TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3) Part 2

In a previous blog, I reviewed the first episode of Million Dollar American Princesses and was disappointed by the wasted potential of this documentary. Sadly the second and third episodes are no better.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Actress Elizabeth McGovern attends The Downton Abbey Ball at The Savoy Hotel on April 30, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Episode 2 entitled “The Wedding of the Century” focused more on the doomed marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While much has been written and said about the Marlboroughs and the circumstances that led to the marriage and its inevitable demise, I take issue with the assertion that she would lose her money and title if she divorced her husband. This is patently not the case as William K. Vanderbilt made sure that Consuelo had her own money separate from the dowry which was for her to use as she saw fit and became her lifeline when the marriage collapsed. Another was the statement that after the divorce she lost her title which isn’t the case as divorced and widowed peeresses keep their titles until they remarry, they don’t lose it just because the marriage is over (as Sarah Duchess of York has).

Another example of ignoring inconvenient facts is that of Mary Leiter’s marriage to George Curzon (later Lord Curzon). There was also yet again another ham fisted shoehorning in of Downton Abbey when it was claimed that the Curzon marriage was the inspiration for the fictional Granthams. While indeed there is a similarity between the two, what the programme fails to mention is the main reason why the Curzon marriage was happy was because Curzon expected his wife to subordinate herself to him and his political career. Mary learned early on that her husband’s needs and career would come first, second and last: although to his credit, Curzon did acknowledge her support and encouragement.

The final episode entitled “Movers and Shakers” was the weakest of the three. The great era of the trans-Atlantic marriages ended around 1910 with the ascension of a new King, George V who had a xenophobic suspicion of anything foreign and this meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins. By this point as well, the supply of heiresses was thinning and not even the money the heiresses brought to their marriages could stem the tide of the aristocracy having to sell up, retrench and in many cases lose their homes and estates altogether.

What made the final episode the weakest was apart from the persistent errors in the usage of titles were yet again the inaccurate hyperbole and the clumsy shoehorning of Downton Abbey. The assertion that Emerald Lady Cunard (nee Maud Burke) wielded power and influence is a misnomer as David Cannadine observed that “exclusive, aristocratic society had been transformed so fundamentally that it was no longer clear that it existed in its traditional sense……[i]nstead of being an adjunct to political life, patrician society was increasingly being detached from it. And even functioning as a marriage market, it was by no means as exclusive as it had been thirty years before. As one of the most important institutions through which the traditional elite has exercised power as a class, London society was effectively dead by 1914.” By the 1920s, it simply became “society for society’s sake” echoing the words of the American-born MP Sir “Chips” Channon who once described himself, “In society I am a power. In Westminster I am a non-entity.” The same could be said of Lady Cunard, her entertaining might have brought together politicians, aristocrats, businessmen, journalists, artists, composers and authors but they were a far cry from the gatherings that Consuelo Manchester helped organised with her mother-in-law the famed “Double Duchess” where house parties and dinners were as important as cabinet meetings.

Another inconvenient fact that the programme skates over is that by this time the few Americans who married into the peerage were not heiresses but upper middle class women who were a far cry from the so-called Dollar Princesses at the turn of the 20th century. The likes of Catherine Wendell (later Countess of Carnarvon) and Nancy Langhorne (later Viscountess Astor) only brought modest sums with them upon their marriages. One is struck at the irony of Elizabeth McGovern narrating what happened to the aristocracy after the First World War with the increase in income tax and death duties when Downton Abbey shows the Crawleys in complete denial about the whole financial situation facing their class and the economic and political situation outside the Abbey gates might as well not be happening.

