Fake News, Fashion, and a Gorilla-Hand Hat

This is a story about fake news and misinformation.

It’s not about an election or anything all that important; it’s about fashion, about a photograph of a particular hat supposedly made by famed Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the shape of a gorilla’s hand.

It’s not exactly “fake”. The hat and the photograph of it that sparked this story are real.

And it’s not really “news.” Both the hat and the photograph are from 1953.

But the story of this hat and the way misinformation about it came to my attention (and that of others) illustrates how “fake news” — important or otherwise — so easily spreads through social media today.

Oh, and the real story of the hat is much better than the fake one. It’s a wild tale involving all of the following: a Serbian-born circus performer and exotic dancer; a British baron; Hitler, Mussolini, and the kings of Spain and Bulgaria; a 1953 movie starting Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly; and its own set of questionable facts from long before the emergence of modern social media.

Let’s start at the beginning and go backward.

Share and Share Alike

On November 17th, my sister shared the photo on Facebook from an FB group called Vintage Weird to which it had been shared from a page called Historyinpictures.

The caption on the photo said “Model wearing a hat shaped like a hand by Elsa Schiaparelli for Life magazine, 1953. Photo by Douglas Miller.”

My sister commented “I have a Schiaperelli hat, that I found in the trash in my Paris apt in 1969. It didn’t look anything like this one, though.”

I was curious enough to want to know more about the hat and, as a librarian and an avid searcher of obscure facts — important or otherwise — I thought this one should be easy. 

Google has digitized the complete run of Life magazine from 1936 to 1972 and made it searchable. Schiaparelli showed up several times in my search of that digital archive, including once in 1953. But there was no hat shaped like a hand. And no sign of a photo credit for Douglas Miller, in that issue or in any issue of Life.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t from Life magazine. No big deal.

Digging In

Sticking with Google, I searched for Schiaparelli hat hand and got nearly half a million hits, about two-thirds of them from the photo sharing site Pinterest. Most had the same photo. Some even had the Life logo superimposed in the lower left corner of the image.

Hmm.

Several of the Pinterest posts had additional information, like the description on this one from a user on the South Korean Pinterest site.

A model wearing ‘Lucky Escape’, a hat inspired by Clark Gable’s escape from the gorillas in the film ‘Mogambo‘. It is made from terracotta peach bloom felt and is shaped like a gorilla’s hand. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Getty Images) Life 1953

The description has no mention of Schiaparelli, though the image is saved to the Korean user’s Elsa Schiaparelli page. But it does provide some big clues, including a name for the hat, a tie to the 1953 Hollywood movie Mogambo, and the Getty Images source. Indeed, a search of the Getty Images site brought up the photo with the same description (but minus any mention of Life magazine — or of Schiaparelli). 

Armed with these new clues, I was off to my next destination: the Newspapers.com database, one of several historical newspaper databases to which I subscribe. And there was the hat, in several newspapers, though in different photos than the one that started this quest. (Even the first one below is different; note the slight difference in the position of the model’s hand from that in the Getty photo.) 

Left to right: news clips from the Ottawa Citizen, November 3, 1953; Oroville (California) Mercury, November 21, 1953; Hartford Courant, November 1, 1953; The Daily Mirror (London), October 30, 1953, via Newspapers.com and The British Newspaper Archive.

But no matter which photo was used, all of the news clips identified the designer not as Elsa Schiaparelli but as “Lady Newborough” of London.

It seems likely that the model in the hat was photographed by several different photographers for different newspapers and news bureaus at the same Lady Newborough event. (Douglas Miller was a British photographer who worked at times for a British news service.)

Fact and Fiction

So, the hat and the photo were real. (More on that in a moment.) But when, how, and why did Schiaparelli and Life enter the picture?

The “when” is uncertain, but the earliest instance of the photo I could find with the misinformation is from 2009.

The “how” is easy: somebody added the misinformation to the picture description and shared it, to Pinterest or another site, and others picked it up and spread it far and wide. Anyone can have a Pinterest site and share whatever they like, and anyone can join the Vintage Weird site and post there, too. Historyinpictures is more controlled and has a more official sounding name but doesn’t always seem to do the legwork to verify information it shares.

As for the “why”? It’s probably because whoever added the misinfo thought it would be more interesting if it was attached to a famous name. (Think of the 1997 “Wear Sunscreen” newspaper column that went viral when someone shared it — falsely — as a commencement speech delivered by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT.)

Maybe whoever it was was thinking of an actual Schaparelli hat: the shoe hat, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali in the 1930s and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Real Story (or is It?)

So who was “Lady Newborough”, the real designer of the gorilla-hand hat? Further searches told quite the tale.

“Lady Newborough” was born Denisa (sometimes shown as Deniza) Braun in Serbia sometime between 1907 and 1913. (Sources vary as to the date.) According to her 1958 autobiography Fire in My Blood — more on that below — she ran away from home at a young age to join the circus and worked, at various times, as a tight rope walker, a stripper, a fan dancer, an airplane pilot, an ambulance driver, and more.

“I have been many things, wire-walker, night club girl, nude dancer, air pilot,” she wrote. “In fact there are only two things I refused to be and one is a whore and one is a spy — and there were attempts to make me both.”

By her own account — it is hard to know where truth ends and embellishment begins — she had encounters with Hitler, Mussolini, various European monarchs, and an African sheik. (Hitler, she said, once tried to invade her room in a Berlin hotel, but she got rid of him by pretending to have a toothache. Mussolini, who she said picked her up in a bar in Rome, “was fun to be with, which is more than Hitler ever was.”)

