jim was concerned, was that Josie had to appeal to him for everything. He was hurt, and responded, “Have I not furnished a satisfactory mansion? Have I not fulfilled every promise I have made?” And then he let it be clear that he was fully aware of her affair with Edward. “You may well imagine my surprise at your selection of the ‘element’ you have chosen to fill my place. I was shown today his diamonds, which had been sacrificed ... at one-half their value ….You will, therefore, excuse me if I decline your modest request for a still further disbursement of $25,000” Jim even began calling Josie his Little Miss “Lump-sum”.
Having received a definitive “no” Josie began shifting her demands. First, she threatened to publish “Big” Jim’s love letters to her, then she said was willing to spend an evening with him, then she hinted she would share secret details of his Erie stock manipulations. Through an intermediary “Big” Jim asked Edward how much he would require to return those love letters and return Josie as well. Edward asked for $200,000, and that seemed to have hit “Big” Jim’s limit, again.
Of course,  "Big" Jim still sent Josie cash when she asked for it - $500 on November 7th, $300 on November 10th, another $500 a week later. Now why did he do that? He must have suspected that most of the money was going to Edward. Of course that was also the month that “Big” Jim cancelled the shipping discount for the refinery he shared with his paramour. Of course “Big” Jim was hurting his own profit margin, but Edward, having recently lost yet another fortune at race tracks, was squeezed much harder. Edward grew so desperate that in January of 1871 he collected a $27,500 debt owed to the refinery, and pocketed it.  Almost as if he had been waiting for this, “Big” Jim had Edward charged with embezzlement, and the Lothario spent a weekend in jail before he could raise bail. Edward swore his revenge.
Why “Big” Jim had not done this sooner remains a mystery. The man could make Wall Street tremble, and yet he seems to have been sheered of his strength before Josie's demands. The lady now filed suit in open court, demanding that “Big” Jim pay her $50,000 (the $25,000 plus interest). And Edward climbed on the bandwagon, suing “Big” Jim,  to force him to buy out Edward’s share of their refinery for $200,000. And at last the entire mishegoss, was out in the open, where the press could profit by it.  And they always love that. This story, they knew,  was just beginning.
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