The biggest disappointment however was concluding the documentary with Wallis Simpson and the Abdication crisis. If the whole point of the documentary was about wealthy American heiresses then Wallis Simpson certainly does not fit the bill. I suspect she was included as another way to shoehorn how another American interloper made her way into the British Royal Family (a previous episode mentioned that Frances Work was an ancestor of the Duke of Cambridge and his son). In my opinion, the documentary should have ended with a woman who I believe to be the ultimate Million Dollar American Princess – Kathleen Kennedy, one of the daughters of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and sister of a future President of the United States. Like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Mary Leiter, she was part of a nouveau riche family and snubbed by the American elite – a snub which was compounded by their religion. However she succeeded where the likes of the Dollar Princesses failed – to bag the heir of a first rank peer and unlike the Marlborough or Curzon marriage, Kathleen’s marriage to the Marquess of Hartington was clearly a love match in the face of some opposition owing to their different faiths.

Kathleen Hartington

Crucially ending the episode with the Kennedy-Hartington marriage would have brought the documentary full circle. If the first episode was all about the financial decline of the British aristocracy then Kathleen’s wedding which took place during the Second World War and its tragic twist foreshadowed the fall of the aristocracy after 1945. Instead, what we have is a documentary that, much like Downton Abbey itself, ignored its material and the ability and potential to tell the viewer anything new or informative in favour of saccharine recounting of transatlantic “romances.”

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The enigma that is Neville Chamberlain

WARNING – CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SERIES SIX OF DOWNTON ABBEY

The name Neville Chamberlain has been synonymous with the failure of appeasement in the late 1930s and its inability to prevent the Second World War. In fact, any mention of Neville Chamberlain at present is guaranteed to be followed by mentions of “Munich”, “1938” and “peace in our time” as this recent interview in The Times with Russian pro-democracy activist and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov shows:

‘Like or dislike Putin, he has a strategy,’ Kasparov continues. ‘He follows his logic, and if one side has a bad plan and the other has no plan, the bad plan wins. And Obama has no plan.’ His failure to take military action last year when Assad crossed a red line by using chemical weapons on his own people was a signal to every thug on the world stage, Iran’s included, that at a push America would walk away. ‘That’s it. That’s [Neville] Chamberlain. Actually, I wouldn’t criticise Chamberlain too much because he didn’t have the history book to read from. He didn’t have the next chapter. Obama does.’

The reference to Chamberlain is, of course, to Munich and ‘peace for our time’. Kasparov is big on analogies between Germany circa 1938 and Russia circa 2015. He doesn’t think them remotely overdone.

Kasparov returned to the same theme in a speech at the recent Aspen Institute Berlin event:

Four words. Four words can move the world, but not always for the better. As famous as “tear down this wall” and “ich bin ein Berliner” are, even more infamous is “peace for our time”. “Peace for our time,” Neville Chamberlain’s desperate plea for mercy and harmony in the face of ultimate evil after returning from Munich in 1938 became synonymous with weakness and appeasement. In some ways this is unfair, because at least Chamberlain had no way to know what was to come.

Remarks such as these continue to cement further Chamberlain’s reputation as an appeaser and one who was out of his depth in an increasingly belligerent world where diplomacy wasn’t going to cut much ice and the question of going to war was being increasingly seen as “when” not “if”. Even Chamberlain realised this but by then it was too late as in less than a year, Europe was again plunged into war: and by 1940 his political stock had fallen to such low that he was obliged to resign and after a series of backroom machinations, Winston Churchill was chosen to succeed him. It was said that one reason why Chamberlain sought a deal with Hitler was the hope that averting war would leave him free to concentrate on domestic issues and his continuing programme of reform. However it wasn’t meant to be and perhaps it was his greatest misfortune to be tangled up with a crisis that for all his efforts ended up with another world war.

The question then begs why has Chamberlain’s political star, at its peak in 1938 after Munich, plunged so badly afterwards? It was a far cry from his homecoming from that now infamous meeting with Hitler where enthusiastic crowds lined the streets to greet him as he made his way to Number 10 Downing Street: then much later as he made an appearance on the famous balcony at Buckingham Palace with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth again to rapturous cheers and applause. His most recent biographer Robert Self has written about the “Chamberlain enigma” which might go into some way explaining his place in history and why his life and achievements before Munich have almost been forgotten.

