Elisabeth Kehoe brings to life a sweeping, three-generational saga of the remarkable Jerome sisters among the most glamorous women of their time whose well-chosen marriages to British aristocracy represented the first of such transatlantic unions. Although full of princely lovers, balls, house parties, and diamond brooches, the story’s heart is the intensely supportive and beautifully affectionate relationship between the sisters. Waves of grave financial hardship afflicted them all, but they always rallied to rescue one another. Beginning in 1840s America and ending one hundred years later in the middle of World War II when the British nation was fighting for survival under the leadership of Jennie’s son, Winston Churchill, this biography presents an epic story of family and fortune that encompasses both the apogee and the twilight of the British Empire.
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By Elisabeth Kehoe
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Elisabeth Kehoe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMrs Astor's New York
Clara and Jennie Jerome spent their childhood in New York. Their father Leonard Jerome began his love affair with the city in 1850, at the age of thirty-two, irresistibly drawn to a place where an ambitious young man could make his mark and his fortune. The company of other like-minded entrepreneurs, who gave themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of their dreams, was like a tonic to him. He missed New York when he was away and revelled in everything it had to offer when he was there. It was a city that he made his own from the day in 1850 when he brought his young bride to live in Brooklyn, until the day he left for the last time, in 1890, a sick old man on his way to die in England, where he could once again be in the company of his wife and daughters, who had all chosen to make their homes in Europe.
New York was emblematic of the brash new nation that America was becoming in the nineteenth century; its association with the forces of change and industry made it a target during the American Civil War.
By late 1864, the South was losing the war and General William T. Sherman's army had captured Atlanta. In November of that year, a desperate Confederate plot to destroy the city by setting fire to ten hotels was only foiled by the quickaction of the hotel employees, and by New York's heroic volunteer firemen who rapidly put out the flames.
The Confederates wanted to destroy New York because it was a symbol of all that they loathed about the North. Bristling and boastful with success, the city encouraged the dynamic creation of riches as well as their ostentatious display. The wealthy of New York were among the wealthiest in America, and in the period leading up to the Civil War many fortunes were made. The war then brought even more prosperity to the city, along with economic speculation. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, millionaires such as Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt cornered markets and influenced politicians, making colossal fortunes. Speculation became the lifeblood of the city and brokerage houses on Wall Street the means to fortune.
Leonard Jerome was born in 1818 on a farm at Pompey Hill, near Syracuse in western New York State. He was the fifth of eight brothers and had a sister, Mary. He was a restless and rebellious youth, much to his parents' distress; they were proud of their Huguenot blood and of their forebears (one of whom had fought with George Washington at Valley Forge), and they encouraged their children to follow their stern, hard-working ways. The Jeromes came from a long line of pioneering ancestors. Timothy Jerome, the first to become an American, was a Protestant who had fled France in 1710 to England and had then sailed from the Isle of Wight in 1717 to settle in Connecticut. His son, Samuel had moved to Massachusetts; his son, Aaron, married Betsey Ball whose grandfather, Revd Elliphant Ball, was a cousin of Mary Ball, George Washington's mother. George Washington had no lineal descendants. Leonard would later write to his wife, explaining the Jerome connection to the Washingtons, exclaiming: 'We are the nearest of kin!' The eldest of Aaron's sons was Isaac, Leonard's father, who was born in 1786 and who married Aurora Murray, a woman of Scottish descent. After the war of 1812-15 against England, they settled at Pompey Hill and raised their family.
Leonard was sent to work in the village store at the age of fourteen, where he honed his commercial skills with the local farmers who paid in trade, rather than ready cash. He then left Pompey Hill to work for his uncle (who had become a judge) in Palmyra, a town sixty miles away. At eighteen, he followed his brothers to Princeton University, where his fees were paid by his elder brother Aaron, who had become a partner in a dry-goods firm. Although Leonard did well at Princeton, he had to leave when Aaron's fortunes took a bad turn and finished his studies at the less expensive Union College, in Schenectady, New York State. Leonard then took up the law, first in Albany where he passed his Bar examinations, and then with his uncle Hiram in Palmyra. In the late 1830s Palmyra was a thriving, busy town with broad streets, many shops, and hotels lining the Erie Canal, with its painted packet boats passing by. Leonard became a partner in his uncle's firm and was also appointed notary public for the county. With his increased prosperity he purchased 170 acres of land.
When Uncle Hiram moved the law practice to Rochester, New York, Leonard and his brother Lawrence, who also worked for the firm as a junior clerk, accompanied him. Rochester had grown into a town of 23,000 inhabitants, made prosperous by its position as a major shipping point for wheat. Its snobbish social elite was much preoccupied with entertainments, and in this milieu Leonard enjoyed an active social life. A Rochester socialite, the daughter of Samuel Wilder, later recorded that the Jerome brothers were 'screamingly funny boys ... very popular with the ladies owing to the dashing manner in which they rode high-spirited horses'.
The brothers became men of importance in the town, and although not wealthy their prospects had improved since their early days. Lawrence married the orphaned heiress Catherine Hall in 1844, and Leonard cast his eye on her younger sister Clara. Like Catherine, Clara was a beauty with dark eyes and an oval face. Their father was the wealthy Ambrose Hall, who had inherited a fortune from his grandfather John Beach. The origins of their mother, Clarissa Wilcox, were shrouded in mystery; tales about her background have become part of family lore. One version has it that Clarissa's mother, Anna Baker, was half Iroquois, something that Clara herself believed, for she later told her own daughters the same story, at a time when mixed blood was socially unacceptable. Her own dark looks and strong facial features suggested such ancestry, especially as she grew older. Clara's other sister Caroline Purdy was, according to Clara Frewen's son Hugh, 'copper-skinned' and when she visited England in the early 1900s her daughter Kitty Mott kept her hidden 'well behind the curtains' to avoid unfavourable insinuations.
Another account suggested in fact that Clara's grandmother was of African, rather than American Indian, ancestry, which would perhaps explain why these two wealthy Hall heiresses settled for the relatively impecunious Jerome brothers with their risky prospects. Clara's fear of being said to have what were at that time even less acceptable African antecedents might also shed light on why she insisted on her Indian heritage. Most of the speculation about Clara Hall's roots has focussed on the possibility of an Indian and not an African ancestry. However, in November 1912, Norman Leslie wrote to his mother Leonie - Clara Hall's youngest daughter - of an encounter with a man who believed that his first cousin Winston Churchill, had black ancestry: 'There is a gentleman on board who tells me in confidence that Winston isn't half a bad fellow, but that he can't help himself, owing to the black blood that he inherits from his Mother ... he has forgotten whether it was a quadroon or an octaroon, but he knew for certain that it was one of the two.'
Although Anna Baker's family tree has been traced back to her grandparents, her grandmother's maiden name is unknown, as is Anna's date of birth. Two possibilities emerge: either Anna Baker was of mixed race; or she was raped, or had a relationship in Palmyra with either an Indian or an escaped slave that resulted in the birth of her daughter, Clarissa. Of course, it is possible that there is no truth to any of these rumours. None of them can be proved conclusively, but it is instructive to consider what people at the time thought to be true and how it affected their attitudes.
Clarissa Wilcox's daughter, Clara Hall, certainly felt the stigma of the rumours. We also know that Clara's own daughters, their spouses, and their children all believed the story of native American blood to be true. Later generations - including Jennie's son Winston and Leonie's children and grandchildren - thought it was quite exciting. (Her sons-in-law would later refer to her irreverently as 'Sitting Bull'.) What is indisputably clear, however, is that the rumours, whether true or not, help to explain Clara's lifelong obsession with background and rank, and her desire to move among society's highest echelons - an ambition that ultimately she was only able to achieve in Europe. The 'shame' that she might be of mixed race was perhaps the decisive factor in what must have been a difficult decision to leave behind husband, home, and country, and to make a new life, as a single parent, among strangers, in foreign climes.
Clara Hall and Leonard Jerome married in 1849. Soon after, Leonard and his brother decided to leave their uncle's law firm and establish a newspaper. Leonard borrowed $30,000 from his new wife to invest in his new paper, called the Daily American, and made it a great success. It was a time of swift development in the newspaper industry in the United States; weeklies and semi-weeklies published chiefly in rural towns expanded quickly, as did the metropolitan dailies. The latter were graphic, multiple (nine to ten editions a day), and hefty (twenty-four to thirty-six pages). In 1800 there were 150 papers; by 1870 this number had dramatically risen to 971, and by 1900 there were 2,226 published daily. The Daily American became renowned as a hard-hitting political journal that supported the Whig Party. The Whigs believed in a strong nation, as opposed to strong state control, and they supported national projects such as the building of roads, canals, and railroads. But the formation of the new Republican Party in the 1850s siphoned off many Whigs, and the party was also damaged by the short-lived Native American, or Know-Nothing Party, which was primarily anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Until their disappearance in 1856, the Whigs had been especially strong in urban areas, such as Rochester. Sales of the Daily American grew rapidly, eventually reaching 3,000, an extraordinary figure for the time. Leonard was able to repay the loan and never again took money from his wife. Encouraged by the paper's commercial success, he then invested in a telegraph company in New York. In order to be close to the new business venture, he sold his interest in the Daily American and in 1850 moved with his wife to Brooklyn.
