Clara Ward was a bored little rich girl, full of vim and vigor. After coming to the continent from America, she tore through Europe, causing scandal wherever she went and keeping more than a few secrets along the way. You’ll either love her or you’ll hate her. Here’s why.
Clara was born in the summer of 1873 in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Captain Eber Brock Ward, was an American iron and steel manufacturer and shipbuilder—not to mention Michigan's first millionaire and the wealthiest man in the Midwest. Money would never be an issue for Clara Ward...but her family had much more sinister problems.
Clara's family looked picture-perfect on the outside, but inside it was rotten to the core. She was actually the product of her father’s second marriage, and his first revealed the depths of daddy's depravity. His first wife divorced him due to his serial infidelity—and after she did, he reportedly had her committed to an insane asylum before she passed.
Only two months later, Clara’s father met and married her mother, Catherine, who was a whopping 30 years younger than him. So no, not exactly a well-adjusted childhood. But more tragedy was on the way.
The absolute baby of the family, Clara was born when her father was already in his 60s. She was still a baby when disaster struck. When she was just 18 months old, her father suffered a fatal stroke, leaving her and her mother all alone in the world—though he did leave them with mountains of cash. Trouble hit instantly.
Detroit's high society snobs had always seen Clara Ward and her mother as upstarts not worthy of their bank accounts, and this only got worse after her father's passing. After all, while he'd given them a massive fortune, he'd mostly stiffed his children from his previous marriage. Yet even then, Clara got a lucky break.
Fleeing Detroit's disapproval, Clara's mother used her looks and her charms to move to Toronto and marry another millionaire, Alexander Cameron. But for all the glitter and gold of Clara's life, a dark bloodlust was running through her.
Clara grew into a stunningly beautiful young girl, and was one of the most prominent up-and-comers in the rarefied social circles she moved in. But throughout it all, she was stuffing down twisted desires. Restless with her perfect life, she reportedly once wrote in her diary, “The humdrum life is not for me...Ordinary marriage and smug [respectability] appall me. I feel that it would be a joy to marry a murderer”.
Clearly, Clara wanted adventure; she craved a thrill. It would soon get her into heaps of trouble.
As time went on, Clara only got more bored with her life, and her mother began to get very nervous about what her daughter would do. To try to curb Clara's untamed spirit, the matriarch sent her to the best European boarding schools her money could buy. She hoped her daughter would emerge a perfect debutante once more, but she got something else entirely.
In the end, Clara got kicked out of finishing school after finishing school for misbehaving. Her antics were utterly brash. During one stay, she actually went missing, taking off into the night and never returning. When authorities finally found her weeks later, she was bunking up with another student. But she was just getting started.
According to another story about Clara's rebellions, she also once escaped from going to one of her boarding schools by hiding atop her mother's carriage. Yet another tale claims that while studying in a nunnery, Clara managed to horrify the nuns to the point they booted her out, too. In short: Clara Ward was a confirmed handful...but disobedience was actually one of her lesser vices.
Not only was Clara badly behaved compared to her socialite peers, she was also careless with her money. Well, "careless" is putting it lightly. Even at her tender age, she had an enormous allowance of about $40,000 per year. Yet somehow, she managed to burn through all of that without blinking, then ask for more. Only, the good times were about to come to a sudden end.
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After the constant string of school expulsions, Clara’s mother had enough. She came up with an ingenious and ruinous plan. Clara was still very young, just 16, but her mother decided it was high time she get married. If nuns couldn't straighten her out, maybe a husband could. Yet since this was Clara, it wasn’t your average matchmaking scenario.
People called Clara "as beautiful as she is wealthy," and both those qualities made her highly desirable on the marriage market. Her mother was happy to shop her around to all the eligible bachelors on the continent—and they caught a very big fish indeed. Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay was a Belgian with an impeccable pedigree, and he soon proposed marriage to the teenager.
It was quite literally a fairy tale come true. But the truth is often crueler than fiction.
When it comes to Prince Joseph, you might want to stop yourself before you go picturing a bona fide Prince Charming. At 32, Joseph was actually double Clara's age, and was no silver fox to boot. Most people found him plain, if not downright ugly, and his personality was more reserved than the bubbling, restless Clara. Oh, but there's more.