In death as in life, Chamberlain has been overshadowed the former by Winston Churchill – whose leadership during the Second World War led Britain to victory – and by his father Joseph, a maverick businessman turned politician whose colourful political career saw him emerge from being mayor of Birmingham to one of the political household names of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. There was also his half-brother Austen, a Conservative Party grandee who held two of the four Great Offices of State (Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer) and along the way was showered with honours such as the Order of the Garter and the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in negotiating the Treaty of Locarno in 1925.

It has been said that Chamberlain saw becoming Prime Minister as a way to crown his career and cement his achievements as a domestic reformer. Had he been in Number 10 only for a short time then perhaps he would have been remembered by history as he wished to be. Unfortunately events would conspire otherwise, an irony not lost on the man himself when he remarked not long after he resigned: “Few men can have known such a tremendous reverse of fortune in so short a time.”

It wasn’t only Munich that conspired to ensure that Chamberlain’s reputation continues to be tarnished. His public persona was a contrast to his father and brother: both easily identified with their neat and impeccable appearance with their monocle becoming almost a trademark as Churchill and his cigar. Neville Chamberlain’s image was a combination of stern superiority and “Brahminical aloofness” where he seldom smiled and his uniform of swallow tailed coat, neatly pressed trousers, stiff winged collar and full tie which combined with his tall, spare figure and ascetic face gave him the look as one observed of a “provincial undertaker” which as Self has concluded “the effect was forbidding and intimidating”.

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His own personality could be seen as a contributory factor to how history has judged him.   Outwardly stiff, cold, reserved and formal concealing a warmth that was revealed only to the very few, the result was Chamberlain’s shyness was concealed behind a cold manner that gave the impression of viewing everyone with disdain. Despite a happy marriage and his closeness to his sisters, he was more inclined towards interests and hobbies that that were solitary in nature and appealed to his sense of the meticulous such as shooting and fishing. He had very few friends and was not really bothered about cultivating intimates and confidantes beyond his family circle.

Chamberlain would be described today as a loner and an introvert. Unlike his older brother who revelled in the rituals of Parliament, he merely saw it as a place of work and business so avoided any social events or even popping down to the Smoking Room for a chat with fellow MPs and ministers. This together with his antipathy towards the Labour Party meant that he was unable to cultivate the allies he needed especially during the last two years of his premiership.

One of his greatest strengths as a minister was his capacity for sustained hard work –  he saw hard work and perseverance as key to political effectiveness. As Minister for Health (1923, 1924-9, 1931) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1931-7), Chamberlain was known for his unparalleled mastery of the detail of departmental policy and administration as well as developing a reputation for sheer hard work and with an analytical mind and systematic thinking. However, all these virtues could be interpreted by political opponents and enemies as vices; it led others to see Chamberlain as inflexible and narrow minded. Once he made up his mind that was it, it was hard to convince him the merits of another point of view and in a sense his detractors were right. As historian Nick Smart observed, Chamberlain’s personality “healthily insulated from reflecting on the consequences of his actions. When setbacks occurred, and there were usually many, he could explain these away as acts of nature, or more usually, as someone else’s fault.” (p. 18)

Despite his cold personality suggesting his disdain for others, Chamberlain’s commitment to social reform and improving people’s living standards was sincere and was influenced by both his father’s social policies which he pursued as Mayor of Birmingham and the family’s Unitarian faith. Chamberlain was of the view that individualism and collectivism were in a state of continuous interaction and this was his main guiding principle throughout his political career.

In terms of his political views, Chamberlain distrusted both socialism and liberalism, seeing socialists as mischief makers due to their pandering to envy: while he was of the view that liberals with their paternalism were outdated and parochial. Instead he believed in the gradual improvement of living standards via efficiency in the delivery of public services which was a far cry from the traditional view of a small state. He believed grand municipal intervention through efficient administration within the framework of existing laws and by correct execution would produce the best results in terms of service provision and this remained the most consistent part of his political credo.

