On this day in 1808 the brother-in-law of famous alleged-shortarse, Napoleon had hundreds of Madrid citizens shot because they’d had the temerity to be all rebellious about his sneaky takeover of Spain. The incident was part of the Peninsular War and if one is being fair, the Spanish weren’t exactly lovely wee innocents at the start of it. Here, my dear readers, is a potted breakdown of what, er, went down.
A couple of years previously, Napoleon had announced a Continental Blockade, which forbade the importation of British goods to continental Europe. Everyone, except the Portuguese and Swedes went along with this. In 1807, Napoleon decided that the Portuguese needed a bit of invading and in Secret talks, he told the Spanish he’d give them Portuguese territory if they gave him a hand. The Spanish wanted the Portuguese fleet so they were well up for it. Ergo, the Spanish didn’t start out as the innocents in this life-size game of Risk.
All was going well-ish, but at the beginning of 1808 the French army started its “stealth invasion” of Spain. At first the Spanish happily welcomed the large numbers of French “reinforcements”, but in February, Napoleon ordered his army to seize various Spanish ports and the invasion stopped being all stealthy and became official. Even then, some citizens weren’t that fussed about it as they weren’t overly enamoured of their own rulers, but things got a bit serious when Napoleon got the new King (the old one had been kicked off the throne) and his family to go to Bayonne and so that he could make him abdicate and stick his brother, Bonaparte on the throne (which went on to happen on May 5th). The people of Madrid were not even a little bit happy about this and a large crowd converged around the royal palace in an attempt to stop the removal of the family. General Joachim Murat (Napoleon’s brother-in-law and the future King of Naples) got his troops to fire on the crowd. Mistake. People were killed, more people got angry, the rebellion spread, the Spanish barracks at Monteleon disobeyed French orders and joined in, and by the end of the day about 150 French soldiers had been killed by the rebels.
Joachim was raging about the whole thing, so he issued a proclamation to the effect that the nice people of Madrid had been led
astray by some bad people, but not to worry because he was going to have those bad people shot dead. Actually, he wasn’t quite as nice as that. He went on about French bloodshed, prohibited all public meetings, made everyone hand in any weapons they had and shot dead hundreds of rebels just to show everyone else what happened if you messed with Napoleon’s mates. While it was a good, if particularly shitty, idea in principle, in practice all it did was give fire to the cause of the rebellion, which spread to other cities and parts of Spain and made the Spanish very angry indeed. The fighting that broke out across the country was known as guerilla, or “little wars”. I have to say, hand on heart, that I don’t know for sure that this was the first use of this term; it probably wasn’t. What is certain, is that it came into general use as a result of the Peninsular War. So, there you go fact fans.
Other tying up loose end facts are: the day became a public holiday in the Madrid reason and was celebrated as Dos de Mayo; Goya painted depictions of the uprising and one called El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid, which are in the Prado; the area where the Monteleon Barracks were, is now known as Plaza de Dos de Mayo and the district surrounding the square is known as Malasaña in memory of Manuela Malasaña who was one of the heroines of the revolt. Oh and Murat and Napoleon eventually got their arses kicked out of Spain.
Today was the birthday of Mary Astor, an actress you’ll almost certainly have seen on the screen, but whose name may be unfamiliar to you.
She was not one of the Astors, in fact she wasn’t an Astor at all. She was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke and her screen name was cooked up by the head of Paramount, Jesse Lasky, the producer Walter Wanger and the Queen of Gossip, Hedda Hopper. It suited her. Mary Astor had an air of elegance about her that demanded a name that was less of a mouthful than the one she was born with.
She was in Hollywood from an early age, brought there by her parents who were very much stage parents and very much into siphoning off as much of their daughter’s earnings as they possibly could. For most of her youth she was living on $5 a week from her $2,500 salary, with her parents pocketing the rest and controlling her movements. When she finally broke away from them at 26 years old, they sued for support and got $100 a month. In between times she was making films and making a name for herself. She was also getting married. Her first marriage ended in tragedy when her husband was killed in a plane crash. She had a nervous breakdown, but remarried the doctor who nursed her through it. It wasn’t a happy union and within a few years she was in New York having an affair with the playwright, George Kaufman. This wouldn’t have been a huge scandal, the studios were pretty good at covering things up, but Mary kept a diary and when she divorced her husband, he stole the diary and tried to use it as evidence against her in a custody trial.
Part of Mary’s USP was the ladylike air she had, so when extracts of her diary were read out, such as: “I don’t know where George got his staying power.” and “Ah, desert night – with George’s body plunging into mine, naked under the stars …” and “We shared our fourth climax at dawn.” It’s fair to say that there was quite lot of shock and “Oh my gosh! She has sex and likes it. Criminy!” going on. Her husband had sought to exile her from her daughter’s life and to destroy her career, but he wasn’t successful. She started filming Dodsworth after the trial, the producer Samuel Goldwyn had been advised to replace her, but he refused, and it went on to be an Oscar nominated hit. Later in her career she was the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon and the beloved and loving mother in Meet me in St Louis. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in The Great Lie. But her life wasn’t always happy. She had drink problems, two more marriages, which failed, suicide attempts and, on her mother’s death, the revelation that her mother had hated her.
She didn’t go under, she found she had a talent for writing wrote two memoirs, the first of which, published in 1959, was totally candid, in a way that most stars were not, about the troubles she’d had in her life and barely touched on her film career. She also wrote six novels and after a long break from Hollywood, she acted again in the 1960s, but most of the rest of her life was devoted to writing.
Mary was a fine woman. When people got over the notion that they thought she was a lady, they realised that she was so much more. A brave, fine, honest woman, a broad with chutzpah and charm. And a damned fine pianist to boot! Happy birthday, Ms Astor. You acted fine, you lived fine and good gosh, you wrote really naughty about the whole sex thing!