Some months before ITV’s Downton Abbey was first released to the general public in Britain last year, I had already become fascinated by American heiresses who one way or other managed to become the wives of some of the wealthiest men in Europe. Many of them irremediably ended up marrying Britishers, I suppose because Britain had (and still has today) a decent amount of nobles with which to charm the impressionable young ladies from across the ocean who were desperate to acquire a title and some aristocratic standing in life. Obviously, communication and religion would have been more easily overcome in Britain than elsewhere in the old continent. It is curious that my poverty-stricken Italian ancestors chose to look for a better life in America, while at the same time many Americans sought riches on this side of the Atlantic. I guess there were good reasons to emigrate on both sides of the ocean…
Many of these rich but “titleless” ladies came from fairly modest backgrounds, often belonging to families who had emigrated to the United States only one or two generations before, but were fortunate enough to have an entrepreneurial father or grandfather who had amassed a great fortune in the new world, and were eager to secure their young daughters a comfortable lifestyle.
But it was often mothers more than fathers who would groom their young daughters in the necessary steps towards imitating their European counterparts; they would make sure their young ones acquired a decent knowledge of French, attended the opera every now and then, were well versed in European literature and took adequate dancing lessons, let alone give them a decent introduction in European affairs, with great care of not making them too “independent of mind” lest they should become too difficult to handle or -even worse- over-eager feminists.
Of course, many of these transatlantic marriages foundered eventually, but nevertheless left an indelible mark in European History. One of the best known cases of a (successful) transatlantic marriage was that of Jennie Jerome, who at age 20 married Lord Randolph Churchill at the British Embassy in Paris, and became the mother of Britain’s best-known Prime Ministers, Sir Winston Churchill. The couple were known to have been devoted to one-another, but Randolph’s premature death in 1895 cut the marriage short.
Randolph’s nephew, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, followed in his uncle’s footsteps by marrying a rich American heiress in order to improve his family’s dilapidated financial situation. But Consuelo Vanderbilt was a harder nut to crack than her husband’s aunt-by-marriage; her dowry was used to restore the family seat, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, but the marital relationship soon broke down and they divorced in 1921. The Duke subsequently married another American, Gladys Marie Deacon, who in later years would keep a revolver under her pillow so as to prevent her husband from entering her bedchamber. Their unhappy, childless union, however, was never dissolved.
Consuelo Vandebilt got her name from her equally rich godmother, Maria Consuelo Yznaga del Valle, a Cuban-American woman of large proportions whose lifestory was used by Edith Wharton in her unfinished novel, The Buccaneers. In 1876 she married George Victor Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (later 8th Duke of Manchester); their son and heir, the 9th Duke of Manchester, followed the tradition begun by his father and married Helena Zimmerman, an American whose father was the German-American cartoonist Eugene Zimmerman. After the birth of four children and 31 years of connubial unhappiness, the couple divorced; the Duke, who was a notorious spendthrift, married another American, but this time they remained together until his death in 1947.
But compared to Louisa Caton, the Duchesses of Manchester were late-comers in the aristocratic marriage business. Louisa Caton came from the American east coast, but settled in Europe after the end of the Napoleonic wars in the continent. In 1828 she married the Duke of Leeds, and thus became a ticket for her sister to becoming acceptable marriage material for other aristocrats and well-connected gentlemen. Marianne Caton first married Robert Patterson, the brother-in-law of Jérôme Bonaparte, and later she became the wife of the Marquess of Wellesley, the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. Bess Caton, on the other hand, married the 8th Baron Stafford. Their remaining sister Emily Caton remained in America for most of her adult life; her husband, the Scottish-American heir John MacTavish, was the British Consul to the State of Maryland; their daughter Mary MacTavish would later marry the youngest son of the Duke of Carlisle.
Another American-born queen of European aristocratic circles was Mary Victoria Leiter, from Chicago, who married George Curzon and became the senior-most lady in British India when her husband became Viceroy of India in 1899. Their daughter Cynthia became the first wife of future Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, who would later marry one of the famous Mitford sisters.
By 1907, some 500 rich American women had married European aristocrats; many turned to the Titled Americans: A List of American Ladies who have Married Foreigners of Rank, a useful almanac which gave advice and information about titled European men. It stated: “Dukes are the loftiest kind of noblemen in England. There are only twenty seven of them in the whole United Kingdom. Of these, there are only two available for matrimonial purposes. These are the Dukes of Manchester and Roxburgh. The Duke of Hamilton is already spoken for, the Duke of Norfolk is an old widower and the Duke of Leinster only 11 years old”. Even in New Orleans someone advertised for “Dukes, Marquesses, Earls or other noblemen desirous of meeting for the purposes of marriage, young, beautiful and rich American heiresses.” Whether they were successful in their marital venture, we cannot know.
But despite the arrival en masse of Americans to the courts of Europe, some were greeted with coldness by their rather conservative in-laws. Must we recall the scandalous love affair of Edward VIII and the twice-married twice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson just before the Second World War? We can also recall the somewhat bitter experience of Alice Heine, who was slapped in public by her husband, the moody Albert I of Monaco. Their marriage was over soon thereafter, but they never divorced. Of course glamorous Grace Kelly’s story was a whole different ball game.
But today one still finds Americans acting out the role of consorts of age-old courts and grand households. The Grand Duke of Luxemburg’s wife, María Teresa Mestre, was born in Cuba in the 1950’s; the Earl of St Andrews, son of the Duke of Kent, is married to Canadian-born Sylvana Tomaselli. Lee Bouvier, sister of glamour queen and first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, is the former wife of Polish prince Stanislaw Radziwill. The list of Americans marrying old European families is, as you can clearly see, endless.