Tuesday, August 4, 2009

America Vespucci, Adventuress

Sometime in late 1838 or early 1839, a woman who became known as "America Vespucci" arrived in the United States. Her surname was accurate; she was indeed a member of the Florentine family which had produced Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas were named. Her first name may have been Maria or Elena, but people knew her by her putative middle name, Ameriga, which the press changed to "America."

A woman in her thirties, Signorina Vespucci was universally praised for her mass of dark hair, fine eyes and beautiful figure. Traveling through the country, she took each city by storm, but her goal was Washington DC. There she presented herself to lawmakers, cabinet secretaries and judges as an Italian freedom fighter who had been exiled from her native land for political reasons. She told them she had come to America to beg for a little land on which to live out her days on the continent which bore her ancestor's name.

The politicians fell all over themselves giving her hearings and sending her invitations. Among her admirers was James Kirke Paulding, the Secretary of the Navy, who was so "struck by her beauty and her resemblance to Rebecca Gratz, his friend in Philadelphia," that he gave a dinner in her honor.

All Washington was disillusioned when a visiting French prince refused to meet Vespucci on the grounds of her immorality. His parents, the prince said, had paid her off to end a dalliance with his older brother, and it was their money which had provided her passage to the United States. Vespucci dropped out of the public eye and returned to her vocation as mistress to wealthy men.

(For a contemporary account of Vespucci, the full text of Perley's Reminiscences is available on the internet as is a short biography at www.trivia-library.com. The quote about Paulding is from Ralph M. Aderman's and Wayne R. Kime's book, Advocate for America: the Life of James Kirke Paulding. Selingrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2003. p. 255)

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