The Gilded Age was the post-Civil War period when a new generation of powerful industrial magnates emerged in America. These captains of industry became phenomenally wealthy. They could buy all the gold and the glitter for their families but not social status. In the 19th century, the nouveau riche were not accepted in the old Knickerbocker New York society and soon turned further east to realize their social ambitions.
From 1870 until the first World War, throngs of incredibly rich, beautiful and smartly dressed American girls dubbed the "Dollar Princesses" crossed the Atlantic in search of titled husbands. 454 landed their quarry but only 100 managed to marry into the British peerage.The rest settled for Continental European aristocrats. The biggest catches were the British peers of the realm (in descending order of rank) either a Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, or Baron.You'd think from all the romance novels there was an abundance of Dukes. But there are actually only 27 Dukedoms and at any one time, just 2-3 heirs are "available". Six American girls did marry Dukes- five were heiresses (the sixth was a showgirl). In turn, the peers not only gained wives to begat their heirs but more importantly to refill their empty coffers. Keeping up appearances and owning a castle or two was expensive business. As newcomers in a strange new land, their lives intertwined and many became friends. Here are some of the stories of the leading petticoat and corset wave of American women who cut a swarth through stodgy 19th century English society.
One of the first women to pave the way for the others was the beautiful, intelligent and witty Jennie Jerome (1854-1921) the daughter of US financier, Leonard Jerome. She met the slight but charismatic Lord Randolph Churchill at a ball. Theirs was a whirlwind romance - he proposed and was accepted 3 days later. The engagment horrified both sets of parents. Hers, because neither Randolph nor her asked them as was the custom. And his, because the bride to be was American not English. Fortunately, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII smoothed things over for Jennie and all the heiresses to come. He had a thing for pretty women and Americans "because they are original and bring fresh air into Society". Jennie became Lady Randolph Churchill, no more, for Randolph, a younger son, was not the heir. Jennie was a tremendous help to the political careers of her husband and one of her sons - Britain's greatest Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill. Despite her tattoo and toyboys, Churchill's mother made a serious contribution to British life, says Cassandra Jardine. She was a pioneer of toyboys, taking a series of lovers and husbands the same age or younger than her eldest son. She had a snake racily tattooed around her wrist and was known as the "panther" because of her dark beauty. Despite not being British, she was the first woman of significance in British parliamentary politics and her first husband nearly became Prime Minister. Her son, who lived that ambition for her, has been voted "Greatest Briton".
Jennie Jerome (1854-1921)
She started her own magazine, the Anglo-Saxon Review, whose contributors included Henry James and George Bernard Shaw. She was also the inspiration for Edith Wharton's novel The Buccaneers, about American girls entering London society in the 1870s. In later life, she not only raised funds for a hospital ship, she also sailed in it to South Africa to nurse the wounded of the Boer War. In all, Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, was quite a woman but by the time he became Prime Minister in 1940 the influence of this difficult but extraordinary woman upon her indomitable son had largely been forgotten. Now, courtesy of a new exhibition at the American Museum in Britain, she is emerging from the footnotes of history as the first and most important of the "Dollar Princesses" - the glamorous daughters and sisters of the wealthy refuseniks of New York society who flocked to London at the turn of the 20th century and enriched this country in more ways than one. Girls like Jennie Jerome, whose father was a financier, were considered nouveaux riches by Mrs William Backhouse Astor, who ruled over the list of 400 families admitted into polite New York society. In London, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII; probably one of Jennie's many lovers) was not so snobbish. He loved these young Americans who were far more dashing and independent than English girls. British aristocrats, too, flocked to court them. With daddies enriched by the railroads and industries of America, the Dollar Princesses were prepared to trade their wealth for British titles. Dukes and earls snapped them up, using their dollars to shore up houses and estates impoverished by the agricultural depression of the 1870s. By 1904 these girls had contributed an estimated £40 million to the economy, the equivalent of more than £1 billion today. But this flock of golden geese was treated with suspicion. "In England, the American woman was looked upon as a strange and abnormal creature with habits and manner something between a red Indian and a Gaiety Girl," Jennie wrote in her diaries, published in 1908. "Anything of an outlandish nature might be expected of her. If she talked, dressed and conducted herself as any well-bred woman would... she was usually saluted with the tactful remark; 'I should never have thought you were an American' - which was intended as a compliment... Her dollars were her only recommendation."
