Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Madame Blavatsky

A Pen Picture

by An American Newspaper Writer
[Laura C. Holloway]

[Reprinted from The Word (New York) February 1912, pp. 262-269.]

As soon as the arrival of Madame Blavatsky in England was announced, I felt my opportunity had come for seeing this widely celebrated woman who was credited with possessing occult powers, and who was said to be in direct communication with not only the "Adepts," but with "Maha-Chohan," the Head of the Himalayan Initiates, the greatest of living souls. Armed with a letter of introduction given me by an American friend, I sought her out only to learn that she had gone to Paris, and it was in Paris, that I subsequently met her. I found her smoking cigarettes, and, months later, when I took leave of her in London before starting for New York, she was again smoking. During that time, whenever I saw her she was smoking. And, as I had never seen a woman smoke before, her habit made a deep impression upon me. I may add that it impressed me painfully at first, but I grew tolerant of it later, believing it to be a manifestation of diseased nerves, as was subsequently proved.

In Paris, Madame Blavatsky lived in an apartment in Rue Notre Dames des Champs, and here each evening was gathered together a strangely assorted company. The first time I called I approached her through a crowd of French and German gentlemen, accompanied by a friend. She gave me her hand and after saying she was glad I had come, asked me to be seated beside her. For a short time we chatted on various ordinary topics, then she inquired of people she had known in New York, and, finally as guests pressed about her, she told one of her party to watch over me until she was at liberty again. I stood near her for a time listening to her conversation with others, and she impressed me as clever and vivacious, occasionally charming, but of a very changeable nature, and not quite at peace with herself. In many respects she seemed unique, and thinking I was alone and unnoticed in the crowd, I satisfied myself regarding her characteristics in a leisurely way, noting her voice, her tricks of speech, her motions, and her manner of greeting people. The crowd increased and after a time I came to the conclusion that I would make my departure. As I turned to go towards the door she greatly surprised me by calling out: "Now that you have summed me up to your satisfaction, will you please talk with your countryman, Mr. -----, until I can see you. I laughingly turned away with this gentleman – who had steeped to my side, so soon as he had heard the remark she made, and as I did so I said: "Queer woman that; how did she know what I was thinking of?"

"She is the most remarkable woman this age has produced," he answered in earnest tones, and then he added: "This may not be the verdict of the world, but those who know her subscribe to it."

"Is that true?" I answered - "I have heard it declared that she is not a very satisfactory expounder of the philosophy she teaches." He quickly replied: "But who is there who can judge her; who is there who has tried to do what she has already accomplished?" I could not combat this and suggested that he tell me more of her life, and her present line of work. This he did, talking most entertainingly for some time.

Through all the evening Madame Blavatsky smoked cigarettes. Luckily she used a very mild Egyptian tobacco, and the odor of her continuous cigarette was not offensive. Had it been so, her anti-tobacco friends would have suffered martyrdom. Her beautiful hands were stained with the weed, and ashes were on her dress and scattered over the carpet about her. I saw her many times, but never without her tobacco and cigarette paper and matches.

Strangers meeting her for the first time, felt as I had done, and were shocked with this habit of hers - but her daily companions were glad to have her smoke. She was always entertaining when smoking and was certain to be irritable when deprived of her precious cigarette. Smoking with her was a habit that had become second nature; she could not live without tobacco. To know her at all was to know her through clouds of tobacco smoke; to listen to her wonderful flow of conversation was to hear it in the intervals of silence when she was dreamily, and gently puffing her cigarette. To nothing else was she half so devoted as to her cigarette and she was a fascinating smoker. So keen was her enjoyment of this occupation that others were entertained in watching her indulgence in it and her easy, restful manner of smoking soothed even those who were opposed to tobacco. Her temperament was one that required a narcotic; her nature was so tempestuous that without it no ordinary person could have endured her excitability for a day.

She was a volcano in petticoats; a woman, but masculine in her mental attributes. Yet she was the reverse of "mannishness." She was something different from all the men and women I had ever seen up to that time or have since seen. There was no assumption of any kind about her, she made no effort to be anybody’s conception of herself, and she acted her part with as little regard for her own interests as for the feelings of others. Whatever she was not expected to say in conversation that she said, brusquely, bluntly, and without thought of consequences. She had the least regard for the conventionalities, of any person I ever met, and at the same time she seemed the most sensitive of women when any doubt of her proper performance of her own duty was manifested.

