A deliciously told group biography of the young, rich, American heiresses who married into the impoverished British aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century – the real women who inspired Downton Abbey
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and for the first few years of the twentieth, a strange invasion took place in Britain. The citadel of power, privilege and breeding in which the titled, land-owning governing class had barricaded itself for so long was breached. The incomers were a group of young women who, fifty years earlier, would have been looked on as the alien denizens of another world - the New World, to be precise. From 1874 - the year that Jennie Jerome, the first known 'Dollar Princess', married Randolph Churchill - to 1905, dozens of young American heiresses married into the British peerage, bringing with them all the fabulous wealth, glamour and sophistication of the Gilded Age.
Anne de Courcy sets the stories of these young women and their families in the context of their times. Based on extensive first-hand research, drawing on diaries, memoirs and letters, this richly entertaining group biography reveals what they thought of their new lives in England - and what England thought of them.
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About the Author
Anne de Courcy is the author of several widely acclaimed works of social history and biography, including THE HUSBAND HUNTERS, MARGOT AT WAR, THE FISHING FLEET, THE VICEROY'S DAUGHTERS and DEBS AT WAR. She lives in London and Gloucestershire.
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Where They Came From
The year was 1873 and the Gilded Age was roaring into life. New York seemed to be growing by the minute, new and ever more splendid buildings rising in the centre with ramshackle housing filled by the tide of immigrants spreading outwards. (One tenement in Mulberry Street, home to eighty people, half of whom were children, saturated with filth and vermin, strewn with garbage, was typical. Here raged typhus, diphtheria and smallpox – only nine years earlier, smallpox alone had killed more than 800 New Yorkers.)
In a display of the untrammelled wealth now pouring into the city, gorgeously dressed women, their huge hats wreathed with flowers and feathers kept in place by jewelled hatpins, strolled down Fifth Avenue in the first of the Easter Parades after attending a service in one of the city's fashionable churches, before returning to the houses past which they sauntered. Great palaces of marble, stone and brick, domed, crenellated, with balconies, spires, canopies, were springing up all around, some so huge that they took up a whole block, as did the largest New York town house ever built, that of Cornelius Vanderbilt II on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
As the green shoots of spring appeared, so did the inhabitants of these Fifth Avenue palaces. Between four and five in the afternoon, women put on their smartest dresses and drove in carriages along Fifth Avenue, sometimes stopping for a walk in Central Park. On the first Saturday in May the Coaching Club held its annual parade. Coaches lined up at the meeting place, the Brunswick Hotel (diagonally opposite Delmonico's) until given the starting signal by the president of the Club, women in their best dresses and most beautiful hats, men in their Coaching Club livery of check suits with black coats, tan aprons and red and white buttonholes. Even the horses wore bouquets, attached to their throat-straps.
In the winter there was sleighing and 'everyone' would drive in horse-drawn sleighs in Central Park, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt's sleigh a dark red, with dark red liveries for coachman and footman, dark red plumes and red and gilt tassels.
The air was full of noise, from the clashing of horses' shoes on the cobbles to ships' sirens, the postman's whistle and the explosive noise of one of the countless loose-fitting iron manhole covers as a carriage wheel passed over it. Although rubbish disposal had become a problem and manure, dried to a powder, blew into open windows and the faces of passers-by (the rich, who could afford to transport it, got rid of the manure in their stables by donating it to the city's parks and gardens), there was nothing like the sooty pollution of London.
Gone were the days just over a decade earlier when Central Park was full of Irish squatters, goats, pigs and dogs with them, and piles of rubbish – everything from tin cans to old hoop skirts – who had come to America after the potato famine had struck Ireland. With no hope at home, dying in the fields, the villages and the mountains, millions of Irish had emigrated to America – with a good few speaking only Irish. Many of them were women, young and unmarried, for whom domestic labour was a way out of penury, as well as providing room and board. They were a prime source of servants for the rich of America, whose countrymen and women in general scorned the idea of working as a servant to someone to whom their Constitution declared them equal.
