The Devonshire House Ball (1897): Dressing Up on a Grand Scale

One of the main displays in the current exhibition at Chatsworth House is about the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The Great Chamber contains displays pertaining to the ball together with life sized images of some of the famous guests at the ball such as the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary), Victor Cavendish (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Mrs Arthur Paget, while next door in the State Drawing Room was a display of some costumes worn during that evening.

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The ball was held at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London on the 2nd of July, during the height of the London Season. What made this ball special was that it was held in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and as Deborah, the 11th Duchess observed, at a time when there were balls almost every night during the height of the Season, for a ball or event to stand out and generate interest, it had to be special. And indeed it was special – invitations were sent out and the dress code was “allegorical or historical costumes before 1815”. This was an encouragement to the guests to give their imaginations full rein for the costume that they planned to wear that evening.

The hosts of the ball were Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and his German born wife Louise. The 8th Duke was a politician: as Marquess of Hartington he served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party. He also turned down the opportunity three times to become Prime Minister. By 1897 and now Duke of Devonshire, he was sitting in the House of Lords and had split with the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule. With his personal life, the 8th Duke would have made a prime example of the saying “appearances can be deceiving” for his intellect and sense of duty was masked by a languid appearance and indifference towards the social side demanded of his position. He was known to be forgetful, shabbily dressed and had the habit of sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Once, finding the ministerial bench at the House of Lords fully occupied, he found another bench and promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and saw what time it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, what a bore, I shan’t be in bed for another seven hours.”

His appearance and bearing also masked a complicated personal life. A bachelor of many years standing, he carried on a long term affair with Louise Duchess of Manchester but during the 1860s was also involved with the noted courtesan Catherine (“Skittles”) Walters who was known for her prowess as an equestrienne and on the hunting field. The then Marquess of Hartington was smitten with her, provided her with a home in Mayfair and together was openly seen out and about in events such as the Derby. As Sophia Murphy observed that, Lord Hartington “made no secret of his love for her” but in the end their affair was mentioned in the papers (albeit in the form of coy blind items) and coupled with the weight of disapproval from the highest echelons of society, the affair ended, but he made sure that she was well provided for. Catherine for her part, left for France, only returning to Britain once memories of the affair had faded, and her discretion was rewarded by the Cavendish family who carried on forwarding the annual sum promised to her until her own death in 1920.

The main driving force behind the ball was Louise Duchess of Devonshire. Known as the “Double Duchess” because until only a few years before, she had been Duchess of Manchester. Born Louise von Alten, she was the daughter of a German count and in 1852 had married William Drogo Montagu Viscount Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester. Three years later they became Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Beginning in the 1860s, she began an affair with Lord Hartington with the full connivance of her husband; their affair followed the usual pattern, it began long after she had provided her husband with the requisite sons to carry on the family line and was conducted discreetly among the whirl of dinners, balls, teas and shooting parties. Louise also maintained her dignity even when Hartington had other women and she never allowed her affair to threaten her own relationship with her husband. Such behaviour today would be seen as hypocritical but they scrupulously observed the rules governing their class and so long as those rules were observed there was no scandal and everything went smoothly.

Louise quickly assimilated into her adopted country and through her entertaining advanced the political careers of both husbands. Although all her life she identified with her first husband’s political party, the Conservatives, her circle of friends and acquaintances was politically diverse. She didn’t hesitate to ensure that her dinners and balls were filled with leading politicians, regardless of their political affiliations and persuasion; her objective was that her home should be a meeting place for politicians of all stripes where they could talk in a more relaxed atmosphere away from the pressures of Westminster. Above all, she wanted to be surrounded by people who were interesting and who she liked and to ensure that they had a good time.

