Sears also was a lesbian, according to author Peggy Miller Franck, whose new book, Prides Crossing: The Unbridled Life and Impatient Times of Eleonora Sears, details the amazing life and times of a sporting hero born well before the world was ready for her. Sears had multiple lesbian relationships, though none was officially announced or confirmed, including one with Isabel Pell in the 1930s.
"There was limited information about lesbians at the time," Franck said. "Plus, at the time, young women were encouraged in school and in life in general to form close friendships with other women. An intensely close relationship was possible, and not frowned upon."
She was finding a real need to assert her desire for love and companionship. In 1917, she met l8-year-old actress Eva Le Gallienne while in New York to attend the theater. and a close relationship was formed. Then in 1922, while in Paris, she met Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and also began a long friendship with David Windsor, Prince of Wales and the future King of England. Her social connections, exquisite manners, and wealth—as well as her looks—made her a magnet for the Sapphic and bi-ladies set. Among her friends and lovers were Isabell Pell, Mercedes de Acosta, Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of Eleo’s close friends and often stayed with her at her various residences.
Eleo Sears and Isabel Pell (©2)
Eleonora Sears was an American tennis player of the interwar period. She was also a champion squash player, and prominent in other sports.Among her friends and lovers were Isabel Pell, Mercedes de Acosta, Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of Eleo’s close friends. As Eleo aged, a Frenchwoman, Marie Gendron, often called “Madame”, took her up. Eleo died in 1968 at the age of 86. Her will had donated to six hospitals.
John White Alexander (1856–1915), Young Girl in Rose, a Portrait of Eleonora Randolph Sears (1895)
As Eleo aged, she was taken up by Marie Gendron, often called “Madame,” a Frenchwoman who knew a good deal when she saw one. She seduced the older woman and then started isolating her from old friends and relatives. Soon Madame and Eleo were living the high life in Palm Beach, with only each other’s company. Madame was often seen in Eleo’s furs and jewelry, and wore designer suits and dresses. By 1965 she had Eleo’s power of attorney, and was running the household and stables.
On March 16, 1968, she passed away peacefully at the age of 86. Her will had donated to six hospitals, all of which she had helped in the past; the rest of her estate was to go to Madame, who tried to cut the hospitals out of the gifts. Madame lost in court and was left with only about $40 million with which to make her way in life.
Sears was the daughter of Boston businessman Frederick Richard Sears, a cousin of Henry Cabot Lodge, and a great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson.
She won the women's doubles at the US Women's National Championship four times, including three consecutively (1915–1917). In singles, she was a finalist in 1912, where she was beaten in straight sets by Mary Kendall Browne.
She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1968, joining her cousin Richard (inducted 1955).
Eleonora Sears rode horses competitively and was elected to the US Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. She also owned and raced Thoroughbred horses.
Sears was the first female national squash champion, a founder of the Women’s Squash Racquets Association, and coach of the U.S. Women’s International Squash Team.
She gained media attention for her long distance walks and hikes. As well, she was one of the first American women to drive an automobile and fly a plane. Her habit of wearing trousers, both when competing in sports and in public, was criticized in media and social circles.
Isabel Pell (September 28, 1900 - 1951) was born into New York City’s upper crust. Her father, real estate speculator S. Osgood Pell, was “quite conspicuous in society,” according to The New York Times. His marriage to a young Manhattan belle named Isabel Townsend was a notable social event of 1899, but, as the Times put it, “[T]heir married happiness was of short duration.”
Evidently the bride discovered that her husband was carrying on affairs, so at the age of 19 she obtained a divorce — highly unusual in those days. She and her infant daughter, also named Isabel, moved in with her parents.
Osgood Pell paid scant attention to his daughter. As a young child, Isabel wrote him sad letters pleading for money. “Please send the cheque or I will not be able to come to you,” she wrote. She begged for a pony: “All the other girls have one. I am the only one who doesn’t, and they make fun of me.” She asked him for $35 for a bicycle and pleaded for more support.
