Clara Ward Chimay- Gilded Age Princess
She Defied Convention and Lived By Her Own Rules
Princess Clara Ward Chimay successfully conquered her Gilded Age world, but it also conquered her before its gilt and splendor faded into the grim gray trenches of World War I.
People reacted to Clara Ward, Princess Chimay de Caraman, in ways as numerous as her dresses. Some people called her a “poor little rich girl.” Some people thought she was scandalous, and others declared her a suffragette because she defied convention and lived according to her own rules.
The Gilded Age Transforms Belgium and America
Tremendous changes took place in the European and American worlds of Clara Ward Chimay during her lifetime. Some of the changes she could conrol, but many spun out of control, dragging her life along with them. During the late 1890s the details of her life played out in both the society and gossip columns in two continents. She was widely known, envied and admired, desired and reviled.By the time Clara died in 1916, the world she had so successfully conquered and that had somersaulted on its axis and conquered her had died as well.
Between 1865 and 1900, Belgium transformed itself socially and economically. In 1892, the Belgian league for Women’s Rights was established, aiming at achieving women’s suffrage. Between 1896 and1905, the new port of Zeebrugge was constructed and in 1910, another World Exposition was held in Brussels. Just before World War I, Belgium ranked sixth in world trade, higher than the Russian Empire.
King Leopold II was the king of the Belgium from 1865 to 1909. He led the first European efforts to develop the Congo River basin, creating the Congo Free State in 1885. Belgium annexed it as the Belgian Congo. in 1908. History would judge Leopold II as particularly brutal ruler of the Congo. International gossip had it that his involvement with his cousin’s wife, Clara Ward Chimay, ended the Chimay marriage.
Clara's Father, Eber B. Ward, Shapes the Gilded Age Economy
In the United States, Mark Twain and Richard Henry Dana dubbed the period between 1865 and 1920 the "Gilded Age," because of its outward glitz and glitter and the rise of corporate capitalism. A modern industrial American economy emerged in America during the Gilded Age and Eber Brock Ward was one of the leading industrialists of that economy. Manufacturer Eber Ward of Detroit, called "The King of the Lakes," was reportedly the wealthiest man in Michigan. At his death in 1875, his property in Michigan alone was valued at more than $3 million.
Clara, Ward was born in June 17, 1873, in Detroit, Michigan. Clara was the daughter of Eber Brock Ward and his young second wife Catherine Lyons Ward. In 1890 when she was 17, Clara Ward met Joseph de Riquet, 19th Prince de Chimay, Prince de Caraman, in Niece,France. Prince Joseph was a member of the Chamber of Representatives in Belgium and a cousin of Belgian King Leopold II. Born in Paris on July 4, 1858, Prince de Chimay was 15 years older than Clara Ward, quite poor, and some thought not very handsome. The Prince's weak points didn't seem to matter much to Clara, because they were married in Paris by the Papal Nuncio on May 19, 1890. Clara received a $2.5 million marriage settlement from her father's estate. .
The Prince and Princess Chimay de Caraman settled down in the Chateau of Chimay, which is located in the county of Hainaut, Belgium, near the French border. The holder of the title "Prince" did so rightfully, and possessed a long and proper noble pedigree. The title was of the type of the old French monarchy, in which "Prince" is a rank, rather than a method showing the degree of relationship to the crown. The wife of that sort of prince becomes a "Princess", and so Clara became, quite legitimately, a European princess.
Clara Chimay Quits the Prince
Some versions of her story say that Princess Clara soon became bored with life in the little village of Chimay and she supposedly threw gold coins from the battlements of her chateau to watch the villagers fight for them. The Chimays had a daughter, Countess Marie, born in 1891, and a son, Joseph, born in 1895, who would have succeeded his father if he hadn’t died unwed in 1920 at the age of 25.
Clara, beautiful princess Chimay, attracted the attention of her husband’s cousin, King Leopold II and the newspapers of the day and international gossip spoke of an illicit affair. Princess Clara wrote a letter that was read at her divorce hearing in which she said, “I am going to quit the prince for fear of a scandal, perhaps of a tragedy.”
Clara gave her husband more tangible reason for a divorce than rumors of an affair with his cousin King Leopold II. In 1896, the Prince and Princess Chimay were dining in a Paris restaurant, when a Hungarian violinist played them some dinner music. According to contemporary reports, Rigo Jancsi was a gypsy violinist with some charisma, at least enough for Princess Chimay to become infatuated with him. A few weeks later, the Princess and the violinist eloped from Chateau Chimay.
