A carte-de-visite portrait of the British actress Maud Branscombe (fl. 1870s – 1890s).
The following is from a tongue-in-cheek article that appeared in the New York Times on 15 September 1880, sent from France by a Paris correspondent:
‘Who is Maud Branscombe? Her portrait is in every photographic shop-window. Sometimes she is a nun, her eyes raised toward heaven in fervent ecstasy; in another place she appears as an odalisque, with her yashmak drawn aside and her beautiful brow glittering with rows of sequins; elsewhere we see her dressed as a fine lady of the nineteenth century, and yet again as Ophelia or the Magdalen. Not a lounger on the Paris boulevards has passed unheedingly before that wondrously lovely face, and yet no one knows who she is, whence she came, nor whither she goeth, and if anybody in the United States can give information on these points, especially the third, a great boon will be conferred upon Paris chroniclers, who are terribly exercised as to her personality. Some say that she never existed in flesh and blood, but is merely an abstract idea of beauty created by some imaginative painter; others that she is simply a model who hires out her faultless features for a percentage on the sale of her photographs.’ According to the rest of the article, her real name was Sarah Ann Stokes and her father was an English clergyman. The tale includes a jilted lover, a baby, the boards of San Francisco, a short marriage with much broken crockery, and a child deposited with its maternal grandmother.
Photographed by Mora of 707, Broadway, New York.
A Spaniard born in Cuba in 1849 [or 1846], José Maria Mora found a safe haven in New York during the Cuban Revolution in 1868. After studying with Sarony, he opened his first studio in 1870 at 707 Broadway. He was noted for his extensive collection of painted backdrops (over 150), many designed by himself. A great deal of his profit was earned from selling celebrity images (called ‘publics’) in theaters, hotels and other establishments all over the world. Mora chose to live as a recluse at the Hotel Breslin in New York for the last fifteen years of his life. His meals consisted mainly of fifteen-cent pies and cakes, and other food given to him by hotel guests, even though it was said that he had several savings accounts and property in Cuba and on Long Island. In September of 1926 he was declared incompetent by a sheriff's jury, who based their opinion on his appearance and incoherent talk. When his room was searched it was found to have been littered with scraps of food, and barely alive in a box were two pigeons. His bathroom was secured with four padlocks, and the bathtub filled with theatre programs and newspapers from years ago. Photographs of dead celebrities, and old theatre clippings decorated his walls and tables. Mora died on 18 Oct 1926 at St. Vincent's Hospital. [Adapted from a short biography on the website Historic Opera.]
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