Other dollar princesses included Consuelo Yznaga (Duchess of Manchester), Mary Leiter (Lady Curzon, vicereine of India), Consuelo Vanderbilt (Duchess of Marlborough), Mary Goelet (Duchess of Roxburghe) and Cara Rogers (Lady Fairhaven). Jennie Jerome's marital prize was not as glittering as some others - Lord Randolph Churchill, whom she agreed to marry after only a three-day acquaintance, was merely the younger son of the Duke of Marlborough. But he was malleable and after their marriage in 1874 he allowed her to not only to campaign for his parliamentary seat but to write his speeches for him, prompting democratic Toryism. This she did to such good effect that by 1886 he was Chancellor and tipped to become Prime Minister. He resigned suddenly, saying the demands of the naval and military establishments were unreasonable. His wife learnt about it from her morning paper. "Quite a surprise for you," he remarked. After that, he became increasingly deranged due, probably, to syphilis, while Jennie amused herself with a string of lovers. After his death in 1895, she took two further husbands. Though a crucial support to Winston in his political career, at the time of her death, three years after the end of the First World War, his reputation was at its nadir. Jennie's tragedy was not living long enough to enjoy her son's glory years, but there was nothing dull or wasted about her life. Resurrected from obscurity, she deserves reconsideration in an age when her more shocking doings are so run of the mill that they need no longer overshadow her more serious contribution to history.
Consuelo Yznaga (Duchess of Manchester)
Consuelo once said to a friend, "England is all right for splendor but dead slow for fun." With her natural wit and liveliness, she took Society by storm and was soon became a popular hostess at the highest social circles. Entertaining the perpetually bored Prince of Wales was a full-time job. For all her social success though, Consuelo paid dearly for her impulsive marriage and the right to be called the Duchess of Manchester. Her husband was a drunk, womanizer and spendthrift. Her unhappy marriage was full of money woes and compounded by the loss of her two beautiful twin daughters to illness and disappointment in her son who turned out even worse than his father. Consuelo's son, William, also known as Kim, the 9th Duke of Manchester, followed his father's footsteps and married another heiress, Helena Zimmerman (1879-1971). Her father, millionaire Eugene Zimmerman initially objected, " I want my daughter to marry some thoroughbred American. I want no Duke for a son-in-law." But Helena was young and starry-eyed for fame and got her way. What she didn't bargain for was her lying, debt ridden, publicity hungry husband who not only spent her money but constantly embarrassed her in the newspapers with his ridiculous get rich schemes. He was so bad when her father and his mother died, their wills made sure Kim didn't get a single penny.
The magnificient Manchester diamond tiara shown above (picture by Swamibu ) was designed by Cartier and was worn by both Consuelo Yznaga and Helena Zimmerman. Helena wore it at the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902 who succeeded his mother, Queen Victoria. Helena is shown here wearing her full coronation robes. She looks pretty grim probably because of the heavy tiara. Queen Alexandra, Edward's consort, could wear heavy diadems with effortless style but she was exceptional. One Lady Barnstaple was quoted, "I've seen women turn actually grey under the weight of their tiaras." At a coronation, peeresses wear a special coronet which is a small crown. The design for each rank is different. Helena's picture doesn't show it but she probably wore a coronet within the tiara for the ceremony. King Edward enjoyed the moment after the coronation of his Queen when all the peeresses simultaneously put on their coronets. He was reminded of a ballet scene with the graceful movement of feminine arms, rustling robes and glittery jewels.
George Spencer Churchill, the 8th Duke of Malborough, known as Blandford, was the older brother of Lord Randolph Churchill. He took note of his brother's marriage to an American heiress and crossed the Atlantic to find himself one. Lily Hammersley (1854-1909), a wealthy widow, made sure he found her. He needed to marry money as the duchal coffers were empty.
