As American businessmen became extremely wealthy during the late 19th century, aristocrats in Europe who owned vast estates lost their wealth. Rich in land, deep in debt, many noblemen had little understanding or interest in new farming techniques. They had left management of their estates to others and dealt inefficiently with tenants, livestock, crops and decades of bad weather. To pay their debts and shore up their investments in their farms and their businesses, Europeans sought American investment. But they saw them as scoundrels and treated them with veiled disdain.
The American daughters of these “buccaneers” entered high society with the blessing of their rich parents. They hoped they’d snare a husband—and a title. But they paid for that opportunity, some with their father’s millions, others with their own happiness.
While the most famous of those women is Jenny Jerome who married the second son of the Duke of Marlborough (and became the mother of Winston Churchill), hundreds of others found their mates in many foreign countries.
Most went to Paris first as we see in WILD LILY. There, they spent months perfecting their manners and their French language. Many hired French “guides” as we see in the character of Madame la Comtesse de Chaumont. To look their finest, the American girls bought complete wardrobes from Frederick Worth and lingerie, hats, shoes and jewelry from renowned designers. Lily Hanniford’s father Killian spends $40,000 for her Worth wardrobe and an equal amount for Marianne, her cousin.
An American girl had to mind her manners, dress well and be charming. If she was also attractive, that was a boon to her success in society. But an American heiress’ most important asset was her dowry. Most had dowries that today translate to millions of dollars. Jenny Jerome’s dowry, though considered meager by her father-in-law, was 50,000 GBP. Today that sum equals approximately 3 million GBP.
Both her father and her father-in-law argued over the use of that money. Prior to the passage of the British Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women had no rights to their husband’s property. Therefore, the Duke of Marlborough assumed that whatever dowry Jenny had would be given to her future husband. Leonard Jerome demanded any money he offered be controlled by his daughter.
After haggling over the money for weeks, Jenny’s father agreed to a flat sum of 50,000 pounds. He expected this would produce 2,000 pounds income each year with half of both capital and income going to the husband and half to the wife. This equaled approximately 150,000 pounds per year for the couple to live on. The fact that Jenny had control of her own money was an extraordinary concept in that day and age, one to which Marlborough objected heartily. His argument was that by marrying his son, Jenny would give up her American citizenship and become a British subject. Therefore, she should live as one. Fortunately for her, her father did not agree.
Soon, however, the families agreed on this amount. Jenny and Randolph were married but without the duke and duchess in attendance. Nor was the wedding at the Marlborough estate, or anywhere in England but in Paris at the Hotel Charost, the British Embassy. (The Hotel Charost was once Pauline Bonaparte’s house bought by the British Government for the Duke of Wellington after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. It is still the embassy today.)
Other American girls would fare better than Jenny Jerome. Her two sisters married happily. Dozens more married French, Polish, German and Russian noblemen with varying degrees of happiness. One American heiress, Nancy Astor, became a member of British Parliament. President John Kennedy’s sister married the heir to the duke of Devonshire.
Many young women were very happily married. Others, like Gloria Vanderbilt, grew miserable. Belittled by their in-laws, lonely in their drafty castles, many women wished they had had a say in their futures.
In Those Notorious Americans I draw a picture of the young women who tried to comply with their parents’ wishes to see them marry well. I also portray a society realizing that money can buy anything…except love.