She also gained a reputation for being a skilled political hostess who became a sounding board for leading politicians and statesmen, and although she was dismayed that the 8th Duke of Devonshire three times turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister, his status and wealth as well as his ability meant that Louise could entertain in style and befitting their position in the social and political life of the country. Louise’s marriage to the 8th duke which finally happened in 1891 meant that her position was more secure. As Duchess of Devonshire, she was chatelaine of seven houses (Chatsworth, Devonshire House, Bolton Abbey, Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Chiswick House, Compton Place) and had large funds at her disposal which meant that she had a wider scope for her social talents. Esther Simon Shkolink in her study of late Victorian and Edwardian political wives noted that contemporary accounts were more or less unanimous in their praise of Louise’s entertaining with her “charm and attentiveness as a hostess but also her careful attention to detail.” Her guest list was always eclectic and came from different political parties and social classes as the Devonshire House Ball would later demonstrate.

The Devonshire House Ball in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was part and parcel of Louise’s pattern of entertaining. She and the Duke were fond of horse racing and annually held a dinner and a ball during and after Derby Day, regularly entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and gave lavish parties for special occasions, but the Diamond Jubilee gave Louise the idea to push the boat out – throw a ball but with a twist in the form of a fancy dress party.

Fancy dress balls had been a fixture at least since the sixteenth century; costumed masked balls were popular in Italy, particularly Venice, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. During the eighteenth century, they became popular at the various royal courts, especially in France, while in Britain costume masked balls were ticketed events held in pleasure gardens and assembly halls in major cities such as London and Bath. In these balls, attendees would usually be cloaked and masked (either with one covering half their face or one trimmed with silk or lace to cover the whole face) or dressed as characters from the past or from popular entertainment such as the commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century, theme balls became popular – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert threw three lavish themed costume balls during the 1840s and 1850s. The first was a medieval ball where the hosts and their guests were dressed in the style of the court of King Edward III; the second featured a Georgian theme while the last, held in 1851 had the court of Charles II as the subject. As Queen Victoria withdrew from social life following the death of Prince Albert, the mantle of royal entertaining passed onto her oldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra, and during the 1870s they hosted a lavish costume ball at their London home Marlborough House which was heralded as a success and ensured the continued popularity of such events.

For her own ball, Louise decided that the theme would be “court or allegorical costumes before 1815” and as a later Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah mused in an article she wrote:

“It was not difficult for Louise Duchess to mobilise her female guests – they can have had little else to do but arrange themselves for such an occasion and one can easily picture the excitement and pleasure it gave. But even clever old Louise must have been surprised at managing to persuade a lot of middle-aged men to order their costumes and suffer the tedium of trying them on.”

Fortunately help was at hand. Due to the popularity of fancy dress balls, there was a plethora of books and specialist hire shops on hand to offer advice. One such book was entitled Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt and it went through several editions. It gave descriptions of the most popular costumes which ranged from historical personalities to characters from fiction, myth and legend down to allegorical and national costumes from various parts of the world. In addition, the book also gave recommendations of what costumes would suit a particular hair colour, skin complexion and age.

The ball was eagerly anticipated and as Sophia Murphy observed that “[a]n invitation to the fancy dress ball confirmed membership of the ‘smart set’, and was therefore much sought after. Apart from this, everyone was eager to witness what promised to be one of the most lavish spectacles of the century; since it was the main subject of interest that season, everyone wanted to have the fun of trying to keep their outfits a secret while at the same time trying to discover what the others were wearing.” Many of the guests came together as a group and organise a procession and in the end five main groups or courts were organised: Elizabeth I of England which was led by Lady Tweedmouth; Maria Theresa of Austria under the Marchioness of Londonderry; Queen Guinevere & the Knights of the Round Table led by Lady Ormonde (she ended up being unable to attend due to bereavement so Lord and Lady Rodney went as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere); Louis XV & Louis XVI of France under Lady Warwick (as Marie Antoinette) and the court of Catherine the Great of Russia led by Lady Raincliffe.

Three other groups more loosely defined were categorised by the costumes they were wearing such as the Italian, Oriental and Allegorical. Many other guests however decided not to join any group or procession as they went in an assortment of costumes ranging from their ancestors to those modelled from famous paintings or historical figures that did not fit into any of the groups or courts organised. With her customary attention to detail and zeal, Louise planned everything down to the last detail and even the servants on duty were in costume – the men were dressed in in Devonshire livery from the 18th century while the female staff were dressed in costumes from the Elizabethan period. Due to the large number of guests, it was necessary to hire outside staff for the night and Louise had them dressed in either Egyptian or Elizabethan dress.

