Among the fabled tycoons of the Gilded Age—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt—is a forgotten figure: Mrs. Frank Leslie. For twenty years she ran the country's largest publishing company, Frank Leslie Publishing, which chronicled postbellum America in dozens of weeklies and monthlies. A pioneer in an all-male industry, she made a fortune and became a national celebrity and tastemaker in the process. But Miriam Leslie was also a byword for scandal: She flouted feminine convention, took lovers, married four times, and harbored unsavory secrets that she concealed through a skein of lies and multiple personas. Both before and after her lifetime, glimpses of the truth emerged, including an illegitimate birth and a checkered youth.
Betsy Prioleau’s biography of the 'Queen of Park Place' is an appropriately twisty tale of someone trying to outrun her origins ... In a vivid opening scene, Prioleau details the adult Miriam’s arduous toilette, and her reliance on pearl powder to whiten her skin. Over the course of the book, the mystery of Leslie’s birth pales in the face of a still greater riddle, which intensifies with every depression, recession, panic, crash, bankruptcy, lawsuit and family ruination: how anybody got the idea that capitalism works, and that men should be in charge of it ... Prioleau, a historian with a particular interest in sex and power, embraces Leslie’s world with enjoyable gusto ... a bracing challenge to the idea that the biography of an accomplished woman must also be an inspiration. Prioleau, to her credit, does not let us take the girlboss and leave the racist; her subject is no heroine, no role model, no rebel. For all that, her story sparkles, as intoxicating as a champagne fountain that somebody else is paying for.
Ms. Prioleau brings this forgotten woman vividly to life in Diamonds and Deadlines ... The author is sympathetic to her subject, whom she presents as a pathbreaker overcoming the strictures placed on the women of her day. Along the way, she provides a wider picture of the society Miriam inhabited ... There’s not a lot to like about Mrs. Frank Leslie, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to like about Diamonds and Deadlines. Part of the pleasure of the book is the Kim Kardashian factor—reading about a woman who breaches social norms and succeeds on her own terms ... But it’s a leap to claim, as the author does, that Miriam was a feminist pioneer who was 'leagues ahead of her time' ... It is undeniable that Mrs. Frank Leslie realized her ambitions, finding admiration, excitement and money along with some degree of professional distinction. Her life story makes for an agreeable read, if not always a salutary one.
Eye-widening ... Prioleau tells Miriam’s roller-coaster tale with thrilling precision within the finely rendered context of evolving newspaper and magazine publishing, the struggles for worker and women’s rights, and historical events propelled by outrageous charlatans that are disturbingly relevant to the present ... High praise to Prioleau for so vividly and incisively telling the whole dramatic story of this 'titanic vanguard figure.'