‘An English peer of very old title is desirous of marrying at once a very wealthy lady, her age and looks are immaterial…’ This desperate advertisement in the Daily Telegraph in 1901 was a barometer of the impoverishment of many British aristocrats following the Long Depression of 1873–80; dependent on agriculture, the landed gentry continued to reel from those seven consecutive failed harvests.
Meanwhile, America’s prairies and railroads had never produced so much wheat, cattle, oil or wealth. Not only that, there was a sizeable number of extremely rich, sassy girls, whose mothers, several of them ex-chambermaids, viewed a European title as a path out of social ostracism in New York — the ‘one place to be’ for anyone with social aspirations. As Anne de Courcy puts it in this hugely entertaining chronicle of cash for coronets, ‘the simplest way for a family to elevate itself into the top level of New York society was through the strategic marriage of a daughter’. In the calculation of the New York World: ‘a real live count’ was a sure passport ‘into the innermost of the inner circles’. Immaterial to the determined Yankee mother was the count’s age or looks. Between 1870 and 1914, 454 American girls married titled Europeans, 102 British aristocrats, six dukes. ‘It was,’ writes de Courcy, ‘a real invasion.’
Like most invasions, it began as a tale of exclusion. The self-appointed Cerberus of American high society was Caroline Astor, married to a man who was a) descended from a German fur trader, and b) had a middle name ‘Backhouse’ that was one word for a privy. She was assisted in her vetting by a shimmeringly snobbish amanuensis called Ward McAllister, who had read some books on heraldry and precedence, and whose adapted tosh became canon law. ‘If you are stout, never wear a conspicuous watch chain; if you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend the dinner.’
Without a pasteboard invitation to Mrs Astor’s Fifth Avenue home, you might as well have been dead. Caroline, who liked to dress up as Marie Antoinette, was proof that money did not always talk. A snub from this hostess could make even astronomical wealth appear suddenly quite dumb. Hence the appeal of Europe. Throughout this Gilded Age, ‘I’m educating my daughter in France’ became code for ‘Mrs Astor hasn’t invited me to her ball’.
Aside from offering a garnish of education, France — Versailles in particular — was the go-to model for New York fashion and furnishings. Rendered an outcast by her divorce — ‘ladies usually left the room’ if the taboo word was uttered — the plump and pugnacious Alva Vanderbilt copied the Grand Trianon for her holiday home in Newport. Here, within its marble walls, she imprisoned her 17-year-old daughter Consuelo until she agreed to marry the ‘almost broke’ Duke of Marlborough. When he finally proposed on the last night of his visit, Alva instructed her servants: ‘Go out and tell everyone you know.’ From Paris, she had already ordered her daughter’s wedding dress — designed by Empress Eugénie’s dressmaker, Charles Worth, a Lincolnshire solicitor’s son, who had started his professional life as a shop assistant at Swan & Edgar. Not even Mrs Astor would dare refuse entry to the mother-in-law of a duke.
Unlike in England, where a daughter was dependent on her parents for her place in society, a daughter in America could catapult you upwards. ‘The young girl is the aristocracy, the luxury, the art, the crown of American society,’ gushed the North American Review. An American heiress tended to be better educated, better dressed and better complexioned than her English counterpart, unhampered by caste and tradition, and with a vivacity, self-confidence and an appetite to spend that proved lethal.
On a visit to London, the golden-haired Maud Burke, later Emerald Cunard, went walking in the woods with the writer George Moore. Her ‘pale marmoreal eyes glowing’, she looked at him steadily, and said: ‘You can make love to me now, if you like.’ This was fresh air indeed to a generation of British manhood taught by Dr William Acton that ‘the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’.
Possessing all that her English sister lacked, an American girl was ‘a revelation to the Englishman’, observed Cornelius Vandebilt’s lawyer, Chauncey Depew. ‘She gives him more pleasure in one hour, at a dinner or a ball, than he thought the universe could produce in a whole lifetime. Speedily he comes to the conclusion that he must marry her or die.’ When Jennie Jerome, the Worth-clad daughter of a Brooklyn speculator, caught the attention of Lord Randolph Churchill at Cowes, he proposed to her three days later.
Their marriage in 1874 marked the first landfall of these belles (and by and by produced Winston) — to be followed in 1876 by the marriages of Consuelo Yznaga, a Cuban heiress, to the bankrupt heir of the Duke of Manchester; Minnie Stevens (the daughter of a Massachussetts chambermaid who had met her hotelier husband while cleaning one of his rooms) to Arthur Paget (1878); and Mary Leiter to the future Viceroy of India, George Curzon (1895).
As with her book on Curzon’s daughters, de Courcy conceals her research with a couturier’s touch. Her prose swishes and rustles like a flounced taffeta petticoat. She knows that this is a lot of balls, as it were, but she relishes the dance cards, the flower arrangements, the menus, the strings of jewellery, all the stuff that made these matriarchs tick. Their obsession with climbing the icy cliff-face of New York society might seem pointless to us, ‘comic and tragic in its stultifying boredom’, yet she brings their ascent racily alive — their descent, too.
A rude shock awaited American brides. For one thing, England’s climate was as diabolical as English plumbing. At Coombe, the only time that Cornelia Bradley-Martin, the new Countess of Craven, took off her furs ‘is when I go to bed’. Expected to sponge herself in a schoolboy’s tin tub, Mary Curzon’s sister Daisy, who had married the Earl of Suffolk, installed an eight-tapped bath from Chicago.
Ignorance of these women’s culture was profound and patronising. Mary Curzon’s father-in-law enquired: ‘Do you have sea fish in America?’ Stuck in the country while their husbands spent their money, they soon wilted. Consuelo, the reluctant new Duchess of Marlborough, wrote after another winter at Blenheim, which her dowry had helped to restore: ‘From my window, I overlooked a pond in which a former butler had drowned himself. As one gloomy day succeeded another, I began to feel a deep sympathy for him.’ Mary Curzon summed up the general feeling. ‘Oh! the unhappiness I see around me here in England among American women.’
This age of ‘gilded prostitution’, as a hostile press called it, ended as it had begun, with a costume ball in New York. Held in 1907 in the Waldorf Hotel by the now matronly Cornelia Bradley-Martin, and costing $7 million, it featured 50 Marie Antoinettes, including the hostess who, though wearing the French queen’s actual jewellery, resembled ‘a dumpy lighthouse’. Thereafter, a revulsion set in that was characterised by one American father who declared ‘only contempt for these helpless, lifeless men that cross the ocean to carry off the very flower of our womanhood’. Still, this short-lived phenomenon had its impact, and not merely on the refurbishment of country houses. His daughter, who had married the feckless Jim Roche, bankrupt heir presumptive of the barony of Fermoy, would become the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Nicholas Shakespeare is a a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.