Perdicaris: American Playboy?

TALIM Diana Wylie at Legation
This guest post by Diana Wylie (photo) was inspired by her study of the long-forgotten letters written to Mrs. Perdicaris during and immediately after the kidnapping of her husband in Tangier in 1904.  The incident sparked a brief crisis, and was a world-famous case of President Teddy Roosevelt's "gunboat diplomacy."  Dr. Wylie, who wrote the book – literally – on the Legation's art and map collection (Enchantment), has returned to Morocco on a Fulbright grant, and was pleased to find the Legation after a three-year absence, especially the Perdicaris letters, which TALIM has recently acquired.

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Was Ion Perdicaris really a playboy?  When I was writing Enchantment, I thought so, but now I wonder.   Perdicaris did flout social convention (ran off with a married woman.) He never held a paying job (dabbled in theater and painting.)  He loved living well (built not one but two mansions in Tangier.) He played with facts (neglected to tell anyone he changed his nationality from American to Greek during the American Civil War.)

I hoped a weightier image of the man might emerge from reading letters written to him and his wife Ellen immediately after he was kidnapped by the chief Raisuli on 18 May, 1904.

Many were penned by grateful guests, people on whom Perdicaris and his wife had lavished hospitality at their Tangier home El Minzah, now the site of the eponymous hotel, and their country residence Aidonia, today a ruin in the Parc Perdicaris.   They call Ellen “the Queen of Tangier,” her concert room “magnificent,” and Aidonia a “paradise.”

One letter stands out in depicting Perdicaris, not as a host or playboy, but as a big-hearted man who cared about social justice.  It came from an African-American minister and educator.

In his letter Rev. Matthew Anderson remembered Perdicaris approaching him in the lobby of a Swiss hotel and introducing himself as a “neighbor” because he originally came from Trenton, New Jersey.  (Anderson and his wife, a medical doctor, aimed to uplift their fellow African-Americans by founding the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School in Philadelphia.)

Perdicaris then charmed Anderson by revealing his “intimate knowledge of the progress of the colored people … and the profound confidence he had in the future of the Negro race from his experience in Africa.” Anderson wouldn’t have known that Perdicaris had some youthful exposure to “the Negro race” – his mother’s family had owned slaves in South Carolina – and that his experience of “Africa” was limited to its atypical northwestern tip – Tangier.

TALIM Berean School Jpeg

Beyond affording glimpses of the wider and deeper concerns of Tangier’s playboy, the letters offer a front row seat on one of the twentieth century’s first media events.  They poured in from places as far afield as Los Angeles and Yorkshire.  Many were written less than two days after the kidnapping.

What led news to spread so far so fast? It flashed under the sea on telegraph cables, thanks to the skills of engineer C. F. Varley, Ellen Perdicaris’ rejected first husband. 

It may prove hard for Perdicaris to shed the “playboy” label entirely.  I invite readers to decide for themselves by visiting the fifth chapter of Enchantment and, in the process, learn how the mishaps of one eccentric figure contributed to the long and terrible slide to World War One.

Diana Wylie

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