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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

"Countess" Ida von Claussen: Woman of Convictions

Sharon Condie

Author of The Idassey (forthcoming)

It is futile to attempt to become invisible if you are a beautiful titian-haired heiress standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall. You can't alter your Junoesque stature, so you defiantly raise your height even further by wearing three-inch heels and enormous plumed hats. You sweep into countless courtrooms, elegantly gowned, a white dog under your arm. Rather than running from the press, you actively summon them. Your impudent grin brazenly answers headlines that, with both awe and derision, report on your escapades for over three decades.

The world first came to know Ida Marie von Claussen-Raynor-Honan-Davis-Dona-Maybury in 1907 when, at the age of 32, she attempted to sue Theodore Roosevelt and the American Ambassador to Sweden for one million dollars. Her claim? The men broke her heart by refusing to allow her presentation at the court of her new personal friend, King Oscar II.

Prompted by the court's rejection of her claim, she took a lifelong interest in world politics. To the Swedish Prime Minister she described her plans to revivify his country. She was convinced that Britain, with Roosevelt's help, wanted to become the world power it once was, subsuming America and all Atlantic countries. In Britain she advertised for a handsome young man to stand for Parliament and be her mouthpiece, since women could not participate. In America, she soapboxed for the Labour Party and her favorite idea: corporate profit sharing. Her wealth allowed her to self-publish, and all of her publications concerned politics. All were also libelous and inflammatory, including her novel starring herself (cleverly disguised as Countess d'Importance), in which she heroically countered Roosevelt's intrigues against her beloved father figure, King Oscar.

Ida's life was a picaresque novel: she never owned a house; she jumped from expensive hotels in Europe and America. Over the years her antics increased. Ju-jitsu moves performed in a hobble skirt once felled two respectable bankers, and written threats sent on different occasions to her longtime lawyer, a judge and a juror started her on the road to incarcerations in four jails and four insane asylums in New York State. She claimed six attempts on her life. She occupied jails in Paris and Rome.

In 1913, Ida was described as a "progressive paranoiac," having symptoms of litigiousness, delusions of grandeur and eroticism (meaning she thought herself irresistible). As such—the victim of a mental disorder and worthy of compassion—Ida might not be a suitable subject for a rollicking biography...except for the fact that she always came up fighting and grinning, did not suffer for luxuries (barring the times she was incarcerated) and inadvertently attracted to herself charlatans and eccentrics.

The digitization of genealogical records, court transcripts and hundreds of obscure newspapers have been absolutely essential in tracking Ida. Oddly, small-town papers are the ones that have supplied me with most of the photographs of Ida, as well as the most in-depth articles. Through America's Historical Newspapers, I finally answered some long-standing questions.

Ambassador Graves, who rejected Ida's court presentation, stated that one reason for his action was the fact that Ida was divorced. However, according to Forget It If You Can, Ida's tell-all novel, the ambassador's wife, Alice, had previously been a Unitarian Universalist minister married to another minister, Ed Wright, but had been caught in a boarding house in flagrante and thrown out. She subsequently met Graves, who suggested that they bribe Wright with $10,000 to get a divorce. But (Ida gloated), bribery was collusion, and getting divorce papers signed by collusion makes a divorce illegal. So Ida contended that the holier-than-thou Alice Graves was not only divorced, but illegally divorced. How much of this story is true? According to local newspapers: the town, the twin-ministries and the divorce are all true. From the New Haven Evening Register, 1897, May 10:3, "Social Crisis Coming," I now have a description of Alice, her husband's name and even the gist of one of her sermons. As to the circumstances of the divorce, I still search.

Ida was a mother who constantly rhapsodized about her adopted daughter Natalie. Prior to her divorce from husband #2, Dr. Honan, Ida signed a paper saying that Natalie's monetary support was to be her responsibility alone. But then she changed her mind. According to The Philadelphia Enquirer, 1910, August 10:4 "Divorce is Void, Claims Woman," Ida ordered the governess and nine-year-old Natalie to register at Honan's resort hotel for ten days. Natalie was to contact her father and plead for her own child support. When Honan had them thrown out of the hotel and barred for life, Ida was sent into another frenzy of litigation.

And then there was Mr. Dona. Eloping just two days after being released from an asylum into her brother's care, Ida introduced the world to husband #4, "Mr. Dona," variously referred to as an "interior designer she had met on a ship years before," "a Canadian" and her "darling Count."

None of these descriptions rang true to me, but it was not until I found a Philadelphia Enquirer article from 1916, January 1:4 titled "'Dear Handsome Boy' Never was Attendant" and one from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 1916, January 5:12, "Her 'Dear Count' said to be Former Clerk at Sunbury," that my suspicions were confirmed. Dona was revealed to have been an attendant at the establishment Ida had just left, and his real name was Donagan. They had used each other: she was rich, he was gay. Being wed might allow her to get control of her fortune again. This protector/beard arrangement was to be made three times in her life.

Maddeningly, by 1941 Ida fades away. Her demise is yet a mystery. I suspect she refused to go, having challenged Death to come out and fight, as she once did to Queen Wilhelmina. My own Idassey in researching her life continues.

Sharon Condie has degrees in Fine Arts and Women's Studies. She made animated films for ten years, and with her brother Richard Condie, received an Academy Award nomination in 1986 for The Big Snit. As well as The Idassey, she is also working on Spaces, Holes, Cages, Mounds, and Skins: The Tracks of Conflict, and a trilogy for young people, Greshwert Sneezed.

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