“Dollar Princesses” … until today I had never heard that term before. Fascinating when you consider I’ve watched every single episode of Downton Abbey (maybe twice) and thought I had a very good grasp of every character and plot line. But, today I learned about “dollar princesses”, and I am fascinated.
Cora Crawley was a “dollar princess” … coming from an extremely wealthy American home, “new” money or the “nouveau riche” as they were often called, yet with none of the social standing that the aristocracy or “old money” could provide. Cora may have been a fictitious character, but she was based on a composite of many American heiresses who could not find acceptance at home.
After the Civil War, from about 1870 to 1910, America changed quite drastically. With the rapid growth of railroading, mining and the steel industry, simple men who saw the future, worked hard and invested wisely became millionaires. The American wage rose much higher than those in Europe and Europeans from impoverished countries started flocking to the shores of the United States. Termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, a man who was appalled during this time of extremes – from abject poverty to excessive wealth. Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, said about The Gilded Age, “This was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”
If the now ended British series, Downton Abbey, is new to you, I’ll give you a little bit of a background on Cora. She was (as we have now learned) an American Gilded Age “dollar princess“, who at the age of 20, was pressured by her very rich Jewish father into marrying Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham and member of aristocracy. Cora’s dowry was controlled through the marriage contract by the head of the Grantham family (a man, of course). Cora and Robert had three daughters, but not a son (who would eventually be heir to the fortune). It’s 1914, the world is in conflict, the Grantham estate’s money is beginning to run out, and so the story begins …
There were quite a few “dollar princesses” who had a large impact on Great Britain. And, it seems, that today every old aristocratic British family has a connection to at least one of these young American women … from Prince Charles on down.
One of the most important “dollar princess” who, without question, made the biggest impact not only for Great Britain but for the world, is Jennie Jerome. Born in Brooklyn, New York (before Brooklyn was part of New York City), Jennie was the second of Leonard and Clarissa Jerome’s four daughters. Through his successes in business and investments in this Gilded Age, Leonard became one of the richest men in New York. But despite his wealth he was shunned by the New York elite, known as the Knickerbockers. These “old money” families were run by the matriarchs, none of whom would have anything to do with Clarissa. Having had enough of this snubbing, Clarissa decided to take her daughters to Europe, where she hoped they would be welcomed by the upper levels of society and perhaps gain a title.
Europe opened her arms to the Jerome’s and the other American “swells” who began to cross the pond looking for social acceptance. It was at a grand ball in 1873 where the beautiful, dark-haired Jennie, aged 19, met the dashing and handsome, 24 year old Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill. Lord Randolph fell for the dark-haired beauty immediately. After three days they considered themselves “engaged to be married”, but the wedding wouldn’t take place for another year.
During their marriage, Jennie gave birth to two sons, Winston and John. The name, Winston Churchill, may sound familiar to you as he later became Prime Minister of England and one of the most powerful men in the world.
Although Jennie was the first and probably most well known of the “dollar princesses”, she wasn’t the only one. Young American heiresses, mostly prompted by their families, we eager be introduced to European aristocracy and to started consulting publications like The Titled American, a quarterly magazine which listed all the eligible bachelors from British noble families. Europeans knowing these newly minted fortunes would help prop up their costly estates were also eager to participate. Ultimately many other young, rich American women found their lives and loves in Europe. Jennie’s husband, Randolph’s brother became infatuated and later married the wealthy American widow, Lily Hammersley, to become Duchess of Marlborough. Jennie’s close friend, Consuelo Yznaga, whose father owned several plantations and a sugar mill, married George Montague, 8th Duke of Manchester to become the Countess of Manchester.
Daughter of the famed hotelier, Paran Stevens, 20 year old Minnie Stevens left New York City bound for Europe in 1872 and found love with Sir Arthur Henry Fitzroy Paget, later to become Commander-in-Chief of Ireland. Minnie was actually responsible for introducing quite a few American heiresses to wealthy European suitors and earned the nickname “the American Queen of British society” playing the million dollar matchmaker to British men.
Not every marriage was built on love, however. One very famous arrangement was that the wealthiest of the “dollar princesses”, heiress to the Vanderbilt railroad millions, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Ms. Vanderbilt, whose godmother, Consuelo Yznaga, and for whom she was named, married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill, at the insistence of her mother. Although she loved another, Ms. Vanderbilt couldn’t stand up to her powerful mother and the ‘deal’ was made. As part of the marriage contract, Charles Spencer-Churchill collected a dowry worth approximately $2.5 million (about $67 million today).
Other “dollar princesses” included: Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon and Vicereine of India; Mary Goelet, the Duchess of Roxburghe; and Cara Rogers, Lady Fairhaven. Even Princess Diana was descended from New York heiress Frances Ellen Work. I’m sure quite a few of us remember the American socialite (and twice-divorced) Wallis Simpson and her powerful love affair with Edward, the Prince of Wales, who abdicated his throne as King of England.
Many of these women went on to make solid contributions to society. They were active in politics, social and charitable causes, establishing schools and raising funds for hospitals. They participated in the war efforts, started magazines and were the inspiration for many novels, as well as a musical play.
Americans were fascinated by British Royalty and British Royalty was fascinated by the impulsive, free spirited, and very wealthy young American beauties. “Cash for Class” as it was called. During this period between 1870 and 1905 approximately 350 “dollar princesses” married into British aristocracy contributing over £40 million to the British economy. Today the equivalent would be more than £1 billion. Is it possible these young British men, most of whom had never worked a day in their lives, would be considered fortune hunters? Yes. But it is also possible that these young American “dollar princesses” wanting to wear a tiara and be presented at court were able to save country estates struggling with debt and dilapidated castles, many of which would have just shriveled up and died?