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Authors: Colin Evans

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Even for someone used to competing in front of thousands of spectators, de Saulles found the sheer exuberance of these Latin racegoers overpowering. They cheered or jeered with equal enthusiasm bets won and lost, and every bar in the grandstand teemed with patrons either toasting a win or drowning their sorrows. But Jack, a different kind of connoisseur, reserved most of his attention for the rows of sultry señoritas. Many stole coquettish glances over their fluttering fans, and they liked what they saw. He wasn’t tall—only a shade above medium height—but he glided through the crowded stands with the confident, muscular athleticism that had hallmarked his gridiron career a decade earlier. It also didn’t hurt that he had a wicked smile.

He had fetched up in South America at the tail end of 1910 as a representative for the South American Concessions Syndicate (SACS). Freewheeling outfits like this characterized American capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a handful of like-minded entrepreneurs banded together and combed the globe in search of opportunities to increase their net worth and influence. The SACS had one aim: to promote the possibilities of a broad-gauge Trans-Andean railroad linking Chile to Argentina. Until this dream became reality, the only route between the markets of Asia and the east coast of America was around Cape Horn, one of the world’s most treacherous seaways. (The Panama Canal wouldn’t open for another four years.) When completed, the railroad would shave a month off the time required to ship goods from China to Washington and New York. Backers who got in early could expect a huge return on their investment, and de Saulles wanted as large a piece of the action as possible.

He was well qualified for the task at hand. Years spent grappling in the tough New York City real estate market had given him a solid background in structuring complicated land deals, and he spoke excellent Spanish—twin talents that had proved invaluable in opening doors among the notoriously conservative Chilean business community. Nor was he alone, either in his business endeavors or the racetrack. Alongside him stood Edward P. Coyne, an old friend from New York and former judge. Coyne was two decades older than Jack and brought a savvy legal brain to contract negotiations, but that told only part of the story. Around the Belmont and Aqueduct racetracks in New York, “hizzoner” had earned a reputation as one of the biggest plungers in the horseracing world, ready to wager thousands on whichever thoroughbred took his fancy. Coyne also took that gambling mind-set into his matrimonial undertakings. His most recent waltz down the aisle had soured in 1909 when his bride of just one year fled to Reno and filed for divorce on grounds of desertion . . . though of course friends winked and wondered if the twenty-seven-year age discrepancy between bride and groom also played its part. Coyne shrugged, mentally tore up his marriage certificate as though it were some worthless betting ticket, and looked around for the next big opportunity. He was gambling that the Andes venture would pay off like the trifecta of his dreams.

Thus far the SACS venture had proved lucrative, but Jack de Saulles still wasn’t satisfied. In his portfolio he carried letters of introduction to all the great business families of Valparaíso, but one dynasty had yet to invite this ambitious investor into their home. He was banking on this afternoon to change that.

The Errázuriz family hailed originally from the Basque region of northern Spain. The first of their number to set foot on Chilean soil was Francisco Errázuriz in 1735. His glowing testimonials to family members in the Old World triggered a mass migration to Chile and the foothills of the Andes, the mountainous countryside similar to the Pyrenees they had left behind. In short order, the family amassed a vast fortune from mining silver, and in this fledgling nation great wealth automatically generated enormous political power, transforming them into top-drawer Chilean nobility.

By the time de Saulles visited in 1911, the Errázuriz family had provided their new nation with no fewer than four presidents, a clutch of lesser politicians and diplomats, two archbishops of Santiago, and countless industrialists.
The family’s center of power lay in the Palacio Vergara, an intimidating Venetian Gothic–style edifice built on the ruins of a house destroyed in the 8.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Valparaíso on August 16, 1906, killing close to four thousand people. The Palacio, situated in the Quinta Vergara park, was the grandest house in the city, its elegant French furniture—mostly Louis XVI—juxtaposed against an impressive collection of modern European paintings.

Stewardship of this magnificence fell into the uncompromisingly capable hands of dynasty matriarch Señora Blanca Errázuriz-Vergara, daughter of the man who had founded Viña del Mar. In her youth, Blanca Vergara had been called the Star of Santiago in recognition of her breathtaking beauty, which combined classical bone structure with the unmistakable aristocratic air of her Spanish forebears.
Her marriage to Guillermo Errázuriz, a lawyer and member of parliament, had united two of Chile’s most powerful and wealthy families, but theirs was not a long-lived union. In 1895, just ten years into the marriage, Guillermo died of tuberculosis, leaving his widow to rule the Errázuriz-Vergara dynasty in Viña del Mar. Such responsibility meant that her presence at the races today was not just likely but practically mandatory. She liked to keep a close eye on her fiefdom and its inhabitants. For his part, de Saulles certainly hoped so. Not that he particularly wanted to meet the dowager herself; no, he had set his sights on another family member.

He’d heard the stories—everyone had in Chile—that the señora had a daughter who, some said, had not only inherited her mother’s fabled beauty but had surpassed it. Today at the races, Jack de Saulles intended on finding out if the rumors were true, relying on a friend, local vineyard owner Daniel Vial, to obtain an introduction. In between races Jack joined his cronies in the crowded clubhouse, but he had no time for the form card or the betting coups they had planned. His gaze raked the room. Eventually Vial gave a discreet nod toward a small group of people who had just swept into the clubhouse. De Saulles turned, and he beheld, in his words, “the loveliest woman in the world.”

