Monday, March 19, 2012

American "Dollar Princesses", Britain's Cash Poor Aristocracy & The Famous Four Hundred

   In watching the hit TV series "Downton Abbey", I thought the character of the American Lady, Cora Crawley, might be loosely based on the famous teenager, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Everyone has heard the story of this bride married off in 1895 by her Mother to the Duke of Marlborough, thus, saving his estate Blenheim Palace where Winston Churchill was born. I felt sorry for Downton Abbey's "Cora" as I thought she might be the only American chatelaine in Britain.
   As it turns out, over 350 American heiresses were married off to British Aristocracy between the 1890's and WWI. Why? Simple reason. The British Aristocracy needed cash to keep their vast estates, and the daughters of the nouveau rich American Industrialists needed Title.
   As a result of these marriages, 25 Billion US dollars rolled into Britain's economy. Soon, As a result of this huge cash infusion, by the end of the 20th Century, 1/4 of The House of Lords had a transatlantic connection.
   Upon closing the marriage contract, these "Dollar Princesses" received their titles, immediately elevating their social status so they and their families could caper about with the established Mayflower and Main Line dynasties of New York and Philadelphia.
   With the new cash influx, the Landed Gentry of Britain could then keep their large estates with their thousands acres of land and grand houses intact. England was suffering not only from an agricultural depression but from a newly implemented tax called the "Death Duty," similar to our Estate Tax here in the US.
    Who were these American heiresses turned Ladies and Countesses? Well, we have all heard of Consuelo Vanderbilt (Railway heiress), but are y'all familiar with Winaretta Singer (sewing machine heiress), Mary Leiter, (Chicago department store heiress), Jennie Jerome (NY real estate developer heiress), Minnie Stevens and Nancy Astor (hotel heiresses). Even Princess Diana's great-grandmother was an American.
   This influx of transatlantic marriages became so popular, entire industries popped up to accommodate their weddings, wedding trousseaus, lifestyles and needs. One such industry was a quarterly publication called: "The Titled American." This publication became the most popular of many publications for American heiresses looking for husbands, titles and instant social status.
   Back during the turn of the last century with the American Industrial Age, there were 1000 Millionaires living in New York.  Mrs. Astor could only fit 400 people into her ballroom, thus, was born the infamous "Four Hundred." Bottom line, Mrs. Astor would not admit the newly rich Vanderbilt's to her ballroom until Consuelo received her title "Duchess of Marlborough."
   Nancy Langhorne Astor, from Danville, Virginia, was the most accomplished of the "Dollar Princesses." She became the first woman Member of Parliament to take up her seat in the House of Commons. The American "Grand Experiment" saved many of Britain's grand estates!