Clara Ward was born in Detroit, Michigan on June 17, 1873 to Captain Eber Brock Ward, a prosperous shipping magnate and lumber industry mogul who was known as the “King of the Lakes”, and his second wife, Catherine Lyon, a niece of a U.S. Senator from Ohio. Clara’s father, who earned the title of Michigan’s first millionaire, had been born in Canada but his parents had been born and raised in Vermont, so technically Eber Brock was an American. His first marriage ended quite shamefully when his wife divorced him for serial infidelity. He had seven children by his first wife and two by his second wife, Clara’s mother. Clara’s siblings were quite an unstable bunch. Her father’s first child by his first wife, Henry, was declared insane at the age of fifteen and was put in the Michigan State Hospital. Eber Brock’s oldest daughter by his first wife, Elizabeth, was said to be “mentally incompetent” along with her younger brothers, Henry (who became bankrupt later in life and was called “deranged and eccentric”), and Frederick (who committed suicide). Clara’s only full sibling, her older brother Eber Jr., entered into a marriage which ended in disaster in 1900 when his wife divorced him because he was apparently too infatuated with his stepdaughter.
When Clara was a little over a year old, her father died in 1875 from a stroke days after his sixty-fourth birthday. While he left barely any of his $6 million dollar fortune to his children from his first marriage, he did leave most of his wealth to his second wife, Clara, and her brother. The widowed Catherine Lyon moved to New York with Clara and Eber Jr. but she soon remarried a Canadian, so, the small family settled down again in Toronto. When Clara was fifteen, her mother sent her to a London finishing school…and then another…and another…and another. Clara had a notoriously bad reputation and simply could not stay in one school for long due to her troublesome and rebellious nature. There are many stories surrounding her various adventures at the numerous finishing schools she attended. It’s said that eighteen days after she vanished from her school in Paris, she was found in the garret of a starving student. Another allegation was that Clara had snuck out of one of her schools by hiding on the roof of her mother’s carriage. Most of the stories surrounding her experiences in the many schools she attended are more fiction that fact but what’s certain is that Clara was not an obedient, dutiful daughter. Her mischievous personality is highlighted by the many shocking things she did during her teenage years. It was even claimed that Clara had been kicked out of an Italian convent school because she horrified the nuns to such an extreme. But Clara’s rowdiness didn’t deter her mother from finding her daughter a proper husband. The huge fortune that Clara inherited from her father and her sensuous beauty made her a highly desirable bride. One newspaper wrote that the curvy American heiress with long brown waves was “as beautiful as she is wealthy”. And it would be this wild beauty’s wealth that would snag her a husband – and a title.
|Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay|
In about 1889, the teenage Clara made the acquaintance of Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay. Prince Joseph, a member of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies, was the son of a Belgian foreign affairs minister who also happened to be a minor noble of the Château de Chimay in the province of Hainaut. Although Joseph’s family had means, the Belgian prince (who competed in fencing in the 1900 Summer Olympics) was quickly sinking into debt at the time. Thus, Clara’s fortune was the only reason he proposed to her. Joseph was not a handsome man and was the polar opposite of Clara in regards to personality but the seventeen year-old girl didn’t care about anything but the fact that he had a title. By marrying the Belgian Prince de Caraman-Chimay (who was fifteen years her senior) she would become a princess. And so, the mismatched couple wed in Paris on May 20, 1890 and Clara became the Princesse de Caraman-Chimay before she was even a legal adult. With her marriage to Prince Joseph, Clara became a "dollar princess", a rich American girl who came to Europe at the end of the 1800's looking to marry a titled aristocrat. The newlyweds spent most of their marriage traveling through Joseph’s estates, the royal Belgian court, the Riviera, Paris, and various other popular European gathering places for aristocrats. Clara had two children with her husband; the first, a daughter named Marie, was born on May 30, 1891 and the second, a son named Joseph, was born on August 6, 1894.
|Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay|
But Clara soon discovered, not surprisingly, that although she had wealth and prominence, she would never be satisfied with simply molding herself into a proper, submissive princess in a world of rigid decorum and precedence. She was also growing increasingly disenchanted with her boring, standoffish husband. The couple already shared little affection or contentment with one another; they had not married for love or companionship. Clara had married Joseph for his title and he wed her for her fortune. Now that they had these two things, what more was there to desire in each other? Rumors ran amok throughout the nobility that Clara was having affairs with other men but Joseph was so indifferent to his young, reckless wife that he could care less what she did in her spare time. However, Clara’s unruliness always managed to get her into trouble, be it in a finishing school or the royal court of King Leopold II of Belgium. A few years into their marriage, Clara and Joseph left court because, according to Clara, the King had been so enamored with her that he made her a social pariah. This infuriated the Queen and the nobility so much that they humiliated her to such an extent that she decided to leave court with her husband. She later said of her decision to leave the Belgian court: “I defied them, as I have all my life defied everyone”. It seems as though the royal world of a princess Clara had so heartily desired in 1889 was not at all what she expected – or wanted. She even cautioned other American women not to fall into the same trap that she had stumbled into – that of marrying only for a title: “Few American-bred women could feel themselves really happy in the high European, especially Continental, society”. Simply put, Clara wanted her life of freedom in America back.
|Clara Ward and Rigo Janczy|
Once Clara and Joseph left court, they changed their main social venue to the grand city of Paris where they enjoyed the more riveting French engagements of dancing, drinking champagne, fashion, music, and the arts. Clara loved this new world and threw herself into the Parisian lifestyle wholeheartedly, which soon earned her the title of the most riotous American east of the Atlantic. It was here in November of 1896 at a nightclub for the rich upper class that the twenty-three year old Clara met a Hungarian gypsy fiddler named Rigo Janczy. He, like Joseph, was not handsome by the standards of the time. He was a miniscule man with an impressive handlebar mustache and heavily perfumed dark hair. Janczy, who was just a single year Clara’s senior, was called a “monkey-faced brute” by an American newspaper. But something about this poor gypsy musician captivated Clara, even though he was a married man. Perhaps it was the freedom of his lifestyle that she became enamored with or maybe it was simply a chance for her to escape her husband and the formal aristocratic world he belonged to. She most likely just wanted to be the wild young teen she had once been before she chained herself to the stuffy and dull Prince de Caraman-Chimay. Whatever the reason, ten days after Clara met the Hungarian fiddler at the Parisian nightclub, she left her husband and two young children to elope with him, much to the shock of the media and the aristocratic world. Because she was so infamous for her reputation as a “fiery untamed steed”, the abandoned Prince Joseph was able to divorce his runaway wife quite easily by January of 1897. Clara, who didn’t even show up to the divorce hearings, lost custody of her children and was legally obliged to pay her ex-husband child support. She was also forbidden from ever seeing her children again (not that she seemed to mind; she had left them without a thought and didn’t bother to show up in court to fight for custody). In her own words, she said of her elopement: “I am done with it all. I wanted to be free. I am at least out of the rotten atmosphere in which modern society lives. It does not want me and I do not want it – so we are quits.” Clara and her gypsy husband first went to the mountainside cottage of Janczy’s mother after their flight from the city. Apparently, Clara was so thankful for her mother-in-law’s hospitality that she used a bit of her vast fortune to buy the mountain and also gifted Janczy’s mother with a pearl necklace, which was so prized to the Hungarian woman that she hung it on a nail by the fireplace. Soon, Clara and Janczy returned to the city where they were sneered at and looked down upon by Clara’s former acquaintances. The nobility of Paris even got the local hotels and innkeepers to bar Clara from having a place to stay. But Clara wasn’t deterred; she used some of her own money to buy her own house instead.
Clara certainly reviled in her newfound freedom as the lover of a Hungarian gypsy (Rigo would not obtain a divorce from his first wife until 1898, after which he legally married Clara). She would ride down the streets on her bicycle in bloomers and “low socks like a man”, smoke in public areas, and was often portrayed as a symbol of the moral decay of Paris in foreign newspapers. But although Clara had her own means, the couple needed a little more than a fiddler’s salary to get by. So, Clara decided to use her two main assets – her beauty and fame – to make a bit of cash. By April of 1897, Clara was on the stages of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère posing in skin-tight nude costumes for money, which she called her “poses plastiques”. Sometimes Rigo even appeared on stage with her playing his violin and dancing about while she modeled for stunned onlookers. What Clara was engaging in was extremely scandalous and shocking for the time, even for the usually more lax city of Paris. Parisians were so horrified at the act of a former noble princess going up on stage to stand in front of an audience and basically reveal everything that police had to cancel her first show when they learned that friends of her former husband were going to assault her with “live rabbits, rotten eggs, and other equally objectionable missiles” while she was onstage. Despite the city’s outrage, Clara still managed to rake in money (apparently, she and Rigo made $6,800, about $181,000 today, in just a single month in Berlin). Pictures of Clara in her revealing flesh-colored outfits were soon featured on postcards throughout Europe. This just caused more social chaos, as her former husband commanded the police to raid many photo shops in August of 1897 to confiscate all pictures of her. It’s even said that Kaiser Wilhelm II forbade the use or display of any of Clara’s postcards or pictures throughout his empire because he found her beauty so “disturbing”. Many other common people throughout the Continent were imprisoned for selling and sending the distasteful pictures of the former Princesse de Caraman-Chimay throughout Europe.