Just like Clara herself, Prince Joseph just looked like he had everything from the outside. In reality, although he possessed a title that would turn Clara into a real princess, he didn't have much else to offer. He was deeply into debt when he proposed, and his centuries-old ancestral home, Chimay castle, was falling into ruin.
When he got down on one knee, it was strictly a business arrangement. But Clara, dreaming of a prince sweeping her away to a more interesting life, said yes anyway. The minute she did, it caused a new scandal.
Before becoming Prince Joseph's fiancee, Clara's notoriety was merely local. After the proposal, she became a European sensation. At the time, American "dollar princesses" were making headlines for carting over their wealth into the crumbling European aristocracy, and Clara was one of the most fascinating among them.
Everyone wanted to know who this 16-year-old girl was. They were about to get much more than they bargained for.
On May 1890, in Paris, Clara married Prince Joseph and magically turned into Clara, Princess de Chimay. Her big day was more extravagant than you can imagine. Her dress alone cost $10,000 in 19th century currency; there were countless VIPs on her guest list; and her dowry was in the multiple millions.
Yet as the glow of her princess fairy tale dimmed, Clara was horrified at what she saw.
Considering they married for all the wrong reasons, maybe it's no surprise that Clara and Joseph’s marriage was a train wreck. For one, they couldn't have been more incompatible. As Clara described it, while she loved physically lazing about, she had an "unwielding [sic] will". Her husband, however, while extremely physically fit, was "emotionally indolent".
This mismatch began to cause problems immediately.
While Joseph loved fencing and hunting—Clara called the latter his "sole passion"—he couldn't work up the same obsession for his new wife. Clara once claimed that he rarely talked to her except to tell her how many birds he’d shot on his lengthy hunting trips. All this while Clara's fortune was paying for the restorations to his castle.
In other words, there was nowhere to go but disaster.
Before long, Clara—who had always needed a huge amount of stimulation—was chomping at the bit for attention, love, anything. Even having two children with the prince, Marie Elisabeth and Marie Joseph, couldn't fill the void that was in her heart. It all turned genuinely pathetic.
On more than one occasion, just to feel something, Clara threw gold coins over her chateau wall to watch the villagers fight over them. Yes, gross, but she found riskier outlets for her boredom.
Almost since the beginning of her marriage to the Prince of Chimay, nasty rumors followed Clara. They claimed that Clara was rampantly unfaithful to her husband, but that Prince Joseph was so uninterested in his comely wife, he couldn't have cared less. For a while, all of this was idle gossip. But the situation was about to have very real consequences.
Joseph was tight with King Leopold II of Belgium, who was also his cousin, and Clara officially belonged to the Belgian court the moment she became the Princess of Chimay. But her fall from grace was swift and brutal. It didn't take long for the newlyweds to leave the royal court...and their reasons were scandalous.
According to Clara—who, to be fair, was never the most objective historian—their Belgian exit came about because King Leopold simply could not stop obsessing over her, despite the fact that he was old enough to be her father. His wife, Queen Marie Henriette, was duly enraged by this, leading Clara to exclude herself from the narrative and the country as quickly as she could.
Is it the truth? We may never know. But a bloodier rumor also trailed behind her.
By now, the public was going absolutely wild about Clara, and a new whisper popped up about her every day. The most malicious of all, however, was that she had been partly responsible for the demise of King Leopold's 21-year-old nephew, Prince Baudouin.
Although Baudouin really perished from inlfuenza, the gossips sneered that Clara carried on yet another affair with him, only for her husband to find out and slay the royal in a fit of jealousy. Yes, this is how mad the world was going for Clara's every move. Yet when the truth actually came out, absolutely no one was prepared.
Disgraced from the Belgian court for one reason or another, Clara and Joseph installed themselves in Paris, France. Clara was still just 23 years old at this time, and she began living the high life at high speed. Her partying, drinking, dancing, and dining earned her a reputation of being "the most riotous" woman in the libertine French capital.
But the Parisians hadn't seen anything yet. Clara's next move turned her from spoiled spectacle to utterly infamous.
One November evening, Clara and her husband were out dining in Paris, as they usually did. But tonight, something was very different. That night, the Roma violinist Rigo Jancsi—AKA "Blackbird Johnny"—was also in the same restaurant. As the polar opposite of the stiff, literary Prince of Chimay, the illiterate Jancsi exuded a natural and undeniable sensuality.
