Monday, December 5, 2016

American Heiresses of Britain

In the 2015 American Gothic romance film, Crimson Peak, the heroin is the daughter of a wealthy businessman in New York. She marries the hero, who is a poor nobleman from England who has come to the United States in search of investors to finance for his latest invention. The story is fictional, but the situation described here was very common in the late 19th century. Many British aristocrats struggling financially married wealthy American heiresses to maintain their lifestyle. These unions between Old World fortune-hunting aristocracy and New World title-seeking money would be dubbed The Transatlantic Marriages.

Towards the end of the 19th century, America's economy was growing at a rapid pace and the country produced many billionaires. American businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built railways; Andrew Carnegie, who produced steel, and Isaac Singer, who made sewing machines were all born into middle-class families but grew up to become successful billionaires. Meanwhile, Britain was facing an agricultural depression due to the rise of cheap transportation thanks to the invention of steamships. As a result, members of the British aristocracy who had lived wealthy lives for generations were now facing dwindling income. 

Eventually, many wealthy American families married off their daughters to the sons of British aristocrats of that time. It was a good deal. These British aristocratic families would gain financially through the dowries to restore their lifestyles. In return, these American heiresses received the only two things their rich families could not buy them - a grand title and a high social status. The most famous of these 19th century American heiresses was Consuelo Vanderbilt, the daughter of the American railway billionaire Willie Vanderbilt. She married Sunny, Duke of Marlborough, in New York in 1895 in what many consider the wedding of the year. On that same year, nine other American heiresses married members of the British aristocracy. 

Another such American heiress was Mary Leiter, the daughter of a wealthy department store owner from Chicago. She married Lord Curzon, with a dowry of £1.5 million. Consuelo’s dowry was two times more than that. Then of course, there was the  daughter of a New York real-estate developer Jennie Jerome, She married the brother of the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Randolph Churchill. If that name rings a bell, then you would know she would go on to become the mother of Britain's historic wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. Thanks to her beauty, political activeness and scandals, she become one of the most famous Americans to have ever lived in Britain

Before Consuelo and her peers, Minnie Stevens, daughter of Massachusetts hotel proprietors, famously married into the British aristocracy and became Minnie Paget, With her new found title, she secured her place so firmly within both British and American high society that she not only become close friends with the Prince of Wales himself, but even brokered other prolific Transatlantic unions. Even Consuelo's match was one of the many which Minnie arranged for. 

Transatlantic matches became a trend in those days so much so that an entire industry of professional matchmakers was born. If an American heiress wanted to become a British aristocrat, she had to buy magazines like the one called The Titled American which contained a list of American ladies who have married foreigners with titles. The magazine also published lists of eligible aristocratic European bachelors and widowers with titles complete with details of their age, property and titles. 

So, why were these American heiresses so interested in titles and social status? Why were they willing to give up exciting lives in the New World that was America and move back to the land of their ancestors in Europe? Wasn't their families' great wealth enough? Well, in upper-class American society of that time, everybody was rich. So, just having money was not enough to stand out. Having a title would further boost one's image. But America is a republic ever since it kicked out the British years ago. It does not have a royal family or aristocrats like European countries. Therefore, with many British aristocrats waiting in line to marry into rich families to restore their families' wealth, it was definitely a match made in heaven - literally. Apart from their immense wealth, American heiresses had other appealing factors as well compared to their British counterparts. Queen Victoria's son, the Prince of Wales summed up the sentiments of young British aristocrats of that day when he said, ‘American girls are livelier, better educated, and less hampered by etiquette. They are not so squeamish as their English sisters and they are better able to take care of themselves.’ 

But not was all happy and dandy for the American heiresses. In most cases, they ended up being just like the heroine in Crimson Peak. They would be isolated from the rest of the world in big, countryside mansions that might fall apart anytime with no proper heating and no modern bathrooms. This is especially true in Mary Leiter's case. After moving into Lord Curzon's mansion in Britain, she was shocked to learn that she had to bathe in a bath made of tin with hot water brought upstairs by the housemaid from the kitchen. Cornelia Martin, who married the Earl of Craven, complained that her husband's house was so cold that she only took off her fur when she went to bed. Mildred Sherman of Ohio, who became Lady Camoys, could not stand going to dinner every night in an evening dress because of the cold temperature. These conditions would have definitely been primitive to American heiresses brought up with proper steam heating and daily hot showers.

These American heiresses also did not understand British culture and hierarchy. For instance, Consuelo's butler was deeply offended when she asked him to light the fireplace, since this was a menial job meant for a footman. But this was not the biggest problem she faced. Her entire marriage was an unhappy one from the start. She was blackmailed into marrying the Duke by her mother and had to give up the boy she truly loved. On her honeymoon, she also learned the only reason the Duke married her was for her money to keep his estate going. Despite this, Consuelo and the Duke had two sons but started to live apart and eventually got divorced. This marriage was such an unfortunate one that it became a symbol of the socially advantageous, but loveless marriages of that time. 

However, some of these marriages were successful. Like for Mary Leiter who married Lord Curzon. He needed her fortune to maintain his estate in Kedleston Hall, the largest private house in England and also to finance his political career. This paid off when Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India. As the First Lady of India, Mary became the highest-ranking American in the history of the British Empire. Another successful Transatlantic marriage was that of May Goelet, an American heiress who married the Duke of Roxburghe in 1903. He made it clear to the media that he was not a gold digger, although his wife's fortune was a great blessing to him. Mary had a great life at her husband's estate.

Not all American heiresses remained mere socialites with their father's money and their husband's titles. Take Nancy Langhorne Shaw for example. This Virginia-born divorcée married William Waldorf Astor, a member of the British branch of the renowned Astor family. She moved to Britain and eventually became the first female Member of Parliament. Despite this achievement, she is more famous for her outdated views on race, religion, gender and slavery.

The most successful of these Transatlantic marriages did not involve an impoverished British aristocrat at all. Instead, it involved the very much wealthy King of the United Kingdom - King Edward VIII, who married the twice-divorced member of a prominent Maryland family, Wallis Simpson. The Church of England did not approve of their King marrying a divorced woman. As a result, Edward famously abdicated so that he could be with the woman he loved. 

The Transatlantic Marriage lost its appeal after the First World War. By the 1940s, poor British aristocrats had fallen out of style and the newer generation of American heiresses preferred local movie stars. Grand titles lost their appeal when compared to international fame. As a result of these Transatlantic Marriages, a quarter of the British House of Lords had American connections by the end of the century. During those three decades when American heiresses were willing to move to Britain, they managed to directly and indirectly leave their mark in the land of their forefathers. They brought about almost $25 billion into the British economy and helped preserve many stately homes that are now popular tourist sites that still contribute to the tourism industry. They even produced two of the most famous Britons of the 20th century: Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.

Some famous American heiresses related through marriage into British aristocracy include:

1) Consuelo Montagu, Duchess of Manchester (godmother of Consuelo Vanderbilt)

2) Jeanette, Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill's mother)

3) Consuelo Vanderbilt (married to Winston Churchill's first cousin)

4) Gladys Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (married to Winston Churchill's first cousin)

5) Frances Ellen Work (protégé of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Princess Diana's great-grandmother)

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