Now the poor had been pushed out of sight and the rich were busy spending their new wealth. That year saw a banquet so extravagant that it made even New Yorkers gasp: its cost was estimated at $3,000 a guest. The host, Edward Luckmeyer, was a rich importer/exporter who had decided to blow a rebate he had received from the government on a single evening.
Down the centre of the table, in a thirty-foot lake surrounded by violet-bordered brooks, grassy glades and lush plants, glided four swans. Around it, a mesh of gold wire from the city's most illustrious jeweller, Tiffany, stretched to the ceiling to prevent their escape. Inside, over the lake, hung golden cages holding songbirds. The only sour note was caused by the swans (borrowed from Prospect Park), which spent most of the evening either fighting or mating.
It was held at Delmonico's, the most famous of New York's temples to extravagance. 'Everyone' went to Delmonico's. Lunching there daily was Mayor Oakey Hall, who might appear in an embroidered waistcoat under a green frock coat with pure gold coins for buttons; Colonel William Mann, proprietor of the society magazine Town Topics and anonymous author of 'The Saunterer', the magazine's dreaded, witty, malicious gossip column; and the glamorous actress Lillian Russell and her paramour 'Diamond Jim' Brady, while the most respectable and exclusive of New York's Gilded Age balls took place regularly in its red and gold ballroom.
Not all New York approved of the rash of new palaces – or new people. 'I wish the Vanderbilts didn't retard culture so thoroughly,' sighed Edith Newbold Jones (later the novelist Edith Wharton), from an 'old New York' family. 'They are entrenched in a sort of thermopylae of bad taste from which apparently no forces on earth can dislodge them.' (She was not much kinder about the brownstone houses in which most of the families like hers lived, saying they made the city look as if it had been coated in cold chocolate sauce.)
The words 'nouveau riche' began to be flung about and as Blanche Oelrichs, another 'old' New Yorker, noticed, her parents and their friends were constantly asking, in plaintive bewilderment, 'Who is he?' or Who is she?' of these wealthy incomers from unknown backgrounds. For in the grandest houses lived the ever-growing band of the city's millionaires and their wives – the would-be upper echelon of the greatest city in America. Would-be' is the right adjective: their struggle to achieve social success was long, hard, bitterly fought and often unsuccessful. Money, it seemed, did not always talk.
* * *
The then upper echelon of New York society consisted of the families who had lived there for generations. They were mainly of Dutch descent – the name Knickerbockers came from the knee-length trousers worn by these early settlers. They had the Dutch virtue of thrift: their solidly based fortunes were mainly in banking and large trading firms or amassed as lawyers, though increasingly real estate played a part.
The leader of this élite group was Mrs William Backhouse Astor, whose husband's great fortune had been founded a good fifty years earlier, thus classifying the Astors as 'old money'. William was a man dedicated to pleasure – horses, drink, yachting and womanising (the last two often together). His wife Caroline ('Lina') Astor was a descendant of one of the original Dutch settlers; née Schermerhorn, she came from an old-established shipping family and she was so determined that she and her husband remained socially impeccable that she tried hard to ensure that his middle name disappeared into oblivion ('backhouse' was one term for a privy).
She was tallish, dark-haired and olive-skinned, plump and imposing, and had those essentials for leadership, a commanding personality coupled with an ability to keep her thoughts and feelings hidden. Her single-minded determination to remain at the pinnacle of society was helped by the fact that her husband was seldom around.
Her 'subjects' lived in solid, unpretentious and heavily curtained brownstone houses between Washington Square and Gramercy Park, with plumply upholstered rosewood furniture and thickly patterned wallpaper; they guarded their privacy and had set ideas about what was 'done' and what was 'not done', such as appearing in public when visibly pregnant. 'We dined at Bessie Sands the night before New Years with Gen'l & Mrs Barton & with Mrs Pellow – but it is my last appearance in public,' wrote one of this caste, the pregnant Anna Robinson, to her sister Pauline du Pont in January 1880. 'I enjoyed it very much, but I think it must be so disagreeable to other people. Minnie Jones wanted us to dine there next, but I told her to ask Beverly without me & then he would come.'
