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    Vestvali the Magnificent

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Not for nothing was prima donna assoluta and acclaimed actress Felicità von Vestvali known as the Magnificent. Born in Poland and trained for the opera in Italy, she achieved her greatest celebrity playing men—Figaro, Petruchio, Orpheus—including two of the most famous dramatis personae in English literature: Romeo and Hamlet. Critics were divided about her abilities, but the public adored her, filling halls and theaters in Europe and the Americas for performance after performance.

    The secret of her success? Contemporaries noted her great talent, her commanding presence, “her statuesque physique and radiant beauty.” Those were important, of course, but Rosa von Braunschweig, a longtime friend, wrote in the Yearbook of Intermediate Sexual Types (1903) that “it was mostly due to her Uranian nature that she knew how to overcome all obstacles with masculine energy and that her boundless striving allowed her to achieve the goal to which her genius had predestined her.”

    Felicità von Vestvali

    She was born Anna Marie Staegemann in Stettin in 1829 or Warsaw in 1831. In childhood she wanted to be a priest, but eventually a life in the theater became her singular desire. With her family opposed, she ran away wearing boy’s clothes, finding work as a singer with a traveling company. Eventually she made her way to Leipzig, where she joined the local opera society, appearing in Norma, The Daughter of the Regiment and as Agathe in Der Freischütz.

    Regional success was not enough for her. She enrolled in the Paris Conservatory, where she received “thorough voice training” and where “a friend enlightened her about her Uranian inclination.” From then on, wrote Braunschweig, “her lively nature craved the joy of love,” although she “considered love merely a flower which decorated her life’s path.”

    Further training followed in Italy. In 1853 she debuted at Milan’s La Scala as d’Azucena in Trovatore,, winning “a threefold triumph as woman, as actress, and as singer.” Vestvali was immediately invited to London, where, informed The Musical World, she “created an immense sensation, was vociferously applauded in everything, and absolutely pelted with bouquets of all shades and colors, flowers, herbs, and shrubs.”

    From London she went on to triumph in Paris, so captivating Emperor Napoleon III that he presented her with a solid silver suit of armor for her performance as Romeo in Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet. He was not alone. During her two-year stay in the city, “many beautiful women competed for Vestvali’s favor and many a husband had reason to be jealous of the beautiful, chivalrous Romeo.”

    Vestvali was also a particular favorite of President Abraham Lincoln, who attended four of her appearances in Washington, D.C., in early 1864. The Evening Star reported that for her opening night performance of Gamea or, the Jewish Mother on January 25, the theater was “overflowingly filled.” Vestvali, the paper proclaimed, was “as usual, magnificent and brilliant.”

    Mary Lincoln, deeply moved by the production, persuaded her husband to attend a second presentation of the play on January 28. They returned to the theater the next night for Vestvali’s performance as the dual characters of Allessandro Massaroni and the Count de Strozzi in The Brigand, a musical drama. Five nights later, the President saw her as Captain Henri de Lagardere in The Duke’s Motto.

    As imposing as Vestvali was in these roles, she could be just as formidable off-stage. On March 23, 1864, waiting for her entrance during the third act of The Duke’s Motto at the Brooklyn Opera House, two merchants, admitted backstage, stopped her in the wings. One of them, “affecting to admire her appearance in men’s clothes, laid his hand upon her person.” Then, according to the Daily National Republican, he “called her a “bully boy.”

    Vestvali considered his words “an ungentlemanly, if not absolutely vulgar, expression.” Drawing the sword she was wearing for her role, the indignant diva attacked him, cutting him severely before he fled. Next she turned on his companion, but unwilling to share the same fate, “he skedaddled.” She “then resumed her duties before the footlights.” Such was her fame that newspapers everywhere reported the incident.

    Vestvali made her San Francisco debut on September 11, 1865. The Daily Alta California was ecstatic, writing that with her performance in Gamea, “Mlle Vestvali achieved the greatest lyric triumph known to California, and proved to an appreciative audience that she had fully earned the title of ‘magnificent,’ for this is the only word that can fully convey the idea of her acting and singing.”

    Thomas Maguire, impresario of the city’s Opera House, had promised to pay her for 100 performances across 130 days. When he did not, she sued him for $30,000. A war of words began. He called her a “hussy,” she claimed, a “damned fiend under the mask of a woman,” and threatened her with physical harm. Eventually all charges were dismissed.

    According to Braunschweig, “from this time also dates her friendship with a Miss E. L., a German actress” who became her principle heir. There were other romances as well, including Jessie MacLean, a New York actress. Using coded language, the Daily Alta told its readers in 1880, the year she died, that “Vestvali took a fancy to her and carried her off to Europe [for] several years of wild adventure.”

    Many of her intimacies endured. During her last illness, she was “nursed by a Miss G,” her last love, as well as Miss E. L., “who came to nurse her also.” Although Vestvali “never emphasized her Uranian nature,” wrote Braunschweig, who also remained a dear friend, she “belonged to those exceptional beings in art as well as in life whose uniqueness can be understood only by those who understand homosexuality.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.