Clara may not have known it yet, but she was heading right for a path of destruction.
Jancsi had a way with the violin, but he was still an unexpected crush for Clara. The musician sported a receding hairline, a handlebar mustache, and a short stature. He was also very poor, but none of that mattered to Clara. As Jancsi later reminisced on this first encounter, Clara turned away from her husband to smile at him.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for this love to level up.
Jancsi’s Gypsy lifestyle was nothing like the uptight, formal world of Clara’s husband, and she was utterly enchanted. After secretly meeting a handful of times, Clara made an earth-shattering decision. She up and left her gloomy prince (not to mention her two children) to run away with Jancsi, just days after they first made eye contact.
Somehow, it got even hotter, heavier, and stupider.
Clara and Jancsi didn't just run away together, they also made it official and eloped. There was just one enormous problem. Namely, Clara was still very much married to her prince. The press had a field day documenting the scandal, with Clara's family back home having to read massive headlines like "Gone With a Gypsy". But it was about to go up another level.
At first, it looked like Clara's divorce from Prince Joseph was going to go down easy, at least as these things went. The Prince of Chimay, ever the pragmatist, didn't want to add any fuel to the fire of the whole affair, and given Clara's horrific reputation by this time, it was easy to finalize the split just a month after she ran off with the violinist.
So yes, it could have been smooth. But then Clara made it even more scandalous.
During the quickie divorce proceedings, Clara couldn't even be bothered to peel herself from her new husband's bed to attend court for the day. But that wasn't her most cold-hearted act. Utterly through with her royal life, she also wanted nothing more to do with her children, and never fought for custody of them.
She claimed: “I am done with it all. I wanted to be free”. As it turned out, this was a terrifying turning point.
Before this point, public opinion may not have been in Clara's favor, but the populace was still much amused and even tolerant of her antics. Now, however, the ex-Princess of Chimay (though she still went by that title) was staring down blatant looks of disgust wherever she went.
Still, if they thought they were going to shame Clara into submission, they had another think coming.
Adoration or disgust, it was all the same to Clara Ward, and she basked in the attention. More than that, she sought it out. She loved riding her bicycle around town (a very brash move at this time) in just her bloomers, and displayed her smoking habit in the streets. But for all her care-free behavior, Clara was facing down a cold, hard truth.
Clara had always been bad with money, and after her family stopped supporting her spending habits, she was constantly on the lookout for more sources of income. That's when she hit upon her most offensive act yet. She decided to perform at risque clubs like the Folies Bergere and the famous Moulin Rouge.
As you're about to find out, her acts were not for the faint of heart.
Clara committed completely to her new life, and while on stage she would often wear skin-tight body stockings that left very little to the imagination about what was underneath. Meanwhile, her husband Jancsi accompanied her on the violin as she danced, making it a true two-for-one experience.
And sure, the Moulin Rouge had been doing this sort of thing for years...but they'd never done it with a Princess on their hands. Even the French were beside themselves at the thought, and their dark fascination soon turned ugly.
Precisely because she was the Princess of Chimay, Clara was in danger. According to her ex-husband's aristocratic friends, she had a title to uphold, and her performances were blackening the Prince of Chimay's good name. Now remember, these were very powerful people, so when they came up with a revenge plot, it was brutal.
Just before the opening of one of Clara's burlesque shows, the authorities rapidly closed everything down. Patrons must have been confused about the sudden shutdown—but the next revelations were jaw-dropping. Reportedly, Prince Joseph's buddies had been planning to pelt Clara with "live rabbits, rotten eggs, and other equally objectionable missiles” while she was on stage.
However, her ex wasn't content to let his proxies do the dirty work. Soon, he got in on the action personally.
Around this time, Clara also used her fame to pose for photographs and sell merchandise of her famous silhouette, something she called “Poses Plastique”. Well, Prince Joseph was having none of that.
Apoplectic at the entire French nation being able to buy the likeness of his ex-wife, he commanded authorities to raid various photo shops and confiscate any evidence of her suggestive behavior. But that’s not even the juiciest part.
As the turn of the century approached, Clara's beauty grew more and more dangerous. Or at least, that's what the men said. None other than Kaiser Wilhlem II, the German Emperor, officially canceled Clara. Joining Prince Joseph in his crusade, he banned sales of her photographs. Why? Because he found her beauty "disturbing".