The people they entertained to their plain dinners, eaten at around 7.00 p.m., were each other; after dinner, there were often evening calls, perhaps by some suitable young man interested in the daughter of the house. The idea of a social season, of grand balls in the ballrooms of private houses, of showy, ornate carriages, of driving out to see and be seen, would have produced baffled stares.
Once married, they dressed in dark colours. 'I send you a sample of my dinner dress – it is made of gray silk,' wrote Anna Robinson to her sister, adding, 'did I tell you of my new bonnet? It is jet with two black ostrich tips and a bunch of pink roses on the side & black velvet strings.' Even if the richer among them ordered Paris dresses, these lay unworn in the trunks in which they had been sent over for a year or so – it would not do for a Knickerbocker lady to be up-to-the-minute fashionable – and were usually of sober colours. 'I took my velvet jacket from its repose & my black silk dress & appeared in them,' wrote Anna Robinson. 'I don't think they are more old-fashioned than two years ago.'
* * *
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, huge fortunes began to be made, in steel mills, steam engines, oil, mines, railroads, the grain from the prairies and cattle from the west, preserved meats to feed soldiers, the installation of the telegraph, armaments and real estate. And for those with social aspirations – which meant most of the wives of these men – there was only one place to be: New York. It was quite true that the seat of government was Washington, from which emanated federal laws, but few of the newly rich were interested in politics – in any case, they were too busy making money – and their wives certainly were not. For them, New York was the most exciting and cosmopolitan city in America; and with their millionaire husbands, whose fortunes were growing daily, allowing them free spending on whatever they liked, surely all doors would be open to them?
They soon found that this was not so. If Mrs Astor did not know you, no invitation would ever come your way. Sometimes a son would slip in: an enormously rich young man could perhaps be a husband for one of the plainer or less choosy among the Knickerbocker girls, helped by the fact that there was a perennial shortage of men in New York. 'Poor Victorine has had a dreadful time about the ball tomorrow night,' wrote Anna Robinson. 'It appears it was arranged (without contacting her) that she should take Emily Lesser, Minnie Dale, Clara Elliot & Marie Gothout ... Mr Mane, who is head & front of it, flattered himself that all the ladies are buying new dresses for it ... Of course it will be a great sight but I am afraid apart from that it will be pretty sad not to know a man.'
Huge fortunes did not always help towards social inclusion. Many of the wealthiest families, such as the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Goulds, had to remain outside the palisades. If Mrs Astor did not want to know you, she did not know you.
One such family, the Stewarts, went as far as building a mansion opposite that of Mrs Astor so that she could not avoid seeing them. What perhaps they did not realise was that she so guarded the exclusiveness on which her myth was founded that she would not even go near her own windows lest the crowds that thronged Fifth Avenue hoping to catch a glimpse of the rich and famous should see her.
* * *
Yet at that very moment, as the Gilded Age began, a new social format was being created that would give shape and structure to the fashionable world for the next few decades – and launch those daughters of the newly rich, the real-life 'buccaneers', across the Atlantic. At the heart of the stratagem designed to create what would become known variously as 'Society' and the 'Four Hundred' was one man, a Southerner named Ward McAllister.
As a young man McAllister had been remarkably handsome. At the time he began his remodelling of New York social life, his brown hair was receding and beginning to go grey. His eyes were blue and kindly, his forehead high, his nose aquiline, his chin firm. He was not tall – he was about 5ft 9ins – but he was square-shouldered and stood straight, so that his clothes hung well. He dressed conservatively, with a tall hat and cutaway coat of dark material. Even in an age of social striving, he was known as a snob.