And then, apparently having decided that the problem lay with her gender, she took a different tack. The little girl started signing her letters, “from your loving boy, Osgood Pell.” Perhaps she thought her father might respond better to a son and namesake.
The letters don’t indicate whether the feckless father sent the money or not. Although Osgood Pell ran up debts, he maintained his membership in New York clubs and his connections with the very rich. He died young in a spectacular crash when his car was hit by a train at a railroad crossing. Isabel was left penniless.
Arnold Genthe, Isabel Pell
Isabel Pell was a handsome, heroic, cruel and athletic woman who once owned 40 pairs of riding boots and seduced the women of New York, New England and France. Isabel had to leave NY because of a very public affair with a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. She fled to Paris, where she met her new love, Claire, the Marquise de Forbin. Claire was the daughter of François Charles-Roux, French ambassador to Russia before the WWII, and later she was a member of the resistance. They lived in Grasse.
Rosenbach Museum & Library. Black and white photograph of Claire, Marquise de Forbin and Mercedes de Acosta.Acosta wears a boxy pinstriped suit and carried a black leather handbag.
But Osgood Pell’s brother Stephen, who had married a nickel heiress, stepped in. A generous man who had hoped to have a daughter, Uncle Stephen invited Isabel to spend a lot of time at his summer residence at Fort Ticonderoga, sent her to the fashionable Holton Arms School in Washington, D.C., and gave her a coming-out party. Younger girls had crushes on “ Pelly,” as she was called, and admired her for being athletic and outspoken.
In an interview many years later, Isabel explained why she took a job in a dress shop the year after her debut in 1920 — rather a shocking thing for a lady of her social position. “Life had grown stupid,” she said. “I was very bored with it all. I had done all the usual things a girl does after she is ‘out,’ and I am very tired of it.”
A year later, she “gave society a jolt” when she quit her job to take a small part in a play, intending to have a career in the theater. Joining a set of artistic women who had affairs with each other, she developed a reputation as an aggressive pursuer of women.
Though Isabel became briefly engaged in 1924, she never married. Her photograph appeared in the society pages, showing her practicing for a tennis tournament, or with Margarett Sargent and their terriers, standing about in fashionable clothes at a dog show.
A younger relative remembers Isabel as all glamour, with her striking face, bobbed hair, tailored clothes and cigarette, very much in the style of Katharine Hepburn. Margarett Sargent painted several portraits of her, showing a serious woman with brown eyes and dark brows. In one likeness, Isabel’s large hands hold a small dog in her lap.
A friend of Sargent’s characterized Isabel as “wicked,” and Isabel developed a reputation for being dominating and duplicitous. The two deserved each other, the friend concluded. After a while, the relationship ended.
At the time, such affairs were spoken of privately, in whispers. Isabel stood out in that unlike almost all the other women in her set, she had neither a marriage nor a fortune to shield her. But despite being single and not rich, Isabel was invited to parties and treated like the other “ladies.” Her charm and courage seem to have outweighed her faults.
In her memoir Here Lies the Heart, playwright Mercedes de Acosta (who romanced Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and other famous women) called Isabel “a lovable person” and describes how Isabel helped her get through a terrible depression. “[S]he always made me believe in myself…she sent me a gardenia every morning with some absurd things written on the card, and she often came for me in a chic white Sunbeam and drove me to the country.”
In 1933, Isabel made the papers again, this time in the news section. She was plucked from the North Atlantic by a German freighter after the small plane in which she and her companion were flying spiraled down into the icy water. She and Mrs. Henry T. Fleitmann, an attractive brunette “habituée of London’s Mayfair equally with Long Island’s Hamptons,” had been drifting for hours. The Times concluded, “Mr. Fleitmann could not be reached yesterday….”
Isabel continued to make conquests among New York’s women. When a charismatic Hungarian sculptor named Rene Praha was honored at a party in New York, several women courted her — but Praha went home with Isabel. Later on, however, Isabel had to leave New York as a consequence of a very public affair with a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera.