Named after her mother, Blanca Errázuriz-Vergara might have stepped from the frame of a Goya masterpiece; she was slender, barely five feet tall, straight-backed, with an olive complexion and raven-black hair pulled tight against her head and tied in a thick plait that tumbled down onto her delicate shoulders. Her large, teak-brown eyes were simultaneously demure and demanding. At age sixteen she already carried herself with the haughty self-possession of an Andean noblewoman and, if the stories were to be believed, she had a line of suitors stretching from Viña del Mar all the way to Santiago, all of them begging for her hand in marriage. Her exquisite beauty entranced most; others lusted after a reported personal fortune of twenty-five million dollars, which made her one of the richest women in South America.

The object of all this adulation was born in Santiago on April 9, 1894, the youngest of five children. Her eldest brother, Hugo, had died in childhood after falling from a horse, and a sister, Manuela, had entered a local convent. (Dark rumors hinted at some kind of mental instability.) This left Blanca at home with her older sister, Amalia, and another brother, Guillermo, a year her senior. Blanca never knew her father, who died just eleven days after her first birthday, and so she grew up with no dominant male figure in her life. If she felt this lack, it didn’t show. The quick smile and gracious hand on display at the Sporting Club concealed a streak of toughness that instantly set her apart from the other señoritas.

From an early age, Blanca knew the power of her personal magnetism and her place in the world. She owed much of her precocious self-confidence to her education: At age eleven, she enrolled in the exclusive Convent of the Sacred Heart in the Roehampton district of London (now the Woldingham School in Surrey).
Here, she revealed an extraordinary flair for languages, gaining fluency in English—which she spoke with a cut-glass Knightsbridge accent—and three other tongues. She also learned to play the piano to a high standard. More than anything else, though, London opened her eyes to a fast-changing world and broadened her outlook in a way unimaginable had she remained in the stuffy confines of her hometown. After three years of soaking up London’s sophistication, she returned to Viña del Mar poised and elegant. Now, at the Sporting Club, every eye fixed on the young beauty they were already calling “The Flower of the Andes.”

De Saulles urged Vial to make the introduction. The two men elbowed their way through the throng. The meeting was rigidly straitlaced—in keeping with Chilean custom—and de Saulles did little more than present his credentials to Señora Errázuriz-Vergara. But in that short time he made quite an impact on her daughter. Even to a disinterested bystander, it was clear that the handsome American with the dazzling smile intrigued Blanca. She found his easy affability refreshing after the heavily starched formality that permeated Chilean etiquette. He laughed and joked, and soon enough Blanca was laughing along with him. No doubt about it, the meeting had gone well.

Just how well became fully apparent only the next day when Vial informed Jack that he had been invited to the Palacio Vergara. It was a high honor, indeed: Few Americans had been so graciously treated. When Jack arrived at the house, its opulence overwhelmed him, but it paled when compared to the gorgeous Blanca. De Saulles rose to the occasion and unleashed his legendary charm. He painted a vivid picture of the surveying trip that had taken him and his companions to the roof of South America, high in the Andes, dodging avalanches and fording treacherous rivers in search of the most favorable rail route to Argentina. The thrilling tale captivated her. Jack ended his saga by telling Blanca that he intended on staying in Chile for several months—to her obvious delight—and asking if he might call again.

Blanca de Saulles, the “Flower of the Andes,” one of the richest women in South America

Doing so required the permission of Señora Errázuriz-Vergara, who was cool at first and with good reason. After all, her daughter was a prize catch for any man, and she not unreasonably feared that Jack might be some ruthless fortune hunter out for a quick score. Plus, the señora wasn’t about to see any daughter of hers married off to some penniless parvenu. Jack soothed her concerns with a smile and a spruced-up version of his family tree. To hear de Saulles describe it, he came from dyed-in-the-wool bluebloods. The reality was rather more prosaic.

His father, Major Arthur Brice de Saulles, born in Louisiana to Huguenot parents, had earned his rank while fighting for the Confederate army in the Civil War. Jack downplayed the fact that his father—rather than, say, dashingly commanding men on the battlefield—had served as an engineer under the hopelessly inept but hugely popular General Leonidas Polk. After the cessation of hostilities, the ambitious major kept his rank, switched his uniform for civilian garb, and resumed his engineering career. On August 19, 1869, he married wealthy New York socialite Catherine Heckscher. The Heckscher connection added considerable financial muscle to the major’s social ambitions and gained him access to the coveted inner sanctum of northeastern society. It also secured him the lucrative post of superintendent of the New Jersey Zinc Company, handily owned by his father-in-law. In due course the major and his wife had four children, of whom John Gerard Longer de Saulles was third.

Jack was born in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on May 25, 1878, and in his teens he followed in the footsteps of his brother, Charles, and attended Yale, where his exploits on the football field vaulted him into national prominence. In 1901 Jack was Yale’s starting quarterback, and his performance against Princeton—where he “booted the hide of the ball until it sagged”
—became the stuff of varsity legend. He also featured on special teams, returning kickoffs and acting as place kicker, and he even managed to get himself knocked unconscious on one occasion, thanks to a rash tendency to launch “flying tackles”
on opponents almost twice his size. Such were his bravery and brilliance that in 1901 he was named an All-American.

BOOK: The Valentino Affair
10.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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