I won’t be surprised if this one sinks under the horizon without a response since it’s somewhat obscure, but to quote Fats Waller, “one never knows, do one?”
I have an odd research interest in history, that being “snapshots” of America at particular times and places as seen through the eyes of foreign celebrities, particularly those who took extended tours of the nation. I’m not referring as much to people like Alexis de Toqueville or Citizen Genet whose reasons for coming here and observing were explicitly political or the European officers who rode with the Confederacy and Union for explicit purposes of military observation but those who were more… leisurely, perhaps, or at least less political.
My two favorite tours to research- currently I’m on a kick of the latter- are Lafayette’s tour (1824-1825) and Oscar Wilde’s (1882).
Lafayette (or more properly Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, better known to his friends as Gil) was of course the Revolutionary War hero who snuck over here as a teenager (seriously pissing off Louis XVI and his advisors when he did so) to serve George Washington with whom he developed a sort of father/son relationship (though I think he saw Washington more as a surrogate father than Washington saw him as a surrogate son). He was perhaps most important for his work in assisting with the French alliance and securing French loans that won the Revolution.
Lafayette was a fascinating person on many levels: orphaned young, heir to several great fortunes that would make him probably a moderate billionaire in today’s currency, raised by old aunts and a great-grandfather on (exaggerated) tales of the military brilliance of the father he never knew, simultaneously a super-rich aristocrat (his* allowance as a teenager would be over $1 million in today’s currency) and a radical anti-classist. There’s some bizarre little aristocratic customs and anecdotes thrown in, such as his wedding night: he was 16, his wife (Adrienne de Noailles, heiress to several fortunes as well, arranged of course) was 14, and their grandmothers sat outside the curtains of their bed to make sure the marriage was consummated. (It apparently was, though he never saw their first child; Adrienne was pregnant when he came to America and the baby died before he returned to France.)
After the Revolution he became a superstar in France and also hated by many on both sides. During the Revolution he was arrested and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor while back in France his wife and children were house-arrested by the Robespierre government as aristocrats; they managed to smuggle their son, George Washington du Motier, to America- where his namesake would not take him in until he was sure it was politically wise to do so (must have stung), though he then became a resident of Mt. Vernon for a while. Adrienne saw- literally saw- her mother, aunt, grandmother, sister and some other relatives guillotined and would have been herself had it not been for some diplomacy by American ambassador (and all around weird libertine) Gouverneur Morris who got her and her daughters released. They made their way to Austria where they tried to get LaFayette freed and when that failed they bribed and pleaded their way into staying with him in his tiny dungeon cell, where they sent messages to their friends and family and received food and medical supplies in their cell from LaFayette’s former mistresses (at least one of whom Adrienne had chosen for him). He was released, but his wife’s health was ruined by the dungeon and his estates were destroyed by the Revolution.
Anyway, didn’t mean to go this long, but- by 1824 he was a widower and he was also cash poor due to the damage to his properties done by the Revolution and the fact that he had become a rabid abolitionist due to his time in captivity who had not only freed the slaves he owned in his Caribbean holdings (he also lost estates in Haiti incidentally) but had purchased many more so that he could manumit them. He embarked upon a tour of the U.S.A., just a tad before the 50th anniversary of his arrival, and it was an enormous affair.
Everywhere he went he was the talk of the town and there were balls thrown and huge dinners hosted in his honor and the richest and most famous of people vied for the right to be his hosts. He met with some of his surviving Revolutionary cronies- an ancient John Adams, the broke and on verge of total ruin but not quite so ancient as his frienemy Adams Thomas Jefferson, and others you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, met a lot of people who had become famous in the meantime (Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, the American Bonapartes etc.) and some who would be famous (including a little boy who he kissed named Walt Whitman). His carriage was carried over a river by Indians (who thought he was long-dead George Washington) and wherever he went streets and towns and cities were named after him and places associated with him (several states have a LaGrange named for his primary residencein France) and he was given gifts: sometimes a watch, sometimes the deed to a city block or thousands of acres of land. He sold the real estate and put the money into his pillaged estates and coffers.
An interesting aspect of his visit is how much America had grown, changed, and grown nostalgic in the 50 years since the Revolution. It’s also interesting how quickly he wore out his welcome with some of his slaveowning hosts when he began speaking against the evils of slavery; at some affairs when he spoke in French he was mistranslated, which made him- politely- begin speaking in English (in which he was more than conversant but rusty) with a sort of “I must beg your pardon, my French accent is so severe that you cannot understand my words” type comment.
Anyway, sorry for TMI, but I think this visit is way more interesting than Toqueville’s.
I won’t go into as much detail on Wilde- I’ll just say that in 1882 he spent most of a year touring the U.S. several times giving lectures on of all things interior design/decoration/English art as the key spokesman of the Aesthetics movement and as the inspiration for the character of Bunthorne a super popular Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Patience. (G&S’s agent actually sponsored his tour which was to cross pollenate that operetta in America; the operetta produced publicity for Wilde and he returned the compliment.) Wilde was famous for being famous back in England (he’d written some essays and a self published volume of mostly mediocre poems- but he was not a successful writer yet (his one play, VERA, had flopped big-time and is now forgotten, while DORIAN GRAY/LADY W.'s FAN/IMP. OF B.E., etc., were years in the future) but virtually unknown in America, so it’s amazing that though not without his share of savage critics he was a huge hit in America. He made a small fortune (his personal share was around $30,000, about $500,000 in today’s money) which set him up nicely, especially coupled with his shadow tour of England and Europe giving his [often bitchy] impressions of America.
During the tour he met many of the greats and luminaries of the time: Mrs. Custer, Barnum, various politicians of note, John Taylor (president of the Mormon church)- as well as lots of gold and silver miners, Chinese immigrants (who impressed the hell out of him for the way they worked art and beauty into impoverished homes and businesses), Jefferson Davis (the man who he most wanted to meet), several Irish people in America (some in exile), and even Charles Guiteau (not so much a meeting as he attended a day of the trial). He corresponded with his pal Lily Langtry throughout as well, and most interestingly is that like LaFayette he kissed Walt Whitman (though on the lips) during the tour.
There are others as well: Sarah Bernhardt’s tours- most of them ‘farewell’ tours would be interesting. Chang & Eng’s first tour (before they settled) or Jenny Lind’s are also interesting, but I’d like to find a later one to tour. Or perhaps much earlier- as in Colonial America if there was one.
Magda Goebbels and her first husband took a long extended driving tour of the U.S. in the 1920s, but they weren’t famous. Any suggestions for famous foreigners who took long tours of the U.S. who would be interesting to research next? (I’m not as interested in those who paid visits, like Freud, but prefer those who spent at least a few weeks.)