For the self-love and vanity of men and women she seemed to have a scornful disregard, and her rudeness and impatience when forced to witness a display of either, were terrifying. She would exclaim against the conceit and bigotry of people, in language forcible beyond any necessity, but she was never aware, apparently, of her roughness of speech. Strangers were shocked at her lack of self-control, but those who knew her best seemed to be least concerned over her moods.

In her conduct she was always the same; indifferent to externals; absorbed in her work, and imperative in her assertions regarding its value to the world.

Her invariable costume was a loose, flowing, black, one-piece garment, called an "Abayah." The Egyptian women wear this kind of dress and it is one vastly becoming and comfortable for stout people. Every one knows that Madame Blavatsky was a very large woman, but she never gave one that impression of mere fleshiness which is common to stout women who wear fashionable tight fitting clothing. She was about medium height and had very small hands and feet. Her "abayah" was cut from a double fold of very wide cloth and had no other tailoring than was required to fold the six-yard piece and directly in the center of the fold to cut out a circular piece, and to cut a further opening down the center of the cloth. The neck and front thus formed was bound with silk and usually a lace ruffling was inserted. There were no other sleeves than those outlined by the arms when extended full length, and fastened in loose folds with safety pins. These were sometimes replaced by a seam which was removed when the dress required to be cleaned or laundried. With her beautifully shaped hands and arms there was no need of tight-fitting sleeves and the simplicity and Grecian outlines of her dress were always admired. The "abayah" was exactly suited to her size, slow motions, and sedentary habits; few western women would appear to advantage in it.

At the time that Madame Blavatsky was in Paris, in the spring of 1884, she had just come from troubles at Adyar; troubles relating to the charges of fraud and trickery made against her by Madame Colomb. And she was constantly in mental turmoil over the real or fancied grievances inflicted upon her by this woman and her husband. She would suddenly appeal to almost perfect strangers to know their opinion of "the situation." And she would listen to anything of a denunciatory character said regarding these people whom she believed to have been paid to try to catch her in some fraud - and yet, when she had opportunity to send messages back to India by a member of the Theosophical Society - she said to him: "My dear - go and see Madame Colombo - she is not the evil one in this matter - and let her know how I feel about her."

And the very next moment she was rasped into a fury of temper by a remark that Madame Colomb believed the masters to be fakes. She could not brook doubt on this subject, nor endure those who questioned the existence of the "Brotherhood of Adepts." Her devotion to her "Master" was unswerving and paramount. To question the nature or the office of the Mahatmas was to give her such provocation to wrath as to unfit her for immediate self command. Her ebullitions of temper over the most trivial things were painful, but fortunately they were fleeting; I have seen her appal people by her violent emotions one minute, and in the next show the extreme of indifference. The group of intimates about her paid little attention to her mental cyclones, well knowing that to do so, was to waste time uselessly. She impressed me always as a singular contradiction; it was idle to try to classify her; she could not be measured by class distinction, or be weighed in any conventional social balance. I recall one occasion when I sat with her during a tempest of angry talk over some disagreeable news she had received from India. Her anger depressed me and I sat mute and miserable, wishing in my heart that as I could not soothe her, I might escape from her presence. Suddenly she turned and looked at me as a mother might look at a demure child, and said in the most winning manner: "My dear, will you have a cigarette?" And while I was laughing as a relief to my feelings, she smilingly made herself a cigarette and then smoked as contentedly as though life was but an unvarying song to her.

Looking at her one day it occurred to me she must be perhaps fifty years of age; I learned from others that she was between fifty and sixty, but I heard her laughingly tell a woman caller that she was over eighty. Her face was not one lined with care wrinkles, her hair showed no grey, and her eyes were wonderful in their strength and clearness. Her mouth, to me, appeared to be the least handsome feature of her face, but so changeable was the whole face in expression that it sometimes appeared to better advantage than at others.

Her head was exquisitely shaped, and she dressed her hair in simple Grecian style, thus adding to its classical outlines. The hair was a chestnut brown in color and exceedingly curly. Her hands were flawless in shape and very white, a fact always noted by visitors, for her complexion was not fair, and her skin was coarse in texture and often muddy looking, giving the impression of some internal disorder, and she had not the least color in her cheeks.

Her linguistic accomplishments were remarkable even in a Russian. It was a joy to hear her speak French - and the young Parisians who crowded her parlor on Sunday afternoons and evenings were often heard to remark her accent. I liked to be present at these Sunday afternoon gatherings, for she talked well, and gave much instruction to the young men who were members of the Paris branch of the Theosophical Society.