On the night of the ball, the guests were greeted by Louise herself and her costume was described by The Times in great detail:

“The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.”

One of the guests Margot Asquith (wife of the future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) expressed surprise at her host’s choice of costume. For her, Zenobia evoked beauty and romance but Louise in her view was neither. In her youth, Louise was known and praised for her beauty but as she grew older, her looks faded while her features became coarse and her figure grew rounder. As Duchess Deborah wrote: “The ‘Double Duchess’ was considered a great beauty, though with her frizzed up hair and short, thick neck it is hard to recognise her beauty in most of the likenesses we have of her. The people I have talked to who saw her only remember the crazily cracked make-up plastered thickly over her face, which made a bizarre effect on this grande dame receiving at the top of the staircase at Devonshire House.” Her costume was designed by the House of Worth and such was the skills of that venerable fashion house that they managed to make Louise a stately and imposing Queen of Palmyra rather than fat and coarse.

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The Duke of Devonshire was dressed as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V based on his portrait by Titian and keeping up with his modest tastes, the Duke’s costume was simple and the only adornment was the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been lent to him by the Prince of Wales for the evening and which the duke wore around his neck.

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Among the guests were Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) as the Empress Theodora, Mrs Arthur (Minnie) Paget went as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Sutherland was costumed as Jane Seymour, the former Prime Minister the 6th Earl of Rosebery who was dressed as a gentleman from the 18th century (he wasn’t amused when some of the papers said that he was costumed as Horace Walpole), Lord Rownton who went as an archbishop and Arthur Balfour (future Prime Minister) as a Dutch gentleman. The Cavendish family meanwhile was represented by the Duke’s nephew and heir Victor who was costumed as Jean de Dinteville from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors while his wife Evelyn went as a lady from the court of Maria Theresa.  Consuelo Duchess of Manchester, Louise’s daughter-in-law from her first marriage went as Anne of Austria “in a very striking gown of white and silver satin, decorated with swags of gold satin. On her head she wore a diamond crown with a large single pearl ornament in the centre of her forehead.”

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As the ball was in honour of Queen Victoria (who did not attend), she was amply represented by members of her family. The Prince and Princess of Wales (who were costumed as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Marguerite de Valois respectively) together with their children and in-laws attended as well as the Duke and Duchess of Teck and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Foreign diplomats such as the Portuguese ambassador the Marquis de Soveral (a close friend of the Prince of Wales) and the Austrian ambassador Count Albert Mensdorff were also present and it’s no wonder that with such a guest list, the Devonshire House Ball was seen as the event of the 1897 London Season.

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Many guests did take much time and effort with their costumes. It was said that one guest who wore an Oriental dress wanted to make an entrance via an elephant and enquired London Zoo about the possibility of borrowing one. The zoo authorities however refused on the grounds that the elephant would be unable to cope with the crowds and traffic of London. One can simply conclude that she made her entrance via the usual horse and carriage. Others in their desire for accuracy and to stand out suffered through the evening with uncomfortable headdresses and props – such as the Hon Mrs Reginald Talbot who went as a Valkyrie and who developed a headache due to the metal winged helmet she was wearing but refused to take it off as it might ruin her hairdo. There was the Countess of Westmoreland costumed as Hebe cupbearer of the gods who was restricted with her movements the entire evening due to the huge stuffed eagle on her shoulder: while Lady Wolverton who attended as Britannia would have had to contend with not only a feathered helmet but also a triton and shield.

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While some male guests such as Herbert Asquith went to the ball grudgingly and made little effort with their costumes, others threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of wearing fancy dress sometimes with even more enthusiasm than their wives. One of the most expensive costumes was worn by the 9th duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador in one of the courts. It was made by House of Worth, a confection of velvet embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of white and gold damask. The whole costume was mostly embroidered by hand as well as the pearls and diamonds and cost 5,000 francs. As Jean Philippe Worth later recalled, even he was shocked by the bill as he presented it to the duke.

