Arthur Wellesley is no longer famous. Though his title, “The Duke of Wellington” raises a glimmer of recognition, not due to the man himself, alas, but for the beef-in-pastry dish apparently named after him. History can be cruel that way.
Wellesley was the brilliant, Dublin-born British military leader who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Big in his day. “The last great Englishman,” Tennyson dubbed him.
He also visited prostitutes. Women who, then as now, had a habit of cashing in twice on their famous customers; once for their services, again in print. Nor were their friends more scrupulous. When London pornographer John Stockdale wrote to the Duke, demanding money to excise passages involving him from London tart Harriette Wilson’s pending reminiscences, Wellington scrawled “Publish and be damned” across the letter and returned it.
Supposedly. The actual letter does not exist. “The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson” were published in 1824, with the Duke of Wellington foremost among the parade of famous men marching through her bed.
Only the fullness of time will determine whether Jeff Bezos’ performance last week rises to a Wellingtonian high standard for panache. Though Bezos did the Duke one better, disseminating himself the entire correspondence from American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, which Bezos claims was blackmailing him. The Enquirer, it has been established, serves as a protective shield around Donald Trump, buying up rights to salacious stories from women he seduced, for example, then burying instead of publishing them.
Or, in the case of the owner of Amazon and the richest man on earth, offering not to print obscene photos that Bezos took of himself if he made a statement in support of AMI, and if the Washington Post, which he also owns, backed off its reporting on AMI’s ties to the Saudis.
By revealing the damaging information himself, Bezos turned shame into triumph. Then again, this is usually the case with candor in the face of scandal, and I’m surprised that more public figures aren’t proactive about it.
As blackface yearbook pictures of Virginia Democrats began popping up, what surprised me is that those aspiring to political careers never seemed to imagine someone might unearth those, eventually, and did not reveal them voluntarily, years ago, under circumstances of their choosing.
Blackmail is much in the public mind lately, though Wellington and Bezos are unusual, in that their blackmail is real. Most blackmail is notional — seeing someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham enthusiastically betray every long-held value he once passionately professed, generous souls assume some dirt is being held over his head. He’s being forced to be the president’s lapdog. I believe that gives him too much credit; he’s just slavishly genuflecting to power. The Russkies can’t have incriminating photos of the entire GOP senate, rolling like puppies at Donald Trump’s feet.
And Trump (he’s the president, and thus an ever-relevant subject for consideration; if you can’t grasp that, no need to share your bafflement with me) — what is shame to him? On tape talking about groping women, paying off porn actresses, and yet comes through fresh as a daisy. Trump isn’t being coerced to betray our country out of fear of exposure, but from his own financial self-interest and a grotesque affection for the strongman tyrants he would love to be if he weren’t so, you know, pathetically weak. To suspect Trump is perhaps being blackmailed is to conjure up a non-existent dignity in the man.
Wilson’s memoir was wildly successful, by the way, though what passes for salacious details in 1824 are mild today. Wellington greets her — “How do you do?” — and offers a few endearments — “Beautiful creature!” … “Beautiful eyes, yours!” Then, she draws the veil: “But love scenes, or even love quarrels, seldom tend to amuse the reader…” She does stick the dagger in, accusing Wellington of being dull and looking “very like a rat-catcher.”
None of it kept Wellington from becoming prime minister of Great Britain, twice, nor being eulogized by that nation’s poet laureate, piling on praise. “With honor, honor, honor, honor to him,” Tennyson wrote. “Eternal honor to his name.”
Nothing is eternal, though being remembered almost exactly 250 years after your birth — that’ll be May 1 — comes close, and I suppose having a pastry-wrapped beefsteak named after you is honor of a sort, and more than most of us can hope for.