At this time Brooklyn was an independent city, with a population of 120,000. It boasted thirty-five miles of paved and lighted streets. Streetcars would arrive just three years later, in 1853. Leonard rented a fifteen-room, red-brick house in a section later known as Brooklyn Heights, just a block from the East River. It was here that his first child was born on 15 April 1851: Clarita, blonde and blue-eyed, the only one who would physically resemble her father. Leonard's elder brother Addison, who joined him as a partner in the new business, moved in with them, and the two men would set off each morning to cross the river by ferry to work on Wall Street.
Leonard eventually sold the telegraph business to work full time with Addison in stock-market speculation. He called Wall Street 'a jungle where men tear and claw', and threw himself into the work. He was determined to join the city's millionaires - which at that time had been estimated at nineteen. Studies of American wealth (measured in contemporary dollar values) have concluded that there were approximately forty millionaires in the nation some ten years later, in 1860, and that this number grew to 545 in 1870, reaching 5,904 in 1922.8 Leonard proved successful at making money and achieved a Wall Street reputation for being a man who knew how to get things done. A friend remembered asking him one day how business was and received the reply: 'Oh, dull, confoundedly dull. I have only made $25,000 [$340,000] today.' This was during the 1870s, when the well-known socialite and commentator Ward MacAllister later claimed that 'there were not one or two men in New York who spent, in living and entertaining, over 60,000 dollars [$820,000] a year.'
Leonard's speciality was selling 'short': that is, selling stock that he did not yet own, to be delivered to the purchaser at a specified future date. His calculation was that before that date the price of the stock would drop; he would then buy it at its lower price and make a profit when fulfilling the sale. In addition to the steady nerves and business acumen required for such speculation, Leonard also had wit and exuberance and was well liked. A contemporary recorded that Leonard 'belonged to the city with all its garish brilliance'. No man, he stated, 'ever became more completely a New Yorker'.
Leonard's ambition grew with his income, but his wife, alone in Brooklyn with her young child, became increasingly lonely without his company. She was therefore pleased when he announced in 1852 that he was accepting the position of chief consul in Trieste, a Mediterranean port and at that time a city-state within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that she should make preparations for the move. Whilst Leonard often found himself impatient with those who had not 'paid for their own education' and thought it 'more important to think clearly in one idiom than to chatter in five', he loved the opera (a visitor recorded that Leonard had gone to see Verdi's new opera, Rigoletto, some thirty times) and also yachting. During their sixteen-month stay, he bought a pair of prize Lipizzaner stallions of which he was extremely proud. Leonard kept busy; he had also insisted that the family bring along one of his operatic protégées, Lillie Greenough, so that she could, he claimed, study Italian singing techniques.
Clara found other amusements and was very taken with the large contingent of Italian nobility in Trieste. She was sorry that their stay was curtailed when Democratic President Franklin Pierce replaced the Whig President Millard Fillmore (the last Whig to hold this office) and Leonard resigned his position. Before leaving Trieste, the couple commissioned the Italian painter, Schiavoni, to paint their portraits, which were shipped to America, along with their collection of art and antiques. That summer, the family crossed Europe by horse-drawn coach, reaching Paris in the autumn, where Clara ordered new gowns from the various couturiers. Paris was being rebuilt by the new Emperor Louis Napoleon, who had commissioned gigantic boulevards, monuments, and columns. Clara loved the glamour and style. Leonard promised her that they would come back, but his eagerness to return to New York was unmistakable. The couple left Europe divided by their desires; Clara lived for the day she would return, while Leonard went home a committed American.
They arrived in New York in November 1853. Leonard was glad to be back in action.
Excerpted from Titled Americans by Elisabeth Kehoe Copyright © 2004 by Elisabeth Kehoe. Excerpted by permission.
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