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Outwardly the ball can be seen as the pinnacle of aristocratic dominance both in the political and social scene but in reality, the ball reflected the gradual changes happening in society. It was observed that society was “less clearly defined than it had been twenty years before” and the guest list reflected Louise’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances that crossed the political divide. More crucial however was the presence of men and women whose origins and occupation would have barred them from other aristocratic homes but who were invited to the Devonshire House ball while most of the aristocratic old guard were not. Examples of these were Ernest Cassel and Alfred Beit both of whom were Jewish and were in banking; the Earl of Iveagh and Lord Rothschild both of whom made their fortunes in commerce and finance; the actor Sir Henry Irving and the American born singer Mrs Ronalds who appropriately came as Euterpe, “the Spirit of Music” in a costume decorated with the musical score from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

The ball in 1897 was the last major event held in Devonshire House and with the 8th Duke’s death in 1908 followed by Louise three years later marked the end of an era for the Devonshires. The 9th duke was faced with crippling death duties from his predecessor’s estate as well as debts from the 7th duke’s failed investments. In order to economise, the 9th duke accepted the position of Governor-General of Canada where he served from 1916 to 1922. While in Canada, negotiations for the sale of Devonshire House had begun and it was finally sold in 1920. Not long after the house was demolished and an office block now stands in its place.

The sale of Devonshire House showed that following the end of the First World War not even the grandest and wealthiest of the aristocracy were immune from the changes sweeping through the aristocracy as well as feeling the financial pinch. In the years following the sale and demolition of Devonshire House, other aristocratic townhouses were sold to be demolished, converted into office spaces or museums. At the same time, aristocratic entertaining also changed – many in the aristocracy could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale as their predecessors and balls and dinners were ceasing to become extensions of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions. The Devonshire House Ball of 1897 would certainly be the last of its kind and one that would never be repeated.

 

Note:

Photos from the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House taken by blogger

Further Reading:

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Home to Roost and Other Peckings (London, 2009)

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth: The House (London, 2002)

Ardern Holt. Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (London, 1881)

Sophia Murphy. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London, 1984)

Sophia Topley. ‘The Devonshire House Ball’ in Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles (eds) House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth (New York, 2017) pp. 123-139

Esther Simon Shkolink. Leading Ladies: A Study of Eight Late Victorian and Edwardian Political Wives (New York and London, 1987)

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

http://www.npg.org.uk/blog/from-downton-abbey-to-devonshire-house-american-heiresses-at-the-devonshire-house-fancy-dress-ball.php

https://fromthebygone.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/late-victorian-fancy-dress-the-devonshire-house-ball-in-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/fancy-dress-1897-the-duchess-of-devonshires-diamond-jubilee-ball/

http://www.thecourtjeweller.com/2017/08/jewel-history-hired-jewels-are-much-in.html

http://lafayette.org.uk/dhblist.html

http://www.rvondeh.dircon.co.uk/incalmprose/ball.html

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/back-to-the-party-more-pictures-from-the-duchess-of-devonshires-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/party-time-again-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/costume-ball-4-ladies-only/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/costume-ball-5-more-ladies-more-gentlemen/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/costume-ball-6-mothers-daughters-and-others/

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Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

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Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.

 

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.

An American At Kenwood – Transatlantic Marriages in the Gilded Age

Apart from the famous Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House is also home to another superb collection of portraits, mostly of courtiers from the seventeenth century, Stuart monarchs and ladies of their court and members of the Howard family who have borne the titles Earl and Countess of Suffolk since 1603.

This group of paintings known as the Suffolk Collection was given to the nation by Margaret “Daisy” Leiter Howard, widow of the 19th Earl of Suffolk under the terms of her will in 1974 and were moved to Kenwood in 2001. Today they provide a fascinating glimpse into what clothes people wore especially during the early 17th century; as very few real examples survive, these portraits serve as a visual record of the fashions of the time and what they looked like when worn.