In 1939 — this much is well documented — she married the Englishman Thomas Wynn, the fifth Baron Newborough, who was more than twice her age. Their engagement caught the attention of gossip columnist Walter Winchell in his widely syndicated column.

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 18, 1939, via Newspapers.com
Denisa, Lady Newborough, and her husband, Thomas Wynn, 5th Baron Newborough, at an event called the Redhead Spitfire Club in support of the Royal Air Force in 1941, two years after their marriage. (The Tatler, May 21, 1941, via the British Newspaper Archive)

In 1940, she gave birth in Paris to a daughter, named Blanche-Niege (French for Snow White) and known as Juno. The birth was announced in several British tabloids including this front-page feature in The Tatler.

Baron and Lady Newborough divorced in 1947. Here’s how a London-based reporter for an Australian newspaper (The Herald, Melbourne, March 29, 1947) described Lady Newborough after the divorce:

“Lady Newborough is a Titian-haired Jugoslav, with a beautiful golden skin, [who] has been widely photographed in Europe as one of the most beautiful of young pre-war socialites.”

Calling herself Denisa, Lady Newborough, the new divorcee found herself in debt and in bankruptcy court. It was then, she told newspaper reporters, that she turned to an old skill at designing and making hats.

As you know,” she told a reporter, “my marriage is being dissolved. This is causing me a lot of trouble. I became so worried that I began playing cards for money. Because I was worried I lost heavily at bridge, but only because I played badly. Usually I am very lucky at cards. I have now stopped playing bridge and have concentrated on hatmaking and everything is looking rosy.” (Wire service story as carried in The News, Adelaide, Australia, March 12, 1947, via The Trove, Australian newspaper database.)

Her hats were apparently a big success. She drew widespread media coverage in newspapers and in British newsreels. You can see her at work in this British Pathé newsreel from 1953. That’s her on the right in the screenshot below; the narrator calls her “one of Britain’s leading designers.” (See links to more Lady Newborough newsreels at the end of this story.)

Mogambo and the “Lucky Escape” Hat

Five months after the above newsreel was made and shortly after the premier of the John Ford-directed Mogambo at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, Lady Newborough introduced a line of five hats inspired by the film.

This montage shows a promotional poster for Mogambo and a December 1953 article from the Melbourne, Australia newspaper The Mirror about Lady Newborough hats inspired by the movie. Better images of the cheetah and elephant hats can be seen here and here.

The movie, filmed in various parts of Africa, told the story of a big game hunter, played by Clark Gable, and his romantic entanglements with two women, played by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. (Gardner and Kelly were both nominated for Oscars for their roles in the film.)

I hoped, by the way, that the gorilla-hand hat was inspired by an actual scene in the movie where a gorilla’s hand grabbed the head of one of the actors. But, alas, there was no such scene. (Yes, I watched the movie. What won’t I do for research?)

Mogambo was not the only Hollywood movie to inspire Lady Newborough hats. A few months later she came out with these hats based on the musical The Band Wagon.

Fire in My Blood

By 1958, Lady Newborough was apparently in financial straits again. Her solution this time was the racy autobiography Fire in My Blood. The front cover (shown above) included images of a scantily-clad redhead and dancers at a society ball and a blurb that read “Stripper, sensualist, mistress–the fascinating story of a woman who would do anything for love“.

The book was serialized in the British tabloid News of the World.

Ads promoting the News of the World’s serialized version of Lady Newborough’s autobiography appeared in newspapers throughout the UK. (From The British News Archive)

It generated newspaper headlines about the shock of the tell-all memoir and its effect on the British aristocracy.

Newspaper headlines about the publication of Lady Newborough’s memoir Fire in My Blood

There were reports of a planned promotional trip to the United States. Hollywood was supposedly interested in turning it into a movie. Lady Newborough was said to be working on a sequel to be called My Lordly Lovers. (None of these seem to have happened.)

Later Years

By the 1960s, it seems, Lady Newborough was no longer making hats. A news photo from October 1963 shows her selling antique silver in a stall in Shepard’s Market in London’s Mayfair district, around the corner from her flat.

Although she says she is doing it for the money,” said the caption, “she also says it is the nicest thing she has ever done.

She was in the news five months later when she temporarily blocked a planned demolition of the site where her stall was located. And then again, a month later, when she was brought into court on charges of letting a tenant use her flat for prostitution. She was released on bail and later cleared. (Her lawyer claimed it was a set-up by the police, miffed at her earlier protest against the demolition.)

There was one more brush with the law, in 1973, when she was charged with handling stolen property. (A gold cigarette case, an amethyst bracelet, and a gold chain and medallion.) She was released on bail, and I have not been able to find anything further about the case, or anything more about Lady Newborough after 1973.

The entrance to her Mayfair shop does, however, appear (left) in the background of an unrelated video in 1974.

Denisa, Lady Newborough, died on March 21, 1987. She may have been largely forgotten by then, but she lives on, ironically, through her obituary in The Daily Telegraph.

In 2014, the paper’s former obituary editor, Harry De Quetteville, in a column titled “Why We Love Obituaries,” wrote that “beyond recounting the achievements of obvious big hitters – whether Nobel winner or Hollywood star – it is the job of the obits editor, to my mind, to root out the fascinating quirks and extremes of life.”

He chose five examples from the history of The Telegraph. At the top of the list was Denisa, Lady Newborough.

Lady Newborough in Newsreels

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