KEVIN DIXON: The Lavender Marriage of Winnaretta Singer and Prince Edmond
“If you touch me, I’ll kill you!”
(Winnaretta Singer to her first husband on their wedding night, while on top of a wardrobe with an umbrella in her hand)
Many of us have attended weddings at the Register Office in Oldway Mansion's 'Winnaretta Room', writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon
It's a lovely room in a spectacular building. Yet, the woman who has lent her name to the venue was anything but a traditional and chaste Victorian bride. Indeed, some cynics may see a splendid irony in this.
Her first marriage was annulled, while the second was to a gay man. Nevertheless, the second relationship appears to have been far happier than the first.
Winnaretta (1865-1943) was the twentieth of the 24 children of Isaac Merritt Singer. She was born in New York, and the family moved to Paris after the outbreak of the American Civil War. The Singers then settled in London and then Oldway Mansion in Paignton, the building being modelled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Incidentally, Winnaretta’s mother, Isaac’s Parisian-born second wife, Isabella has been suggested as the model for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty.
After Isaac Singer's death in 1875, the family moved back to Paris.
Although known within private social circles to be a lesbian, the 22 year old Winnaretta married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard. The marriage was annulled in 1892 by the Catholic Church. This was five years after the wedding night where Winnaretta climbed on top of a large wardrobe with an umbrella in her hand and threatened to kill the groom.
Winnaretta had many relationships, both during her own marriages and afterwards, and often with other married women. One outraged husband stood outside the princess's Venetian palazzo and shouted, "If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me."
In 1893, at the age of 29, Winnaretta married again. This time to the gay aristocratic French composer Prince Edmond Melchior Jean Marie de Polignac (1834-1901).
This was known as a Lavender Marriage, a marriage between partners of differing sexual orientation. These may be marriages of financial convenience or to satisfy the requirements of polite society. In this case it involved a lesbian and a gay man and appears to have been unconsummated – known as a mariage blanc.
Though a descendant of one of the more illustrious families of France, by 1892 the 57 year old Edmond was impoverished through investments in a series of get-rich-quick schemes. The solution to his money-worries lay in marriage to a woman of appropriate means. Winnaretta gained as her social status could be improved by marrying a prince.
On 15 December 1893, the couple were married in Paris. The union received the blessings of Pope Leo XIII. This was despite the thirty-one year age difference and the sexual orientation of both bride and groom.
Much of the short marriage was spent in touring Europe, acquiring their palazzo in Venice, and promoting Edmond's compositions.
Edmond died on 8 August 1901.
After her husband's death, Winnaretta used her fortune to benefit the arts, sciences, and letters. She was also socially conscious and was involved with early attempts at providing Parisian public housing, where she encouraged the work of Corbusier. During World War I, she worked with Marie Curie and helped convert private limousines into mobile radiology units to help wounded soldiers at the front.
Edmond is interred in the Singer crypt in Torquay. His tomb is inscribed "Edmond-Melchior-Jean-Marie, Prince de Polignac, Born 1834, Died 1901, Composer of Music".