Connected by birth to some of the old New York families, in 1852 he had married an heiress and a few years later had settled in Newport, where his style of entertaining soon began to be copied. He had had a good deal of relevant experience, gained from looking after his family, even down to going to the market – followed by a couple of boys each carrying a huge basket – and thus acquiring a thorough knowledge of game, fish and vegetables, the best time to eat them, and the best way of cooking them. He had also travelled extensively in Europe, where he soaked up everything he could about court and aristocratic customs. On his return to America he determined to become the self-appointed arbiter of its society and the customs it should follow.
He had already been successful in shaping the society of Newport. Now, he decided, it was time to tackle the one city in America pre-eminent in wealth, drawing power, sophistication and general glitter: New York. A man might have made a fortune by planting a Midwest prairie with wheat – but it was to New York that his wife, avid to spend this new wealth, now insisted they move.
McAllister's cleverness lay in realising that the newly rich were there to stay; more and more millionaires appeared each year and the relentless tide of wealth would soon flood the passive Knickerbockers completely – unless something were done about it (not for nothing were these newcomers known as 'the Bouncers'). He also recognised that any society had to have a leader, whom everyone would accept without question – if not, it would degenerate into a formless mass riven by bitter internal struggles.
There was only one person fit for this position and she, although beleaguered by the strivings of 'Bouncer money', as parvenu wealth was called, already occupied it. Caroline Astor would continue to be the queen.
He decided to use the most desirable members of both old and new as the foundation stones of the new order. To select these, he formed a small committee ('there is one rule in life I invariably carry out – never to rely wholly on my own judgment'); a little band that met every day for a month or two at McAllister's house, making lists, adding, whittling down, forming judgements.
Eventually, twenty-five men, all wealthy, some from old families, some from the new rich but all considered to be men of integrity, were chosen and invited to become 'Patriarchs', as they would in future be known. They would give two and sometimes three balls a season, as exquisite as possible, with each Patriarch in return for his subscription of $125 having the right to invite to each ball four ladies and five gentlemen, this number to include himself and his family; all distinguished strangers (up to the number of fifty) would also be asked, their names to be run past McAllister. Everyone asked to be a Patriarch accepted immediately.
As McAllister had rightly foreseen, the exclusiveness of these balls was what gave them their magnetic power. 'We knew ... that the whole secret of the success of these Patriarch Balls lay in making them select ... in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value [so that] one might be sure that anyone repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position.'
The first of the balls was given in the winter of 1872. With them, McAllister achieved absolute social power.
Applications to be made a Patriarch poured in, the great majority turned down but often with the door left tantalisingly ajar. Soon McAllister realised that there was one significant omission from his otherwise highly successful plan. With places at the balls at such a premium, most of the women who came were married – you could not ask an invited husband to leave his wife behind – so that the daughters of even the top families were squeezed out. Such was the press of those anxious to be part of this inner circle that it was clear something would have to be done if rival upstarts were not to launch competition.
Accordingly, McAllister introduced the Junior Patriarchs – known as the Family Circle Dancing Classes – in which all the debutantes were to dance in identical white tulle or, sometimes, in fancy dress. One result was that every morning he was besieged by a stream of mothers desperate to get their daughters in. Well aware that, as for the senior Patriarchs, exclusiveness was vital if the balls were to maintain their prestige and the cohesive social nucleus were not to splinter, he used all his charm and diplomacy to keep mothers at bay.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Husband Hunters"
Copyright © 2017 Anne de Courcy.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. Where They Came From,
2. The 'Buccaneers',
4. The First Duke Captured,
5. Living in the Country,
6. Mrs Paran Stevens,
9. The 'Marrying Wilsons',
10. The Call of Europe,
13. Royal Connections,
14. The Bradley-Martins,
15. Fitting In - or Not,
16. Tennie Claflin: The Odd One Out,
17. The River of Gold,
18. It Was All Too Much,
Also by Anne de Courcy,
About the Author,