Olga Alberta, the Baroness de Meyer may be one of the more fascinating women of the early 20th Century. Reputed to be the illegitimate child of HRH King Edward VII, she was a mutt of the aristocratic type, tied by accident of to nobility from France, Britain, Portugal, and with a dash of American to add some democratic flavor. Raised in Dieppe, she married in 1892 and got divorced six years later. That same year, she married Adolph de Meyer, a famed photographer, in nuptials more suited to her taste. Her husband was a homosexual, and she herself was bisexual; at the time of her marriage she was in the midst of a torrid love affair with Winnaretta Singer. Considered a great beauty, artists of the day painted and sketched Olga regularly, including John Singer Sargent:
William Bruce Ellis Ranking;
James Jebusa Shannon:
Even her husband snapped a photo;
She took a trip to the United States in 1911, where a whole raft of American artists stood ready with canvas and brush, but Olga had other things on her mind. The New York World reported, “If any American young woman wants to do a little fencing the Baroness de Meyer, who arrived on these shores on the Olympic, with her husband, to-day, is just pining for a match…The Baroness (shown in her travelling costume below) wore a leopard skin cloak and shoes with no heels at all. If she cannot get a woman opponent for her fencing, she is willing to meet a man.”
The Baroness need not have feared. At the Fencers’ Club at 37 W. 22nd Street, a whole host of female fencers stood ready to take her on. Prominent society women had recently been invited to join the Club, and had been practicing apace; in response to the Baroness’ challenge Miss Adelaide Baylis and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish Jr. (shown below) issued a polite invitation to join them for a fencing match at the club. Both women defeated the Baroness handily, and it wasn’t until afterwards that word of her loss leaked out.
The Baroness sought to explain away her defeat by contending that she hadn’t been trying her best. “It was mere child’s play for me, a little informal practice,” and claimed that she’d given her opponents every advantage as one would an inferior. If there was anything American women bridled at, it was being called an inferior, and Mrs. William H. Dewar of Philadelphia came forth to champion the United States. She and her opponent scheduled a contest for January 27, 1912, to be held in New York City.
The match was a short one, for not only did Mrs. Dewar beat the Baroness, she demolished her. As the Washington Herald described it:
The word was given and the two ladies stood at attention – the baroness, a tall lithe figure, dress in white and Mrs. Dewar, shorter in stature, but sturdy and well built, garbed in black velvet. Society held its breath, for here was a contest of international import, and of deep concern to the American woman athlete.
Mrs. Dewar opened the attack, making a long, low thrust that surprised her antagonist. For fully half a minute she kept up the bewildering attack, at once fast, furious, and skillful, with the baroness parrying viciously the while on the defensive. Finally there was a flash of steel and the baroness received the point of the foil near her hear. A cheer from the crowd, and the little woman continue on.
For a minute more she pressed this same swift attack. The baroness, now convinced that here was a fencer worthy of her best steel, tried time and again to hurl the sword of her opponent, but without avail. The last clash of the foils was followed by a thrust straight at the heart of the baroness and the crowd wildly cheered a second point for Mrs. Dewar…
Mrs. Dewar waved a tiny American flag she’d placed in her blouse, and the crowd cheered. Her husband picked her up and kissed her. “I wanted so much to win for the glory of America” said Mrs. Dewar between gasps of breath. The baroness congratulated her opponent for her skill, and the two parted as friends.