Obviously, Clara was doing something right. But she was due for another downfall.
As Clara's shows petered out thanks to the efforts of her ex-husband, Jancsi became less involved in Clara's work. But there was something her new husband didn't know. See, Jancsi wasn't aware that Clara had continued dancing—this time having private, one-on-one encounters with male clientele.
When Jancsi found out, there was hell to pay.
According to the gossip mill, Jancsi was so angry when he found out about Clara's side gig, it set off a serious of "violent" fights and arguments between the two, where everyone within a three-room radius could hear them screaming at each other. Then again, reports say they did this frequently, in good times or bad. But no one could deny the next event.
In 1904, Clara and her passionate lover finally called it quits after eight years together. The relatively longevity of their relationship surprised everyone more than their split, and the grapevine was alive with whispers of mutual infidelity on both sides, not just Clara's. But even as the media was reporting on their breakup, Clara was on to the next.
It took no time at all for Clara to replace Jancsi with another man, but her choice of lover was bizarre. This time, she was head over heels for a man named Giuseppe Ricciardi, who had worked as a humble baggage assistant on a train, or perhaps as a waiter in the dining car.
That said, he was also reportedly extremely handsome and much younger than the former Princess, so he did have something to offer her. But this relationship got the public's attention for all the wrong reasons.
A couple of weeks after Clara met Ricciardi, she interviewed with the psychiatry professor Dr Hughes, who wanted to understand her strange, impulsive desires around men. After their meeting, he told her he believed she had unhealthy intimate obsessions, and that her relationship with Ricciardi would never last if she didn't change something.
It doesn't take a genius to know that Hughes was right. But how the breakup happened is worthy of a soap opera script.
Following her impulsive pattern, Clara soon officially made Ricciardi her third husband. To be fair, they made it to six years, which is when it all fell apart in a spectacular way. Reportedly, Ricciardi left the Princess of Chimay after catching her sleeping with the household butler. Clara's reaction to this, however, was truly heartbreaking.
Ever since her sad, lonely days with the Prince of Chimay, Clara had been desperate for constant attention. Even she could admit it, saying, “I cannot be alone. I am unhappy like that". But instead of trying to work through these issues, she merely insisted in the same breath, "I shall marry once again".
Well, whatever Clara wanted, Clara got.
Although she had already lived at least three lives, Clara was only in her late 30s by the time she split from Giuseppe Ricciardi. In theory, she had her whole life ahead of her, and she threw herself into finding husband number four. When he came, everyone realized she had a type: Signor Cassalota was, like his two predecessors, from the working class, and possibly a train station manager.
Obviously, after her disastrous union with the Prince of Chimay, Clara liked to be the powerful one in the relationship. She just didn't get much time to exercise that power.
Clara Ward was a rebellious woman, but in truth her entire family had issues. In addition to her father’s scandalous behaviors, her half-brother Charles was reportedly “deranged and eccentric”. Another half-brother, Henry, went into a hospital for the insane, while another half-brother, Frederick, took his own life.
Despite Signor Cassalota's similarities to Jancsi and Ricciardi, Clara's fourth marriage was quite different from the rest. For one, she seemed to purposely stay out of the spotlight now, to the point of being downright secretive about it.
The general public had almost no idea about Cassalota, and she never even informed her family about her fourth walk down the aisle. This proved to be a tragic mistake.
Because Clara kept her private life so private in her middle age, we know very little of what her day-to-day routine was like in the early 20th century. The clues we do have, though, are harrowing. By the time she was in her 40s, her health was failing fast. Then came the final blow.
On December 9, 1916, she lost a battle with pneumonia, and passed. But the most acute tragedy was yet to come.
Shortly after Clara's passing, her family received a telegram that shook them to their core. It was a letter from Signor Cassalota, informing them that their little girl was dead. Because the princess had kept her fourth marriage and her later life such a secret, it was the first any of them had heard of her husband, and possibly even of her ill health.
Clara had always longed for the road less traveled, and during their good days, Rigo Jancsi offered up miles of it to her. In fact, almost as soon as they eloped, Jancsi claimed that they got each other's likenesses tattooed on their left arms, "nearest our heart". A princess was definitely not supposed to get a tattoo of her lover, and maybe this is what made Parisian audiences so mad.
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