Lily Hammersley (1854-1909)
The American press were not impressed, "Everything his Grace of Malborough brought with him was clean, except his reputation". Indeed, he was a perennially "wicked boy" as the Prince of Wales called him. He was unfaithful to his first wife and worse, his adulterous affairs became public. He was ostracised by the Royal Family and thus the rest of society. Lily Hammersley was not just rich - her first husband left her millions - but she was kind, gentle and a woman bred to soothe a man's ego. She probably made the mistake of thinking she could change her husband AND get to be a Duchess. What she didn't know until too late, was how hollow that title was. Society's doors were shut to her due to her husband's unsavory reputation. Also by this time, English aristocratic mamas were getting really tired of seeing their daughters' marital prospects evaporate with each incoming American bride. Even Lily's new home, Bleinheim Palace was no comfort. It was huge and not homely at all. She had to spend a lot of money to update the cold, drafty place. Blandford also hurt her deeply by continuing with his scandalous ways. He even brought a mistress home as a guest. Despite it all, Lily still mourned him when he died of a heart attack. Such was her generous and sweet personality, his family counted her as one of them for the rest of her life. She and Blandford had no children together but she was loving and maternal to her stepson, Charles Spencer-Churchill, the next Duke of Malborough known as Sunny and he was fond of her. Sunny too had to seek a rich wife.
Gertrude Vanderbuilt in an Artist Studio
Gertrude Vanderbilt understood too well what it was really like to be an heiress. She wrote poignantly in her diary, "There is no one in all the world who loves her for herself. No one." She ended up marrying the equally wealthy boy next door. Her cousin, Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964) was not so lucky because she had an exceedingly pushy mama.
Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964)
Consuelo Vanderbilt was named after Consuelo Yznaga who happened to be her mother, Alva Vanderbilt's best friend from childhood. Alva was a frightfully domineering and socially ambitious mother who had grand plans for her daughter's future. Consuelo wrote in her autobiography, how much she hated the back brace she was forced to wear in childhood. At any rate, she did grow up to be a 5' 9" willowy beauty with a pert nose and long swan-like neck - perfect for pearls. Her mother forced her to marry the 5' 6" Sunny, the 9th Duke of Malborough even though Consuelo loved another man. Alva did everything in her power to make it happen. She even locked Consuelo up in her room at one point and pretended her daughter's refusal was making her ill. Consuelo caved and wept at the altar. The public though lapped up every detail of the wedding much like celebrity weddings today. Sunny and Consuelo were an ill-matched couple. Sunny once told a friend he didn't like tall women but he was willing enough to marry one for her millions. He was conceited, arrogant, boorish and did not appreciate his wife's intelligence and her social work. The marriage eventually broke up after the requisite heir and spare were born.
They may have married nobles, worn scads of jewels but many did not find love with their marriages. Jennie Churchill and Consuelo Manchester didn't have happy marriages and took on lovers. The Prince of Wales was Consuelo's lover. He was positively lecherous. He enjoyed looking over each season's debutantes but kept his hands off them. Married women though were fair game. Jennie went on to marry much younger men after her husband died of syphilis. Some did find happiness later on with their next husbands - Consuelo Vanderbilt with Jacques Balsan, a handsome Frenchman. She reconciled with her bossy mother Alva and in a wierd twist of fate, both women championed the rights of women later on. Helena's second husband, the 10th Earl of Kintore gave her a quiet, private life. Lily Hammersley married the decorated soldier, Lord William Beresford who not only gave her the social status she craved but finally a son as well when she was 43. Her happiness was short-lived for she became a widow for a third time after about 5 years of marriage.
American-born Heiress Mary Goelet, Duchess of Roxburghe (seated) at a Ball in June 1912
Only one American duchess, May Goelet, married her Prince Charming, the handsome six foot Scot, Henry John Innes-Ker, the 8th Duke of Roxburghe known as Kelso by his family. He was exactly the kind of duke written about in romance novels - a fine man, true to the word "noble". He didn't gamble away the family fortune. Indeed, he was rich enough not to need to marry for money.
May was the wealthiest heiress of them all - her father was Ogden Goelet, the real estate magnate. With $20 million dollars to her name, she was constantly surrounded by suitors. What caught May's attention was Kelso's cool detachment - he refused to be part of the milling male crowd around her. Their courtship took time to develop in private and when they did marry, it was as a couple who were quite sure of each other. May gloried in her new home, the magnificient Floors Castle in Scotland and made it her task to transform the castle to its former glory with fine art and furnishings. Kelso was delighted with the result. She was much admired and her name is still spoken with respect there. She also got to wear the fabulous Roxburghe emeralds. The one thing that marred their early happiness was the lack of children but after 10 years of marriage, Kelso's son and heir was born. He grew up to be like his father but unlike him, he chose a British bride.