Apparently, Clara and Rigo were initially head-over-heels for each other. Clara spent vast amounts of her fortune on her second husband, buying him a zoo of baby elephants, tigers, and lions as well as a new violin and a trunk full of expensive jewels. They spent most of their time vacationing throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia (allegedly, during a trip to Japan, they had their faces tattooed on their biceps). They lived in Egypt for two years where Clara taught Rigo how to read and write. The couple could go wherever they wanted and settle down wherever they pleased; they just used Clara’s money to build palaces in the different places they visited. However, Clara’s profligate use of her inheritance soon reached her mother’s ears. The dismayed former Mrs. Ward, concerned about her daughter’s actions and the state of the family wealth and name, went to court to name her daughter’s uncle as the conservator of her estate in 1898. Now that Clara had lost total control over her money, she was permitted to a yearly allowance of about $2 million in today’s money, a fourth of which would go to the care and support of her children by Prince Joseph. But the fact that Clara had less money didn’t seem to register in her errant mind. She went on spending her money just as wastefully as when she hadn’t been limited to a certain income. By 1901, she was pronounced a spendthrift after her uncle was forced to use some of her capital to clear her huge debts. Between 1894-1901, Clara had spent $750,000, which is about $20 million today, mostly on frivolities for Rigo. Yet, no matter how much money Clara had or spent, it couldn’t seem to repair her crumbling marriage. Just a few months into their elopement, Clara and Rigo were fighting quite often in public, much to the embarrassment of spectators. In 1897, the couple had such a loud and violent fight in a Milan hotel that guests there were dazed at just how noisy and chaotic the conflict got. The fight was so bad that Clara paid the cost of her board but not Rigo’s. The fact that both the nobility and the common people of Europe shunned Clara and Rigo only hurt their marriage. By, 1904, Clara and Rigo were divorced and the former princess had found herself a new lover. Just a few months after Clara left her gypsy husband, she married for a third time to a very handsome Italian (or Spanish) man named Guiseppe “Peppino” Ricciardi. Most accounts pin him as a waiter on a train but he was also said to be a baggage clerk, a canvasser for an Italian tourist agency, and a manager of a railway station of the Mount Vesuvius Funicular. Clara continued to make headlines under vague or bogus stories but her third marriage, just like her former two, didn’t last long. In July of 1911, the couple divorced because Ricciardi asserted that she was having an affair with their butler, which Clara protested.
It’s said that after Clara’s third divorce she announced: “I cannot be alone. I am unhappy like that. I shall marry yet once again”. She stayed true to her words and wed for a fourth time to a Signore Abano Caselato (his last name could have also been Cassalota, Casseletto, or Casaloto), who was either a butler, a chauffeur, a station manager, or an artist. The details of Clara’s fourth marriage were greatly obscure to the public, as well as to Clara’s own family. In fact, Clara’s relatives didn’t even know that she had married a fourth time until Abano sent them a telegraph five years after the wedding to inform them that Clara had died of pneumonia on December 9, 1916 in Padua, Italy at the age of forty-three. Upon her death, her $1.2 million dollar estate was divided among her children, her third husband, and an American cousin. Since her will had been made in 1904, the year she married Ricciardi, her last husband was not included in it. Three years after Clara’s death, her first husband, Prince Joseph, remarried a young woman named Anne Marie Le Veneur de Tillières who was about thirty-one years his junior (she was just a few months old when he married Clara) and had two sons. Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay, died on July 25, 1937 at the age of seventy-nine and was succeeded by his first son from his second marriage since his son with Clara had died in 1920 at the age of twenty-five. Clara’s daughter with Joseph, Marie, who was known as the Comtesse de Caraman-Chimay, married a French man named Georges De Cocq in 1918 but had no children. She died in 1939 at the age of forty-eight. A few lines from Clara Ward’s obituary in a Detroit paper summed up Clara’s rebellious and scandalous life quite acutely: “She died a woman without illusions. She had gone the pace. She lived intensely, a slave of her desires; she died an outcast, an old woman of 43 years, just when she should have been in her prime”.