Money for Titles: The American Dollar Princesses
by Ellen Micheletti
Stately homes need large amounts of money poured into them to keep them from becoming stately ruins. For years, the nobility and gentry of England lived on the rents paid by the tenants of their estates. As long as England was primarily an agricultural country and there was no such thing as income tax, the owners of these estates had a good thing going (provided they had a good manager). When the country began the process of changing from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing one and income and inheritance taxes came into the picture, a lot of landowners had some real cash flow problems. Of course they could have gone to work, but there are some things a gentlemen does not do.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Civil War had made some Americans very, very rich. These newly rich Americans wanted the respectability that money could not buy. Nouveau riche families like the Vanderbilts and Goulds were routinely snubbed by old-money Americans like the Astors, even though these newly rich families could buy and sell the most of the older families many times over. When cash-poor British and European aristocrats met wealthy, title-hungry Americans, marriage often followed.
I'm going to tell about a few of the trans-Atlantic marriages between American so-called "dollar princesses" and impoverished British and European nobility. These marriages were mostly a trade of money for title and very few of them were happy.
One of the first of these trans-Atlantic marriages was between Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. Unlike some of the later marriages between rich American girls and poor aristocrats, this one was based on love - or at least infatuation. Neither family approved of the match. Jennie's wealthy family thought that if she was going to marry into the aristocracy, at least marry an heir, not a younger son. As for Lord Randolph's family - Jennie was (horrors) an American! However, love carried the day and they were married. Seven months later, Jennie had a son, Winston Churchill, and later another son, Jack. She and her husband became prominent members of London Society and were associated with the Prince of Wales' Marlborough House Set.
Jennie was an extraordinarily beautiful and charming woman whose skills as a hostess and campaigner were invaluable to her husband in his political career. Lord Randolph spent his whole life in the House of Commons and eventually became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Great things were expected of him and many members of his party thought that he would eventually become Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Lord Randolph lacked tact and diplomacy. He interposed himself into a quarrel between his brother and the Prince of Wales, forgetting that royalty is never wrong, which resulted in his and Jennie's banishment from Society for some time. Lord Randolph quarreled with the senior members of his party, lost his position, and never fulfilled his early political promise. He died of syphilis at the age of forty six. As for Jennie, she remained beautiful and charming her whole life long. Jennie married twice after the death of Lord Randolph, both times to men younger than her son Winston. At her death, Winton Churchill said of her, "She shone like the evening star."
Later, an American heiress did snag a Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo Vanderbilt was the daughter of William Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva. The Vanderbilt family was one of the richest in the world, but to old-money Americans, they were nothing but upstarts. Alva Vanderbilt was a ferociously ambitious woman. She was determined that her beautiful daughter would marry into the nobility. Alva took over every aspect of Consuelo's education, training her in grace and deportment. Consuelo was a beautiful young woman - tall and elegant with a long, swan-like neck. The clothes of the period, with their long flowing lines and high collars, accented her beauty and she was quickly noticed by several wealthy, upper-crust young men. Mrs. Vanderbilt would not allow her daughter to keep company with any of these young men, no matter how rich they were or how good their lineage. She was holding out for a member of the British nobility, preferably a Duke. Consuelo did manage to meet one of these young men, Winthrop Rutherfurd, on the sly and fell in love with him. When she told her mother, Mrs. Vanderbilt threw a temper-fit of volcanic proportions and threatened to have a heart attack. Consuelo, who was thoroughly cowed, gave up Mr. Rutherfurd.
The Duke of Marlborough was called Sunny by his friends. This was not due to his disposition, which tended to the morose and taciturn. He lived in Blenheim Palace, a huge white elephant which was slowly falling apart (for more on Blenheim and the English version of this story, click here). It had so many windows, it took the window washers a year to finish, and then they just started over. It had fourteen acres of leaky roof, and gardens that were choked with weeds. The Duke needed money. Enter Alva and her beautiful daughter. Alva arranged for them to meet at every opportunity. The Duke proposed and Consuelo accepted (she didn't dare not). The marriage produced two sons but was unhappy for both parties. Consuelo did not like her husband's condescending attitude toward Americans, nor his air of superiority. She hated the toadying she received because of her position. Consuelo wrote that it was all she could do not to laugh when an unctuous official once asked her, "Would you care to say grace, Your Grace?" The Duke and his family thought that Consuelo was spoiled and unappreciative of the Marlborough name and heritage. it was a sad situation all around.