Clara Ward Chimay Becomes An Ex-Princess
Clara Ward married Joseph de Riquet, 19th Prince de Chimay, Prince de Caraman, in Niece, France in 1890, when she was just seventeen. The Prince was a member of the Chamber of Representatives in Belgium and a cousin of Belgian King Leopold II. He was 15 years older than Clara, and international gossips whispered that the Prince also was poor and not very handsome. Clara ignored his shortcomings and married him anyway. The Papal Nuncio married the couple in Paris on May 19, 1890. Eber Brock Ward had died in 1875, and Clara received a $2.5 million dollar marriage settlement from her father's estate.
The Prince and Princess Settle at the Chateau of Chimay
The Prince and Princess Chimay de Caraman settled down in the Chateau of Chimay, which is located in the county of Hainaut, Belgium, near the French border. Princess Clara caught the roving eye of King Leopold II of Belgium and gossips whispered that they had an affair. One night in 1896, the Prince and Princess Chimay were dining in a Paris restaurant and a Hungarian violinist, Rigo Jancsi, played dinner music for them. Princess Clara became infatuated with Jancsi and eloped with him from the Chateau Chamay a few weeks later.
The Prince and the Princess Chimay were divorced on January 19-20, 1897. The Belgian Court ordered the princess to pay the prince an allowance for the upkeep of their children and she was allowed to see them once a month in the company of a member of the de Caraman family. According to the New York Times version of the divorce story, Princess Chimay “enjoyed a gay and scandalous career which gossips compared to that of Lola Montez.”
Clara Sings on the Hungarian Stage and plays at the Folies Bergeres
Clara married Jancsi in 1898 and by the early 1900s, they were Hungary’s beautiful couple, often requiring police protection from the crowds surrounding them. Rigo insisted that the night he first saw Princess Clara, “she turned from King Leopold to smile at me.” Clara give Rigo a $5,000 violin and caskets of jewels, plus a $500 a month allowance. Some newspaper accounts report that she sang on the Budapest stage while Rigo accompanied her.
Cornelia Otis Skinner illuminated Princess Clara's life at this time when she wrote about the elegance of Maxim's in Paris...Few society ladies would have dared to be seen within the art nouveau interior of that naughty place, with some emancipated exceptions such as Princesse Caraman-Chimay, nee Clara Ward from Detroit, Michigan, who eventually ran away with the violinist Rigo and appeared at the Folies Bergeres in pink tights and a series of "Plastic Poses."
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec made a lithograph of Clara and Rigo in 1897, which he called "Idylle Prinbciere." She was photographed and featured on many post cards, and Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have banished her photograph from Germany because he thought her beauty was "disturbing."
Clara Dies Wealthy and Alone
Clara divorced Rigo in 1911 and shortly after that married Peppino Ricciardio who is believed to be a waiter that she met on a train. That marriage lasted only a short time and her next and last husband was Signore Cassalota. Clara met Cassalota, who managed the little Italian railroad that helped visitors tour Mount Vesuvius, when she rode his train.
Clara was still married to Signore Cassalota when she died at her villa in Padua, Italy, on December 9, 1916. Cassalota was the one who notified her family in Michigan of her death because she had been estranged from her mother for years. Clara's estate of $1.2 million dollars was divided into trust funds and left to her son, Joseph, her daughter, Marie, and her last husband, with a small bequest going to a cousin in Chicago.
A final rumor about Clara's life had it that she died a pauper with nothing left except a few jewels. The American Consul at Venice dispelled that rumor. He said that when she died she occupied the best suite at the Hotel Stella d'Oro and during her sickness expert physicians tended her. The American Consul said, "Everything that money and medical science could do in her last illness was done. Her funeral was elaborate and costly."
Despite her marriages and her money, Clara Ward Chimay died at 43,much as she had lived - alone in a crowd of people.
Prince Chimay Finally Remarries
Prince Chimay waited to remarry until four years afer Clara died. In 1920, he married a French woman who had been only a few months old when he and Clara were married. The Prince and the new princess had another son, Prince Joseph, born in 1921 who succeeded his father as 20th Prince, but became an American citizen and renounced his titles.
Prince Chimay died July 25, 1937.
“King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” Adam Hochschid, Mariner Books, 1999
“Michigan, a History,” Bruce Catton, Doubleday, 1972.