Chamberlain regarded his stint especially as Minister of Health as the most productive time of his political career. The work of the Ministry of Health appealed to his methodical nature and where he could put his political ideals into practice. The remit of the ministry was then was far wider than today’s Department of Health. Apart from health, responsibilities included welfare, housing, insurance and pensions. When he took over the Health Ministry in 1924, Chamberlain set a target that 25 bills should be passed while the Conservative Party was in power and by 1929, 21 of these had been passed. These ranged from housing, reforming the Poor Law (which led to its eventual abolition), pensions and health insurance as well as more prosaic issues such as maternity care, children’s milk and food preservatives.

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He kept himself involved and informed not only relying on reports from civil servants and as those reported on the papers but also through travelling the length and breadth of the country to inspect hospitals and houses to see for himself what needed to be done and improved. In a letter to his sister Hilda dated 1 November 1925 he described how appalling some of the housing conditions which he encountered in Bradford:

Next day we motored over to Bradford which is only 9 miles away. It is quite a different sort of place, nearly 2 ½ times the size and more enterprising and go-ahead. But I saw in it some of the worst slum houses I have come across yet. In one case an old couple were living in a single room with one window most of which they have blocked up with board so the interior was like a cave. In the gloom there gradually became apparent the faces of the filthy pair who inhabited it together with another old woman who was apparently taking a meal with them. It was revolting. In one of their housing estates I went into a newly-built house with one large living room and a kitchenette. The windows were all tightly shut, the whole place reeked with a musty odour and the walls were already filthy. The bath had a board over it which was piled a heap of dirty clothing. I learned it was occupied by a drayman and his family of 12- the wife was in the maternity hospital expecting the 13th. It’s a sad illustration of the fact that the housing problem is not merely a problem of housing but of social education.

This excerpt sums up Chamberlain’s views of what the social problem was and how  it went beyond housing. It also demonstrated his being observant and the ability to take in as much detail as he could which helped him argue his case in order to get things done. His commitment to domestic reform continued even as he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally Prime Minister and in fact until events propelled him into involvement in foreign affairs, Chamberlain was  still actively involved in steering important bills through Parliament among them the Factories Act of 1937, the Coal Act of 1938 and the Holidays with Pay Act and the Housing Act, also passed during the same year. All these could be seen as laying the groundwork for similar types of legislation that would come into force after the Second World War.

Chamberlain’s achievements as a domestic reformer was his contribution to the idea of “New Conservatism” where the state’s resources would be marshalled to help those who had a genuine desire to better themselves. However there was the strong streak of middle class superiority in him; he was of the view that ordinary people had no clue what was good for them and it was up to the people in elected and non-elected positions to decide – summed up by a statement made by a later politician as “In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentlemen of Whitehall really do know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.” (Douglas Jay 1937).  For Chamberlain “the State was not inherently an enemy or malign, the state’s power had to be expanded in order for the good of society. Improvements in social legislation would be a bulwark against socialism and aid in the transition of the working class from “proletariat to citizens” (Self, p. 32). There’s an irony that his appearance in series six of Downton Abbey is to defend the village hospital against the encroaching power of a larger bureaucracy, when in reality his sympathy would have been entirely with the bureaucrats and not those who defended local interests.

Another irony with Chamberlain popping up in Downton Abbey is how his character has been distorted to suit the plot. It’s the same trick that Julian Fellowes used with Dame Nellie Melba and to a lesser extent the British Royal Family and with Neville Chamberlain it’s no different. While Robert is carried away to the hospital, Chamberlain strikes up a conversation with Tom Branson and mentions something indiscreet that he admits is something that the papers shouldn’t get hold of. The real Neville Chamberlain would do no such thing. Given the real Chamberlain was not the sort of person who confided to even friends and acquaintances, how much less likely would he be to confide in someone who he’s going to meet once and most likely never again?