To escape from the unhappiness of her marriage, Consuelo became involved in political and women's issues. She spent most of her time in her London house and away from the Duke and Blenheim Palace. She and the Duke were separated for twelve years and later divorced. Consuelo spent millions of dollars to renovate Blenheim Palace, but she always hated the place. Consuelo married a Frenchman named Jacques Balsan and her second marriage was very happy. As for the Duke, he too re-married, to Gladys Deacon, but his second marriage was also very unhappy.
George Curzon was the son of a landowning parson/squire. He had an unhappy childhood, due to a sadistic nanny. When he went away to school to Eton and later Cambridge, his teachers discovered he had a brilliant mind. Curzon went into politics and quickly rose in the ranks. People did not like him - he was arrogant in the extreme - but they did respect him.
Curzon wanted the position of Viceroy of India, but the man in that position had to have money and he had none. Curzon became acquainted with a charming American girl named Mary Leiter, who was the daughter of Levi Leiter, one of the founders of the Marshall Fields department store. Mary was beautiful, kind, rich, and she worshipped the water Curzon walked on. Their marriage and Mary's wealth brought Curzon the position of Viceroy of India and the title of Baron, later upped to Marquis. As the Viceroy, Curzon was loved by the Indians, but hated by the British army and most of the other bureaucrats of the Empire. He had good ideas and was an excellent administrator, but he was arrogant and imperious with his subordinates. His marriage turned out to be a very happy one. Curzon married Mary for her money, but later came to love and depend on her. Mary, for her part, was totally subservient to her husband and deferred to him in all things. Mary was never in very good health and her early death left her husband devastated. After Mary's death, Curzon carried on a long love affair with the author, Elinor Glyn. Mrs. Glyn wrote romantic and passionate novels and was famous for her book Three Weeks which had a scene of torrid love-making on a tiger skin. It may not have been a coincidence that Curzon gave Mrs. Glyn a tiger skin as a present. Mrs. Glyn had hoped that Curzon would marry her, but he married another rich American, Grace Duggan. Grace and Curzon loved each other but she was not as compliant as Mary had been. When Curzon got too autocratic, Grace would go travelling. Still the marriage was happy.
Not all wealthy Americans married into the British nobility. At least one found her nobleman in France. Anna Gould was the daughter of Jay Gould, one of the wealthiest men in the world. His daughter Anna, was not very good looking. She was short, petulant, and plain, but her money made her very attractive especially to Boniface, Count of Castellane. The marriage between these two characters was the best example of a marriage entered into for money on his part and a title on hers. It was also a complete and total failure. If there had been tabloids at that time, Anna and Boni would never have been out of them. After their marriage, Boni began to spend money on a scale that was beyond extravagant. He bought homes and furnished them with the choicest of art and antiques. He bought a 1600 ton yacht that required a crew of over ninety. Boni was fond of giving lavish parties in beautifully decorated houses with the best food and fine wines. When Anna had her 21st birthday, Boni gave her a party for 3,000 guests, featuring fireworks, a ballet of 80 dancers, and an orchestra of 200 musicians.
All this spending angered the Goulds. Rich as they were, this was just too much for them. They set out to wage a public campaign against Boni, portraying him as a spendthrift (not hard to do). Boni loftily proclaimed that his spending was good for trade, but since he had the nobleman's disinclination to pay his bills, the tradesmen were not impressed. Finally Anna had had enough of Boni's spending and his flagrant infidelity, and left him. She obtained a divorce and married the Duc de Tallyrand who had his own money. Anna's second marriage was a happy one. As for Boni, he lived out his life in faded splendor.
Today, many of the expensive-to-maintain homes of the formerly-wealthy have been turned into museums and tourist attractions, including the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheim Palace. It is no longer considered a disgrace for a nobleman to work. Earl Nelson of Trafalgar is a police detective, and even Prince Edward has a job. Marriages for money do still occur, but they no longer command newspaper headlines. Of course, if any of Queen Elizabeth's sons marry a wealthy (or even not wealthy) American, the ink will flow!
||Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
||Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants