March is National Women’s History Month, with this year’s emphasis on celebrating women in science and technology. I’d like to draw attention to a very controversial and colorful woman: the nation’s first war correspondent: Cora Crane, a true rebel of her time.
Born in Boston in 1865, the young Cora enjoyed all the amenities of a well-educated Bostonian. She had the habit of either marrying men who were successful or had been born to money. Her first husband, a federal collector for the Port of New York, was a gunrunner and gambling-house operator. She married husband number two, Captain Donald William Stewart, the son of Sir Donald Martin, the Commander in Chief of India for Queen Victoria, and set up house in England and partied in London. When the Captain had been promoted to command operations in the War of the Golden Stool (don’t you love the name), his duties forced him to be absent from the country home for a long stretch of time and Cora was not one to be left idle and unattended. She soon began an affair with an heir to the Chase banking fortune. She left Stewart and England for the first time and bought a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, which, some said, she fashioned into a brothel.
In 1896, while in Florida, she met the writer Stephen Crane. Although technically Lady Stewart, she began calling herself Cora Crane. Stephen, an established journalist and already the author of Red Badge of Courage, was in Florida on his way to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. Crane recklessly covered Teddy Roosevelt’s Charge on San Juan Hill for Joseph Pulitzer while wearing a white coat in the blazing hundred-degree heat. Cora would join him in covering the Thirty-Day’s War between Greece and Turkey in 1897 for the New York Journal. Incidentally, it was Cora who gathered up the tired Crane in Daytona Beach after he had been rescued at sea after the sinking of The Commodore. Crane would later use the raw material of that harrowing experience to pen The Open Boat. As a journalist she used the pen name Imogene Carter and in social circles, Cora Crane. She returned to England with Crane, where they both lived a lavish and tempestuous lifestyle, which included raucous partying with H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad. Hard to imagine Conrad and Wells as party animals, but they were…wait for it…legendary. Conrad admired Crane as a person and as a writer.
While often compared to another scandalous woman, the social climber Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill, Cora became embroiled in yet another scandal while in England, drawing widespread condemnation, when she threw her support behind the mistress of Harold Frederic and raised money for the illegitimate children and the woman’s legal defense fund. Frederic had taken ill and died while with his mistress. His legal wife had the mistress, a Christian Scientist, charged with manslaughter because the woman had called a faith healer instead of a doctor. It was shortly after this scandal, in 1900, that Crane died of TB in Germany, with Cora and his dog, Sponge, at his side. After Crane’s death, Cora had become persona non grata and could not get her writings published. She existed on the charity of friends until her next savvy reinvention.
In 1901, she returned to Jacksonville, and financed the construction of a brothel and within five years owned several other “resorts.” Cora was the queen of the good-time girls and greased the legal machinery to stay in business. She married yet again – to the nephew of Whistler’s Mother (that Whistler and that woman in the painting). Hardly monogamous, Cora took another lover and her new husband, less than thrilled, shot and killed her lover. He was acquitted but called it quits on the marriage. Cora returned to using the name ‘Cora Crane.’
Though Cora died in 1910 at the age of 45, having suffered a stroke after helping someone push his stalled car, she left proof that she had not been idle in another endeavor of hers, for she had numerous publications to her credit. She had published in Smart Set, Harper’s Weekly, and Hearst’s Journal. Her haunts in Jacksonville still stand.
I do not know whether Cora had been the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, but Henry James did rave about her doughnuts.