DA Chamberlain S6

This points to another complaint raised by critics and viewers, how real life people are used as plot bunnies or distractions. Hugh Bonneville introduced Chamberlain’s appearance in episode 5, saying “It’s delicious when historical characters either pop in or are referred to. We have minister of the government coming in to this series who audiences will recognise when he does appear. He has a significant part to play in the future of the country. Of course this is a complete romantic fictional world. But it’s lovely when little dots of reality creep in. If it sends someone to look at a history book, fantastic.” Of course the joke on Bonneville and the PR is that an examination of his political career shows that Chamberlain isn’t in fact likely to be sympathetic to what Violet wants and this might be a subtle point about the dowager’s unawareness of his politics and her readiness to assume everyone will fall in with her wishes or Fellowes’s willingness to distort fact in pursuit of a story. The former might have been the point but given his readiness to assume viewer ignorance about pretty much everything it’s just as likely to be the latter.

Just as with Robert’s gastric attack, Neville Chamberlain is used as a plot device for the dreary hospital saga that pits the Dowager Countess against Cora. His appearance is in a scene that brings to a head that power struggle between both women and tedious as it is, this is the defining plot of the series. In the end Cora has triumphed but of course ultimately her triumph is temporary. The remaining power of her and her class will be swept aside by government and the war Chamberlain failed to prevent as surely as she sweeps aside Violet. Another interesting point here is that this shows fundamentally that the “power” that the likes of the Crawleys have is a façade, the reality of power is that it is exercised by the likes of Neville Chamberlain. In a triumph of symbolism, the old guard in the character of the Earl of Grantham collapses bleeding in front of the politician and the centraliser. The old ways are not yet in their death throes and are hanging on, but they are on their way out. I don’t think Fellowes realises the bitter ironies he writes into Downton Abbey, one of them being that in the long run these people are asking for help from the one man whose failure to prevent another cataclysmic war effectively finishes off the aristocracy after its long period of decline.

Notes:

Quotes by Garry Kasparov taken from Times Magazine interview on 17 October 2015 and speech at the Aspen Institute Berlin’s 2nd Transatlantic Conference on October 14, 2015 http://www.kasparov.com/speech-four-words-to-change-history/

Portrait of Neville Chamberlain by Henry Lamb on display at the National Portrait Gallery London. Photo taken by blogger

Neville Chamberlain as portrayed by Rupert Frazer in series 6 episode 5 of Downton Abbey

Further Reading:

Nick Smart. Neville Chamberlain (Oxford, 2010)

Robert Self. Neville Chamberlain: A Biography (Aldershot, 2006)

Douglas Jay. The Socialist Case (London, 1937)

David Dutton. Neville Chamberlain (London, 2001)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Robert Self (ed.) The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters (Aldershot, 2000-2005)

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/hsp/summary/v008/8.5.self.html

http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/625

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24300094

http://www.historytoday.com/reviews/neville-chamberlain

TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3)

The trans-Atlantic marriage or “cash for coronets” phenomenon during the 19th century has been subjected to scrutiny both on the academic and popular history front as well as being a fertile material for novels, plays, films and TV programmes and yet it continues to fascinate and repel in equal measure. These marriages are fascinating because they bring people back to a time of privilege, elegance and graciousness: yet they can be repellent because the mercenary nature of these marriages is unacceptable to a society where marrying for love is the norm.

One of the recent attempts to explain this phenomenon is Million Dollar American Princesses, a three part documentary produced and telecast in the US by the Smithsonian Channel and which is now currently being aired in the UK on ITV3. Perhaps as a way to cash in on the Downton Abbey phenomenon, the producers hired Elizabeth McGovern who plays Cora Countess of Grantham to present the documentary and with her at the helm highlights the first weakness of this documentary.

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Elizabeth McGovern

Acting and narrating are two different skills and McGovern’s voice is particularly an issue here. In his reviews of Downton Abbey for the Daily Mail, Jim Shelley has observed that she sounds like Elmer Fudd and this compounded with a breathy voice (which to me suggest poor breathing technique) proves to be very distracting as is the over-loud and badly chosen music that accompanies the documentary, along with crass sound effects such as the sound of doors slamming – thanks Smithsonian, very informative – when we are told why the Jeromes couldn’t break into society in New York and found the doors shut.

