Friday, November 7, 2008

Tart of the Week: Gertrude Mahon

Gertrude getting dressed for a night out with Grace and Mary

With the introduction of this tart we have closed on the celebrity courtesan quartet of the late 18th century. Gertrude Mahon, known as the Bird of Paradise, along with Mary "Perdita" Robinson, Elizabeth Armistead, and Grace "Dally the Tall" Elliott formed a celebrity team of the most notorious fallen women of the time. They were both friends and fierce rivals. Of these four women, the least is known of Gertrude whose nickname was perhaps the most complimenting.

Gertrude Tilson was born in 1752, the daughter of a couple in both of their second marriages. Her father, James Tilson had already caused a scandal when he married the widowed Countess of Kerry and squandered their money.* The widowed Countess herself, had no better a reputation but had successfully given her first husband an heir so could do whatever she pleased. And so the future courtesan was born, daughter to two persons of bad repute, and half-sister to the Earl of Kerry. She was raised in extravagance beyond her parents' means in London. Rumor has it, that their home was also the home of two extremely spoilt lap-dogs and numerous pet birds; kind of like the Osbourne's house.

Gertrude was very lovely, with black hair and dark eyes and a waist said to be about 18 inches in circumference. She was also notoriously tiny, even by 18th century standards: about 4 feet, 1 inch tall. These looks attracted many suitors but the one that captured Gertrude's fancy was a Mr. Gilbreath Mahon, an adventurous Irishman who was skilled in the fiddle, but not so much in making a good living. Even Lady Kerry would have objected to the gamester so Gertrude opted to run away in the night and elope with her dashing Irish love. The couple made it to Dover and while waiting for a vessel at an inn were apprehended by men who Lady Kerry had sent after them. Gertrude pled exhaustion and asked to nap before the return which was granted. Meanwhile Mahon drowned his sorrows in drink and asked the men to join him. Soon a huge drunken party was downstairs, and Gertrude slipped out of her upstairs room and hurried to the newly-arrived vessel. After drinking the captors under the table, Mahon joined her in Calais.

Gertrude was quickly forgiven by the family but Mahon was never received. The marriage quickly grew sour after the birth of their son and it wasn't long after that Mahon abandoned Gertrude and ran away with some other young girl. Gertrude was not too upset about her husband's abandonment. But a year later, in 1775 she was devastated when her mother fell ill and died. Now Gertrude was left with no means of income or protection. Her dim-witted half-brother refused to even help her. There was only one option for her to put food in her mouth and (pretty) clothes on her back.

Soon Gertrude was seen at all the social hot spots and masquerades. The newly-divorced Grace Elliott was also making appearances at the same time so it was not long before the extremely tall Grace and minute Gertrude were seen arm in arm, laughing gaily together as they sipped their drinks. Her new occupation was not only earning her money, celebrity, and friends in high places...it was a lot of fun too! Her love of bright, colorful clothing and plumage was what earned this courtesan the nickname of "Bird of Paradise." The press delighted in their crafty name and spent many hours coming up with metaphors for her every move, "The Bird of Paradise is seen hopping about in rather a disconsolate manner. We fear she has had too much saffron administered in the waters of her cage lately."

Lovers came and went. She even accompanied one to Newgate when he was imprisoned for their debts. However when a good masquerade was scheduled, she flew the coop. Her estranged husband, who was now in Jamaica, prevented Gertrude from marrying any of her lovers so she was doomed into tart purgatory. For some time she attempted to lure the Prince of Wales to be her lover but didn't seem as successful as her cohorts in this endeavor. When she didn't get his attention in her opera box, she took to the stage. Gertrude had a small stint as an actress, but not a very memorable one.

Eventually debt sent her to retreat to Dublin where she was welcomed with open arms. Here she found some success not only on the stage but also as a fashion icon. She was known in London to always be sporting extravagant headgear and in Dublin her haberdashery set trends.

She returned from Dublin and seemed to settle into a retirement. Her beauty was finally fading but she still would get a part in a play here and there. With every year that passed her name was seen less and less in the papers until she was a forgotten figure. Even the date of her death remains a mystery because the papers, who were so enamored with her in her youth, never published an obituary.

*Other evidence suggests that Gertrude was actually the neice of the earl of Kerry.

6 comments:

  1. It figures there would be a tart with the same last name as me!

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  2. are there any other pictures of her? It's a shame if there aren't...

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  3. Maybe she wasn't old and decrepit enough for Prinny! (Ouch!) I don't recall poor Gertrude from any of my readings and I can't find any portraits of her in my books. I guess she flew under Portrait Radar. (And at 4' 1" I'm not surprised.)

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  4. E- Well, I figured there's so many Elizabeths there needs to be a Mahon in there for you as well! :)

    S- I'm actually in the process of trying to acquire a book that may have some prints of her. If there are, I will upload them to the post!

    P- You just made me laugh out loud.

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  5. i love it...the history that you keep giving us! :)

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  6. I'm so glad you're enjoying it Katie!

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