She fled to Paris, where she became part of what Honor Moore, niece of Margarett Sargent, calls “a little subculture of women who all knew each other.” Some had been married “for five minutes,” according to Moore, then divorced but remained Madame So-and-So. After that, they did just what they wanted, which they had the money to do.
Soon Isabel was ensconced in France, living in a lovely mill in the town of Auribeau near her new love, Claire, the Marquise de Forbin (born Claire Charles-Roux). High up in the hills overlooking Grasse, the house had a view of the Mediterranean. An old woman from the town remembers Isabel as a strong-willed, philanthropic person who was particularly kind to children.
The two women must have made an interesting couple: the vital, energetic American, always described as tall, lean and handsome, paired with the fragile, delicate and petite French aristocrat. But they seem to have shared the same passion for adventure.
When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Isabel and her marquise joined the French Resistance. A remarkable Associated Press story from September 1944, datelined Southern France, detailed Isabel’s wartime exploits. She used her home as a center for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, it said, and when Axis agents discovered hidden weapons and a radio in a search of her mill, they arrested her.
Along with her maid, she was kept under house arrest for a couple of months in the mountain town of Puget-Thénier. Permitted by her Axis keepers to take walks in the daytime, she somehow made contact with the Maquis (Free French) and organized an underground cell inside the prison. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the guards left the prison and Isabel went free.
Immediately, she sent word to the Maquis that she was a good shot and wanted to join them. Disguising themselves as peasants, she and the marquise hiked into the hills to meet with an underground Resistance leader named Joseph (her underground name was Fredericka). She took dangerous assignments from Joseph until he was discovered and slain by the Gestapo.
Isabel, who had developed a pale streak in her brown hair, was known as “la femme à la mèche blonde,” or “the woman with the blond streak.” In August 1944, as the Allies were retaking France, a contingent of American soldiers found themselves surrounded by Germans in the small town of Tanaron.
Suddenly, AP reported, the townspeople of Tanaron began to shout, and the beleaguered American sergeant saw a tall, lean woman striding toward him down the main street, wearing the tricolor badge of the Free French.
“She stood a moment, tears rolling down her smiling face…. ‘Okay, kid,’ she said. ‘It’s all right now.’” And Isabel led the men through the German lines to safety.
Pelliana, a journal published by the Pell Family Association, called Isabel “one of the great heroines of France” in its 1946 issue, and included a comic-book page titled “Fredericka of the Maquis,” complete with a heroic drawing of Isabel, streak in her hair.
Her reputation as a hero would have remained unquestioned but for a remarkable coincidence. After the war, Isabel’s younger cousin, Stephanie Pell, ended up living in the very region where Isabel had been. Believing her cousin to be a hero, Stephanie boasted of their connection, but was horrified to hear her French in-laws say they hated Isabel because they believed she had collaborated with the Nazis.
Given the complicated and dangerous situation, perhaps Isabel had played both sides for her own advantage, collaborating with the enemy to avoid retribution for her exploits with the Free French.
Nevertheless, in 1946, Stephanie invited Isabel, her only nearby relative, to be godmother at the christening of her infant son. Isabel arrived late and disheveled, but seeing that important members of the community were present, tried to borrow a curling iron. She then borrowed 2,000 francs from Stephanie’s mother-in-law and presented the money to the new parents. She never repaid the loan.
When Stephanie and her family moved back to New York, she never told her grandfather, Stephen Pell, what she had discovered. He had been so proud of Isabel’s reputation that Stephanie could not bear to break his heart.
Isabel died at the age of 51, toppling over from a chair in a New York restaurant. The newspaper account of her death gives the impression that she was drunk.
Eve Pell wrote a memoir about her family titled We Used to Own the Bronx. She is a reporter in San Francisco.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
Amazon (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500563323/?tag=e
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZG0VHY/?tag=e
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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