The first episode discusses the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy with case studies featuring Jennie Jerome (later Lady Randolph Churchill), Consuelo Yznaga (later Duchess of Manchester) and Frances Work (later the Hon Mrs James Burke Roche). All three women’s stories are fascinating especially those of Jennie and Consuelo due to their marriages bringing them both into playing an active role in the late 19th century British political and social scene.

However the women’s stories are given short shrift in favour of sensationalism, sex and irrelevant information and talking heads who bring nothing to the programme. The producers could have made more of an effort with Jennie’s active role in furthering her husband and son’s political careers and Consuelo straddling both the Marlborough House set and her mother-in-law (the “Double Duchess”) and stepfather-in-law’s (the 8th Duke of Devonshire) political circle but instead we get the current Countess of Carnarvon boasting of the family’s descent from Charlemagne (to which my reaction was “Bitch, please. Millions of people are descended from Charlemagne”) where perhaps we could have heard more from say a historian or a descendant of Jennie Jerome or the current Duke of Devonshire over the role played by both women in British political and social history.

Hyperbole is another weakness of this documentary with breathless pronouncements such as “guilty secret”, “breaking down the establishment”, “changing history forever” and “winner takes all”. I don’t understand why having to marry an American was a guilty secret – it was not as if the American wife was hidden and no-one knows that any children born of this trans-Atlantic marriage would have American blood. Perhaps it’s a “guilty secret” because having to marry an American heiress was to advertise that a family was so broke that they needed to be bailed out by foreign money. And no, these women did not “break down the establishment” they were hell bent on joining it, why else do you suppose their parents (especially the mothers) brought them over to Britain in the first place? It was to achieve the social advancement and good marriages  denied to them by the closed society of New York.

Another hyperbole I take issue with is “winner takes all” as uttered by Jessica Fellowes. It’s clear to me that she has no clue what she’s talking about. The system of agnatic primogeniture means that the oldest son inherits the title and the lion’s share of the estate (which is entailed) but to say this is a system that divides into winners and losers is fundamentally misleading. Younger sons and daughters have and had their share of the inheritance and of course also received generous bequests from other members of the family and even friends. The system of inheritance as practised in Britain is designed to keep estates intact for as long as possible and is not meant to separate members of the family into winners and losers. Fellowes gave a neat potted explanation of primogeniture and thus why a sensible girl would go after the eldest son  but a too brief explanation of why the peerage was in financial trouble beginning in the 1870s  – and that it wasn’t just imports of American wheat.

The last hyperbole is with regards to “changing history forever” was used in terms of Frances Work. Through her marriage to the future Baron Fermoy, Frances is an ancestor of Diana Princess of Wales. Her story is fascinating but it degenerates into another way to insert Diana and the British royal family into the programme. Presumably it was to show that the women regarded by many as American upstarts managed to get their blood into the highest family of all? But in the grand scheme of British history I believe that accolade should be given to Jennie Jerome: as were it not for her son Winston Churchill, Britain might not have emerged from the Second World War victorious, and throughout the programme I was reminded that if Jennie Jerome and Randolph Churchill had not fallen in love and defied their families to marry, the 20th century history of many countries might be very different.

Million Dollar American Princesses is simply another long line of documentaries that has squandered its potential and simply pandered to the lowest common denominator. Another way to inform and educate the audience on how the past is different to the present shamefully wasted. The emphasis was very much on romance and how much the couples loved each other, but doesn’t make the point that all three in the programme ended unhappily; and a preview for the second episode says that later marriages exposed the swap of title for money in all its crudity. But that’s a  21st century view – people have been marrying like that for millennia. Marriage was quite distinct from love and that was universally recognised and accepted by  the middle and upper classes.

I noticed that the American girls “fell in love” with titled peers just like that. Of course they did. We can’t have the impression that these are purely monetary transactions, can we? That’s being played down. What did come over in this documentary was that  transatlantic marriages might have been for money but the couples were in love really so that made it all right, but what it doesn’t say is that women had one career and that was marriage and they didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not they were in love with the man who was going to be their husband. The message between the lines is the very modern message that marrying for anything but love is wrong.