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MAY YOHÉ, A TALE OF ADVENTURE–AND HOPE

I POSED AN irresistible challenge to myself in recent tales about massive diamonds: The fabulous Hope Diamond owned by “an American musical theater actress.…” How could this not lead to more research?

In fact, it turns out the Hope was but a transitory bauble for May Yohé, prima donna, adventuress extraordinaire and wife of many, lover of more, including a pair of Captains, a Duke and no less than Bertie, the Prince of Wales. Not that her life was all roses: May also got to know her way around London’s Whitechapel poor, ten-cent vaudeville theaters, boarding houses and chicken farms.

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Mary Augusta “May” Yohé, 1866–1938, American musical theater actress, adventuress, one of several owners of the Hope Diamond. Image from The Era Almanack, 1894.

Mary Augusta “May” was born to the Yohés of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1866. Her father didn’t hang around all that long, but her mother was still able to provide May with schooling in Dresden and later at the Convent of the Sacré Couer in Paris.

May returned to the U.S. with dreams of performing on the stage, fulfilled in quick time as a chorus girl and then a star, even when her early soprano voice lowered to a contralto that one critic termed “peculiar.” Another praised her “fine voice and unlimited assurance.”

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May in On and Off, 1894.

This latter attribute may have aided May in becoming what the Brits called a Professional Beauty, a P.B. for short: a woman famous for being famous. This also led May to become, in between and amongst lovers, something of a serial bride. Assembled in order, there are documents suggesting that her husbands included Lord Francis Hope (yes, a diamond Hope, 1894–1902); Captain Putman Bradlee Strong (1902–1905); childhood friend Newton Brown (1907–?); a British Columbia miner surnamed Murphy (c. 1909); Seattle musician Frank M. Reynolds (c. 1910); former lightweight boxing champion Jack McAuliffe (c. 1911?); and Captain John Addey Smuts (c. 1914–1938!).

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May in Little Christopher Columbus. Image from the Bystander, 1908.

You’d think all this would be ripe for a biography. And, indeed, Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Institution’s under secretary for history, art and culture, was just the guy, prompted by his earlier book on the Hope Diamond.

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Madcap May: Mistress of Myth, Men, and Hope,by Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Books, 2012.

Kurin notes that May Yohé “lived more than one lifetime…. She really is narcissistic. On the other hand, just when I hate her the most, she runs off and does something that is very social… taking up the cause of the chorus girls in the editorial pages of the British press during the height of the Suffragette movement.”

Kurin tempers his enthusiasm by observing, “She was for women’s right, her own.”

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May and her second Captain seemed to have hit it off grandly, if not always regally. They traveled to Singapore, India, China and Japan. When things got rough, they toured vaudeville with an act based on a less-than-successful movie, The Hope Diamond Mystery, which May helped write and promote. A failed California ranch and lackluster vaudeville followed. Eventually, in 1938, May got a $16.50/week clerical job with the Works Projects Administration.

In August 1938, Yohé died of heart and kidney disease; she was 72. It’s said her most prized possession was a large photograph of Britain’s Edward VI, taken during his Prince of Wales days and signed “To May, 1898.”

Captain Smuts followed her wishes by sprinkling May’s ashes into the Atlantic. He followed her in death a few months later.

An obituary in the Hartford Courant quoted May saying, “I’ve done pretty nearly everything in my life except theft and murder, but thank God, whatever I’ve done my heart’s been in it.”

Would that any of us could muster such last words. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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