Among the other portraits is one of the 19th Countess herself, painted by the celebrated portrait painter of the fin de siècle, John Singer Sargent. It was commissioned by her parents and painted in 1898. The portrait has all the hallmarks of Sargent’s commissioned portraiture, such as the ethereal way he painted the women’s dresses, the absence of any distinct background that would detract from the subject and the paleness of the skin which is typical of his female portraiture. Dressed in a white and gold gown with the gold fabric billowing around her left arm, the future 19th Countess of Suffolk is every inch the personable young heiress and having her portrait painted by someone as feted as Sargent was a sign of the Leiter family’s wealth and growing status.

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Daisy Leiter was one of the last wave of American women who married into the British peerage before the First World War, and even before her marriage to the Earl of Suffolk in 1904 was already connected to the aristocracy through marriage, as her older sister Mary had married George Curzon in 1895. Three years later he was raised to the peerage as Baron Curzon of Kedleston and appointed Viceroy of India. It was while visiting her sister in India that Daisy met Henry Molyneux Paget Howard, 19th Earl of Suffolk and a career army officer who was serving as an aide-de-camp to her brother-in-law. The press in both countries noted that Daisy’s wedding dowry would provide a much needed injection into the Suffolk estates and help restore Charlton Park to its former splendour.

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By the time of the Leiter-Howard marriage, there had been several trans-Atlantic unions, with the first wave taking place in the 1870s when the likes of Jennie Jerome, Consuelo Yznaga and Minnie Stevens married into the British aristocracy and found themselves hobnobbing at the highest circles of society. It reached its height during the 1880s and 1890s, with the most famous marriages between that of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough and May Goelet to the 8th Duke of Roxburghe taking place.

One common theme running among majority of these trans-Atlantic alliances were what were popularly known as “cash for coronets” – young women from American nouveaux riches families marrying impoverished British aristocrats, a straightforward exchange between money and status. While some marriages were borne out of love matches such as the Jerome sisters and their respective husbands others were simply blatant business transactions; with some ending in the ultimate disgrace of divorce and lawsuits involving money and property.

To understand why such marriages took place, it is important to look at the circumstances that led to this mutually beneficial yet uneasy alliance between two worlds, two cultures and two very different outlooks. At the risk of using modern day geopolitical terms into this blog, in my view trans-Atlantic marriages can be seen as both a “clash of civilisations” (pace Samuel Huntington*) and as akin to a trading bloc – one has what the other wants and vice versa and they come together for the benefit of both sides.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the American economy grew at a spectacular rate unprecedented in the country’s history. This boom coincided with greater opportunities as America expanded further westward; the growth of cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Cincinnati and Denver and the discovery of natural and mineral resources such as silver, coal, ore and tin. Furthermore, business opportunities presented themselves in sectors such as transportation, communications, retail, service and engineering. The so-called American dream allowed men and their families who had grown up in grinding poverty to make spectacular fortunes and rise up the social ladder. Behind the backdrop of this spectacular rise which mirrored America’s own economic growth came questions about its own identity. As Charles Jennings observed:

“To any reasonably cultured European – and to any similarly cultured American – late nineteenth century America was writhing with internal contradictions. It was a great country, a mighty, progressive continent, inhabited by an unpredictable mixture of the rapacious, the suave, the backward and the crushingly unsophisticated. It was a monumental achievement littered with starkly provincial townlets and backwaters. It was also as twitchy about the questions of social status as any character in a Jane Austen novel. The Americans who were forging their New World had, inevitably, come from an Old World predispositions regarding status, culture, refinement. The United States may have been revolutionary in its origins; but it was in the nature of society, with all its evergreen social competitiveness, that its inhabitants couldn’t help but care what people thought of them and what the rest of the world thought of their nation as a whole.” (Them and Us pp. 2-3)

This clash came to a head as the social climbing newcomers tried to enter society and found its doors firmly shut. To the old guard such as the New York Knickerbockers, Boston Brahmins or the Philadelphia Main Line these new money families were a threat, they did not possess the qualities that were believed to be the hallmarks of membership – long standing ties to the city, respectability, philanthropy and frugality. If anything the old families were appalled by the conspicuous consumption displayed by the nouveau riche with their grandiose houses, their yachts and so-called summer cottages in Newport. The New York Four Hundred which supplanted the Knickerbockers was an attempt in some way to control the influx of these new rich families into the ranks of Society; with its leading members (most notably Mrs Astor) acting as arbiters of who could join or not. Those who could not secure entry into this circle turned to Europe – most notably Britain – for the status they craved.