One incident that occurred at one of these receptions was very interesting. A daring young convert asked her to do some phenomena so that the strangers present might be informed regarding her powers. She was furious in a moment and rebuked him in such a loud voice that every one present turned toward her in silence.

Then, as gently as a child could confess repentance, she meekly said: "If the Masters wish it, I will be permitted." And just here it is but right I should insert this fact: I never heard her take credit to herself for any of the wonderful things she certainly did; she invariably prefaced every performance with some tribute to the Mahatmas, and often deplored the morbid craving of people for an exhibition of such powers as she possessed, saying it would do them no good whatever.

Her sister, Madame Vera Petrovna Jelihovsky, and her aunt, the Countess Nadejda Andreevna Fodeeff, were visiting her at the time, and the former, I think, was in the room when this incident occurred.

Madame Blavatsky rose from her seat on the sofa and with some difficulty - as it seemed - walked across the drawing room and stood in front of a large mirror. She placed both hands upon it, lightly - standing with her back to the company. The young Frenchmen were nearest to her. Suddenly, after a brief interval of silence, a loud crash, followed by what sounded like the falling of broken glass, was heard. I thought the mirror had been broken by her sudden weight against it, but she was not near it, and her hands had rested but lightly upon its surface. There was a general exclamation of surprise and wonder, and the curious ones examined the glass critically. As Madame Blavatsky turned away looking bored and weary, some one suggested that she put her hands on a pane of glass in the large window in the front part of the room. She did so and this time we waited longer than before for results. But finally there came a loud crashing sound, as if some one had struck a mass of glass with a hammer. The glass was unharmed.

The excitement of the Frenchmen knew no bounds; they enthusiastically clapped their hands and beamed upon the "High Priestess," as one of them called her. Their outspoken delight and enthusiasm pleased her; or, rather she seemed aroused to an unusual degree of interest in her guests, and for an hour or more talked so brilliantly that every one was amazed. It was an hour of enchantment to some of her listeners and I doubt if any one of that company ever knew another equal to it, either in her presence, or out of it. I could not sleep that night for thinking of her and of the events of the evening.

The next time I met her she was in one of her towering rages, and was anathematizing the missionaries whom she denounced as bigots and frauds, and the worst representatives of humanity in the East. Some of them represented the Church of England in India, and she knew them to be absolutely ignorant of the spirit of the master they claimed to serve. She denounced Protestants generally, and said the Catholics, because they were more sincere and less irreligious than Protestants, were gaining an influence in the world far greater than the latter understood, or would ever appreciate. The Catholic priests, she said, did work among the poor and try to help the friendless. The Protestant missionaries spent their time splitting questions of doctrine over the corpse of Protestantism. For her part, she said, she cared nothing for either sect; her religion, she defined, as love for humanity and her object in life to establish a Universal Brotherhood.

Then she talked of the Theosophical Society, through which she hoped to be able to accomplish much. Theosophy, she said, was a subject that should interest the best minds of the age; in time, she knew, it would claim the attention of spiritual people the world over. She also said the Society had been founded by herself, Col. Olcott and William Q. Judge, for an unselfish purpose, not on their own initiative, but under guidance and direction of those who had been her teachers in esoteric knowledge.

She had resolved many years before to devote herself to the work she was then engaged in; she desired no other occupation then to serve the Masters; she had been their pupil; had received exceptional favors from them; had lived in total seclusion at their command for nine years in Thibet and had come out into the world again at their bidding. She had no expectations of escaping the fate of those who had lived in the world, and with the world, particularly because her career had been an uncommon one. Her life had been a long one and a strange one; strange to her looking back upon it; as upon a half broken dream. Her visit to Europe, she said, was to see if the Western mind was prepared to learn the Eastern teachings; if so, she could and would open avenues not before accessible to them; but her best efforts she thought would be met with derision and scorn. This was the fate of all devoted workers in every line of spiritual work in all ages.

I soon noted that Madame Blavatsky, whatever else she was, earnestly believed that she had a mission, and I further satisfied myself of the possession by her of a tremendously strong will. She knew how to use it, and when not to exhibit it, and she was either the most communicative or the most silent person I have ever met.

Accompanying this article, and on the first page, is a photograph of Madame Blavatsky with her cigarette, which picture has, perhaps, not before been published.