Dead But Cool

From befriending Queen Victoria to appearing on Family Guy, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is a modern icon. In his new column, Simon Doonan explains why the long-dead leader is now wildly cool.

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The Original Dandy

Benjamin Disraeli served as chancellor of the exchequer beginning in 1852. Between 1858 and 1859, Parliament came to officially allow Jews—an act that paved the way for Disraeli. As prime minister, he purchased the Suez Canal and represented Great Britain in the Congress of Berlin in 1878, at which he officially acquired Cyprus for the British. Disraeli, who was born a Jew, is thought to have converted to Christianity after his father had a quarrel with their synagogue. As a result, Disraeli invented what The New York Times called a “bogus pedigree” for himself—telling people he had originated in Spain. “Disraeli’s Jewishness,” writes Adam Kirsch in Benjamin Disraeli, was “the central fact about him.” It was “both the greatest obstacle to his ambition and its greatest engine.”

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A ‘Modern Shylock’

In a political cartoon from 1876, Disraeli is portrayed as Aladdin, presenting the crown of India to Queen Victoria. Many contemporary cartoons portrayed him as a “modern Shylock”—with a hooked nose and dense black hair. In illustrations, he was often called the “Evil One.”

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A Bath and a Smoke

Disraeli was the head of the “Turkophile Party,” as he believed that it was in Britain’s best interest to support Ottoman Empire. An 1876 political cartoon portrays him smoking a hookah inside a Turkish bath. He was called everything from a “Turkish Jew” to a “man of the East” for his identification with the Ottomans.

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The Man with the Monocle

British actor George Arliss won an Academy Award in 1929 for his portrayal of the prime minister in the film Disraeli. “Mr. Arliss is on his mettle and he lends to the romantic conception of the great Jew an artistry and vigor that is a joy to behold,” wrote The New York Times shortly after the release of the movie in 1929, noting that the movie included “glimpses of the prime minister’s love of gardening and his peacocks are perceived decorating the lawn and the steps of his home.”

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Cheap Imitations

John Gielgud portrayed Disraeli in the 1941 adaptation of his life, The Prime Minister, with British actress Fay Compton as Queen Victoria. But Gielgud didn’t come close to the work of his predecessor: “The young man has failed woefully to present a convincing or captivating character is simply to say that he is being repaid for his audacity,” sniped a 1942 review. “For no one can play Disraeli as George Arliss plays himself.”