Over in Britain, the aristocracy after being at the pinnacle of the social, political and economic pyramid for centuries found themselves slowly being challenged by twin assaults from the middle class with their wealth derived from other sources and the agricultural depression which began to seriously undermine the main source of aristocratic wealth. Politically they were also in decline; despite peers still occupying ministerial positions and having the power of veto in the House of Lords, by the dawn of the twentieth century they were fast becoming a spent force culminating with the removal of their power of veto over legislation in by the 1911 Parliament Act.

Keen to preserve what they could of their estates despite selling land and chattels, the aristocracy resorted to what they had done in the past – marrying for money. There were so few home grown heiresses – the richest of them was already off the marriage market in 1878 (Hannah Rothschild who married Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery), – so impoverished peers were forced to look across the Atlantic to seek potential wives.

Cash for Coronets – In the beginning

As mentioned earlier, those who were shunned by society in America headed to Europe where initially they found a more open and receptive society in Paris under the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugenie. Under the Second Empire, building projects were undertaken in Paris, transforming it into the city that we know today as well as encouraging entrepreneurship and investment in technology and industry.

Paris also retained and enhanced its reputation for being the centre of arts, culture and fashion. Napoleon was drawn to self-made men and beautiful women and his court welcomed entrepreneurs and Americans, giving them the social recognition that would have been difficult to obtain in the past. The Jerome family were one of the early American families who were able to achieve the social success they desired in Paris that was denied to them in New York.

The Franco-Prussian War diverted the social traffic of Americans from Paris to London and although Paris regained its status as a cultural and fashion mecca during the Third Republic, the American plutocrats and parvenus began to increasingly prefer London – whose society (despite being ostensibly class obsessed and seemingly rigid) was easier to penetrate, was more receptive to wealth (despite claims to despise entrepreneurs and commerce) and above all was eager to marry their daughters. They also picked up quickly on the fact that among noble titles, British ones were the most desirable of all. Because of the principle of primogeniture, the title only passed to the oldest son or the nearest male relation which gave British aristocratic titles their exclusivity precisely because there were fewer than say French, Italian or German ones. Not to mention that even marrying a younger son was also a catch, not just for the family connections but if he had distinguished himself he could be raised to the peerage or baronetage and together with his wife, create a new dynasty thereby cementing their social status.

The American plutocrats’ entrée to London Society was made easier with the establishment by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) of an alternative social court which was centred on his London home Marlborough House. Thanks to him, formerly obscure events such as the Cowes Regatta became an important fixture of the Season. Maureen E. Montgomery observed in Gilded Prostitution that there were similarities between Napoleon III and the future Edward VII; the latter like the former liked the company of self-made men and pretty American women and his friendship or even just his acquaintance helped smooth out any social handicaps they might have. Just like the court of Napoleon III the Marlborough House set and the Edwardian court became a “focus for haute couture, conspicuous consumption, and plutocratic ambition.” (p. 22)

It was in the middle of the 1870s when the first wave of trans-Atlantic marriages took place; Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, Consuelo Yznaga to William Montagu 8th Duke of Manchester, Lillian Hammersley to the 8th Duke of Marlborough (it was a second marriage for both) and Minnie Stevens to Mr (later Sir) Arthur Paget. Jennie Churchill, Consuelo Manchester and Minnie Paget became social successes and could boast of close connections with the Marlborough House set; the latter two women would use their connections to great effect during the second wave of trans-Atlantic marriages.

