Love in a Temperate Climate

by Richard Brookhiser

Sometimes the best things in books are by the way. I just read Thomas Govan’s 1959 bio of Nicholas Biddle to brush up on the Bank Wars, and found this. When Biddle retired from the Bank of the United States at the end of 1838, he felt “like a boy released from school, and he sought adventure and recreation. Both were supplied by the sudden appearance in Philadelphia of a notorious, exciting and beautiful European adventuress by the name of Amerigo Vespucci” (other sources spell the name America or Ameriga).

She said she was “the daughter of a Florentine notary and had been the mistress of a Polish noble who had lost his life in the revolutionary troubles in Ravenna and Bologna. She had fought in these same battles at her lover’s side, dressed as a man, and she had a saber scar on her head to prove that her story was true.”

Hot times in the City of Brotherly Love? Not really. Govan calls the relationship “essentially innocent, for [Biddle] had little talent for any sort of romantic intrigue. He took her to inspect the Eastern State Penitentiary and the library of the American Philosophical Society.” Ladies, would that do it for you?

It didn’t do it for Ms. Vespucci. She became the mistress of John Van Buren, son of Martin, who lost her in a poker game to George Parish, merchant. “She closed her career as ‘Parish’s fancy woman,’ living in ‘utter loneliness’ at his mansion in Ogdensburg, New York.”

Sounds like an opera. Terry Teachout, need a subject?

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