Back in the dark ages of 2010, I found this intriguing gal on a wunderkammer of a website called Ectoplasmosis, and shared it on my own Tumblr. The span of internet years is akin to vast aeons, so of course, thirteen years later, the Ectoplasmosis blog has long since crumbled to dust …but it has not exactly blown away in the wind as if it never existed at all. I just checked, and there is an Ectoplasmosis Tumblr, and it looks like one of the co-founders is still around. At the time of my initial queries, they never answered my questions about who this mysterious headdress gal was, so it’s doubtful they know anything more over a decade later, so I never bothered following up over the years.
I probably saw her image, sans context, online right around the same time I was doing some digging on the mysterious, similarly dramatic-headdressed woman who turned out to be Maria Germanova, a Russian actress. I don’t know if I can take credit for putting Maria’s name to that enigmatic face, but there was nothing online connecting her name to that carte de visite until I found it, so I think I can!
I do make a point of sharing the above image on social media every year or so because I am hopeful that it will eventually hit a pair of eyeballs that know something about the provenance of the image. It’s been pretty dismal pickings, though. Everyone always confidently asserts, “It’s Theda Bara!!” (probably because they are thinking of this image), and while I don’t consider myself an expert in identifying things like this, I have never agreed with that assessment. Many other people often suggest the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (who strangely enough is erroneously noted as having Maria Germanova’s face, such as in this Wide Walls article, which is going to annoy me until the day I die, but oh well, I guess.)
At any rate, many years have passed since I first began the quest for the identity of the horned headdress woman, and it has remained frustratingly fruitless… until now.
I was recently involved in another mystery, that of the cover artist for a particular edition of A Wrinkle in Time (if you don’t care to read the transcript or listen to the excellent podcast, it’s Richard Bober), and the NYT picked up and reported on the story as well. In asking me a few questions about it, the reporter inquired if I had any more mysteries I needed help with, and I thought EUREKA! Here’s a chance to get way more eyeballs in my arsenal!
Earlier this year, I made a little meme with this image, and on that post an Instagram commenter by the moniker of “doctorstockton” pointed me to the UF site, where someone was curating and highlighting “Gems of the Archive” –and unholy towering headdresses, there she was in this collection of Cuban Cigarette Cards of Erotica. According to the information here, apparently, in order to sell cigarettes to Cubans still wedded to hand-rolled cigars, Cuba’s earliest cigarette companies began including images of scantily clad and sometimes even bare-breasted women in every box. This collection dates from the early 1920s and advertised the company Cigarros Nacionales on the back of every card; every card invites the smokers to collect all ten series of cards. So…our mysterious headdress woman was a collectible trading card? Like a Garbage Pail Kid?
I immediately reached out to the Cuban Studies Department to see if anyone was able to share any additional information, and I received the most marvelous email back from Lillian Guerra, Ph.D., a Professor of Cuban & Caribbean History at the University of Florida. Professor Guerra generously offered that:
“The whole bunch of these cards are available in an archival collection under my name at UF and is open for viewing to the public. That will not necessarily get you any further on who this female model was, but I am fairly certain that her name was “Geraldy” and that she is also featured in the card that we placed right next to the one with the horned crown: I-7. Her real name was Geraldina, although I don’t know her last name. She was quite famous in the 1910s and 1920s. I have always wondered if she starred in the Cuban theatre of the time as she clearly appears in that guise, rather than simply in lingerie like many others.”
She then goes on to add:
“…The women in these cards were not sex workers, per se; they did generally work in the cabaret business and may have been free-lance sex workers, but the quality of the imagery here speaks to the notion that they were not of the lowest licensed class of sex workers. (In Cuba, there were five categories of licensed prostitutes under Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century.) It is likely that these women modelled for expensive lingerie stores that catered to the women of the highest elite class on the side of main professional occupations as elite cabaret dancers, singers and waitresses.”
Professor Guerra notes that they will not be uploading the new material for the site until October 1, but will run new material every month from Oct 1 until the end of May 2024. She says hat she will be featuring female figures in the first set of Gems of the Archives, mostly teachers, and that she is trying to make it more intimate in the history it tells this year. I, for one, will be checking in often to see what fascinating individuals she will feature in the future.
So…I think that may be as solved as this mystery is going to get for the time being! What do you think? Many, many thanks to doctorstockton for the tip and Professor Guerra for the knowledge, insight, and stories. No thanks at all given to the people with an overinflated sense of confidence who keep insisting this woman was Theda Bara, with absolutely no proof or evidence at all.
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