At the turn of the 20th century, Cairo’s nightlife district, Ezbekiyya, was served by a vast array of bars, cafés chantants, and music halls; and many of the most popular and successful venues at the time were run by women. Some were Egyptian, like the legendary Shafiqa al-Qibtiyya (for more on her and other women of Egypt’s nightlife, see my forthcoming book Midnight in Cairo), others were European, like the French actress Lucy Murger who spent the early 1910s running a cabaret given the punning name “Les Folies Murger”.
One of the most compelling of these cabaret impresarias was the notorious Clara Ward. Clara was born in Detroit in 1873, the daughter of wealthy industrialist Eber Ward. She was sent to school in London but it bored her. In 1890 she dropped out and went to France. In March of that year she met the Prince de Chimay and by the end of May she had married him and become the Princess de Chimay. Since her father-in-law was Joseph (III), Prince de Caraman-Chimay, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1884 and 1896, Ward was able to get acquainted with Belgium's belle époque aristocratic life. She was just sixteen (or seventeen) at the time and he was fourteen years her senior. Over the next few years she garnered a reputation both for beauty and eccentricity and gossip surrounded her wherever she went. One particularly bloody story that circulated was about the death of the heir to the Belgian throne, Prince Baudouin. It was alleged that he had made a pass at her and the Prince de Chimay had killed him to avenge his honour.
Photo of the newly-wedded Prince and Princesse de Caraman-Chimay by French photographer Paul Nadar [Paul Tournachon] Photo (C) Ministère de la Culture -Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Nadar
But the gossip mill really started to turn in 1896. After six years of marriage, the Princess left the prince and eloped with a Hungarian-Roma violinist called Rigó Jancsi. As a schoolgirl she had written in her diary “the humdrum life is not for me. I must feel, I must have emotions. Ordinary marriage and smug respectability appall me.” She stayed true to that sentiment. When she saw Rigo leading the orchestra in the famous Paillard restaurant in Paris, hangout of celebrities and royalty, she fell madly in love. Their affair was, by all accounts, wild and passionate and she soon ran away with him. First they went to Hungary and then they travelled on to Egypt, landing in Port Said in 1897.
Newspaper coverage of Clara Ward
The press in Europe and America obsessed over the life that this ex-Princess and her “gypsy” lover were living in Egypt. Clara Ward was independently very wealthy even before she married Beglian nobility, having inherited part of her father’s vast fortune. She had money and she spent it with abandon. She went to the finest hotels, mixed with Egypt’s elite, and eventually bought a mansion just outside Cairo which she adorned with fine artefacts and lavish decorations, including a $10,000 mother-of-pearl bed. In his later memoirs, Rigo described their life in the city at some length. The Princess de Chimay showered him with gifts, including a Stradivarius violin which she concealed inside his birthday cake and a valuable swiss watch. She was obsessed with his Romany culture and even managed to find a “gypsy tent” and a “gypsy carriage” so they could set up their own camp in villa’s gardens. She even trawled Cairo looking for fellow Roma to build a small community of their own. She managed to find some dozen or so in Cairo but Rigo complained because none of them were musical (or could even appreciate his music). She eventually accused them of stealing and kicked them out on the street.
Clara Ward and her second husband, Rigó Jancsi, from a photograph on a German postcard from about 1905
Many in the West saw her Eastern life as strange, perhaps dangerous. The Washington Post reported that “the Princess Chimay shows a sad falling off in looks and brilliancy since she has taken up Oriental habits and the use of narcotics”. But the veracity of many of these stories in the European and American newspapers was questionable at best. In fact, in the first few years that the Princess and her husband lived in Egypt both were reported, at separated times, to have died from a fever. In both cases the newspapers had to issue swift retractions.
But none of the Western press seem to have picked up on the thing that she later became most famous for in the Arabic press: her nightclub, the Sphinx. I first came across the Princess de Chimay in a book of comic Arabic poetry about Cairo’s nightlife, which was published around 1900. It is called “A tour of Ezbekiyya in comic Zajals” (Siyahat al-Azabakiyya fi-l-Azjal al-Fukahiyya) and the only copy I have been able to find is in the New York Public Library. In between verses about drunkenness, gambling, and dancing, there is a picture of “Madame Chimay” wearing a tarboush.
Clara Ward, depicted in the Egyptian book A tour of Ezbekiyya in comic Zajals” (Siyahat al-Azabakiyya fi-l-Azjal al-Fukahiyya)
But it was not until I came across an article in the magazine al-Dunya al-Musawwara from 5th October 1932 that I learned the story of the Sphinx itself. Apparently, it was the chosen nightspot for Cairo’s elite, wealthy night-owls. Located close to Cairo’s elegant Opera house, which had been built in the 1860s, it only opened its doors at midnight, to attract up people who were leaving plays, bars, and other nightclubs who did not want to go home but had nowhere else to go . It was famous for its food, its expensive furniture, and its exclusive clientele. But most of all, it was famous for the presence of the former Princess de Chimay. Every night she would be there entertaining the customers. The article from 1932 even claimed that the walls of the club was adorned with “scandalous pictures of the Princess in poses designed to excite the passions, poses that no ordinary woman would be happy to show anyone else”.
Rigo and the Princess did not stay in Cairo long into the 20th century. In fact, during a trip to Naples, the Princess fell in love with a station master, Giuseppe Ricciardi, nine years her junior. They met by chance at Naples station: “It was at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. But it was I who was the volcano”, she said. And just as quickly as she had taken up with Rigo, she dropped him. He left for America, where he spent most of the rest of his life in New York performing around the city, eventually falling into debt, and living out his days in a damp Lower East Side tenement. He died in 1927 in the French Hospital in Manhattan.
As for Clara Ward, she was roundly condemned by polite society for her loose living. In the year she left Rigo, Dr C.H. Hughes a professor of Neurology and Psychiatry in St. Louis dedicated a whole academic article to her case. He diagnosed her (seemingly largely from newspaper articles) as an “erotopath” and “a creature of morbid eroticism”, calling her an “unfortunately rich, wrongly reared and inadequately restrained woman”.
Clara Ward in a distinctive bodystocking outfit in 1905.
In December 1916, she died in a hotel in Padua. With no qualms about speaking ill of the dead, the papers were not ashamed to attack her dissolute lifestyle. One article in the Nashville Tennessean was explicit about what others hid behind insinuation. Less than a month after her death, it published a full page article telling its readers that her fate was deserved because “defiance of recognized conventions of society can end only in utter unhappiness and ruin”.
Although largely forgotten now, Clara Ward (the ex-Princess of Chimay) was the subject of constant gossip in the late 19th and early 20th century. Still, even then the European and American press was remarkably badly informed about her life in Cairo, even as it was happening. Aside from erroneously announcing that she was dead (then later doing the same for her husband, Rigo), they knew nothing about her career running a nightclub in Ezbekiyya. This part of her life remains murky today.
This guest blog was written by dr. Raphael Cormack.
Dr. Cormack holds a PhD in Egyptian theatre from the University of Edinburgh and is currently a visiting researcher at Columbia University. His forthcoming book Midnight in Cairo The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s can be preordered here.