When the engagement between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was announced there was a fair bit of pearl-rattling at the prospect of an American duchess. Andrew Morton, the royal biographer, advised readers to listen carefully when the couple walked down the aisle “and you will hear the faint sound of the nearby King Edward spinning in his grave”.
He was referring to Edward’s relationship with the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, which led him to abdicate the throne in 1936 when he was forbidden to marry her. Now there was a divorced American woman, and — horrors — an actress, marrying an English prince.
Others pointed out that American women had been marrying into the British nobility for more than a century. Between the late 1800s and the Second World War, so-called dollar princesses flocked to Britain looking for titled husbands. With their sables and silks and cabochons they conquered. In return for titles, they offered the wealth that the aristocratic families desperately needed. Their finances were crumbling and the dowries the bright young American women brought shored up family fortunes. If this sounds like these were cold, hard contracts, they were.
Most of the heiresses were of “new money” families, who had gone in one generation from settler scrabbling to untold wealth. In American society they were seen as parvenus who were not welcome in Fifth Avenue ballrooms. A British title changed that. Mrs Astor, the queen of New York, could hardly refuse to acknowledge a duchess or a viscountess. Put bluntly, it was cash for class.
The women paid a price. Many of the matches were loveless and unhappy; the stately homes were icily cold and dingy, with few conveniences. The new chatelaines were mocked for installing such newfangled luxuries as bathrooms, running water, and electric light. But they prevailed. One, the stock-and-railway heiress Frances Ellen Work, married the lowly Baron Fermoy. A century later her great-granddaughter, Diana Spencer, became Princess of Wales.
Since Markle ascended to the heights of The Firm, a spate of books about the dollar princesses has appeared. That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron (Penguin Random House) reimagines the life of Jennie Jerome, the privileged and fiercely independent woman who sported a snake tattoo, and who would give birth to one of the most powerful men in history, Winston Churchill.
Two other novels focus on the captivating Consuelo Vanderbilt and her grasping mother Alva: A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler (Hachette) and Karen Harper’s American Duchess — A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt (HarperCollins). Consuelo was just 18 when she was forced to marry the mis-named Sunny, Duke of Marlborough. She was dazzlingly lovely, spoke three languages, and had exquisite taste. The marriage didn’t last, although she managed to produce two heirs. Vanderbilt and her mother eventually clambered out of their gilded cages and took up a life of activism. Alva became a formidable force in the US suffragette movement, while Consuelo became a renowned philanthropist.
Novels are all very well, but sometimes one should go straight to source, and one of the best non-fiction books on the subject is The Husband Hunters — American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy (St Martin’s Press). In addition to the duchesses Churchill and Marlborough, De Courcy profiles young women such as Mary Curzon, who became a marchioness and Vicereine of India; Adele Beach Grant, the future Countess of Essex; and Maude Burke who married Bache Cunard (of the Cunard Line family).
To understand the milieu from which the girls set sail, one need look no further than Edith Wharton, chronicler of what is known as The Gilded Age and a right snob herself. Google “Vanderbilt Mansions” and you will see why Wharton said: “The Vanderbilts are entrenched in a sort of Thermopylae of bad taste, from which apparently no force on Earth can dislodge them.”
Meghan Markle was no cosseted heiress, but, like her predecessors, there’s no doubt she has shaken up the establishment.
- From the February edition of Wanted, 2019.