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While the Churchill-Jerome marriage was a love match and both Randolph and Jennie had a happy marriage based on shared interests and her support of his political career, the Yznaga-Montagu marriage was obviously for the money and became the template for any future “cash for coronets” unions. Consuelo Manchester, despite being devoted to her husband and assimilating wholeheartedly into British society, had an unhappy marriage and notwithstanding the money she poured into her husband’s estate, the 8th duke effectively abandoned her and their family and only communicated with her when he needed money. However the Manchesters did not divorce and Consuelo remained a fixture in London Society until her death in 1909. In the next few years, the number of trans-Atlantic marriages would grow; culminating in the 1890s with the ultimate “cash for coronets” union in the form of the marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt (incidentally a goddaughter of Consuelo Manchester) and Charles “Sunny” Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

A “Clash of Civilisations”

As more trans-Atlantic marriages followed, there was growing unease over them on both sides of the Atlantic. The British were concerned over the number of American born peeresses; there was sneering over their backgrounds and many people took the view that anything and everything American was brash and vulgar. In addition, the influx of Americans into British society coincided with the opening up of the aristocracy and society. Historians have observed that the aristocracy’s reaction to the growing change in their circumstances and the anxieties that went with it were projected on to the social climbers whether home grown or foreign. The home grown arrivistes could be assimilated into the aristocracy and in time be part of the elite but the Americans were foreign and were seen as a threat, a challenge to the British way of life, therefore, their women could only be tolerated as wives of British peers.

Trans-Atlantic marriages were viewed with growing antipathy in America as well. Initially the marriages were viewed in some circles with pride, demonstrating social acceptance and how American women could hold their own against their European counterparts. Newspaper coverage of the weddings could be gushing, with special attention paid to the American bride’s beauty and the splendour of her trousseau. But as several of these marriages unravelled with some ending acrimoniously through the divorce courts or in lawsuits over money and property; the American press and public turned against them. Attitudes became more cynical and such unions were denounced as “unpatriotic” and a “betrayal” of American values and the principles on which the United States was founded. It reached a point when trans-Atlantic marriages became so common that the press began to report home grown marriages as a novelty, seen more as a match between equals and one made out of love rather than a business transaction.

A lot of the criticism was centred on lavish expenditures for the wedding, trousseau and the most crucial thing, the bride’s dowry; especially as by the 1890s, the American economy was overheating with periodic cycles of boom and bust. Compared to the meagre wages received by their workers, the American plutocrats carried on spending lavishly. Several commentators pointed out that money being spent propping up tottering British estates was being diverted from American workers, industry and investment at a time when the economy was vulnerable to depression, strikes and banking crises. Such appeals to patriotism were futile as social climbing Americans continued to look to Europe for social validation; and would continue to fall on deaf ears until at least 1910

Cash for Coronets – the peak and the end of the dream

The apogee of the trans-Atlantic marriage phenomenon was the 1895 wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of the railroad magnate William K. Vanderbilt, and Charles “Sunny” Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. The circumstances of their marriage and the events leading to their acrimonious separation and final divorce have been documented in contemporary news reports, magazine articles, books and documentaries. It was clear from the onset that this was a “marriage of convenience” (in Consuelo’s own words) and not even the American press were fooled; in the run up to the wedding, several newspapers published satirical cartoons poking fun at the mercenary nature of the marriage.

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Consuelo’s mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, had been so incensed by the snubs accorded to her and the rest of the family by the New York Four Hundred that she planned her assault on that society through lavish building projects (such as persuading William K to build Marble House, which became their summer home in Newport), entertaining and marrying her only daughter off to an aristocrat.

Alva Vanderbilt was no different from the other pushy social upstart mothers wanting status through their daughters marrying into the British aristocracy. Like these mothers, Alva declared that a Continental nobleman was not good enough for her daughter and going further than her fellow Americans, also stipulated that Consuelo should marry a duke. By coincidence, the impoverished 9th Duke of Marlborough was in search of a rich woman to save the Blenheim estates. After a lengthy negotiations concerning the dowry and Consuelo’s own financial arrangements as well as threats from Alva, the pair were duly married and left America to begin their married life in the forbidding environment of Blenheim Palace.

The Marlboroughs’ marriage, just like those of the Manchesters, Curzons, Suffolks and that of the fictional Granthams was indeed pursued with the motivation of securing money for their estates; as an aristocracy without money was scarcely worth the effort, keeping up appearances was important and despite having to marry for money, it was important for these families to continue with the façade that they were above all things financial. Despite most of the trans-Atlantic marriages being purely for financial reasons some were love matches while others such as the Curzons grew to love one another. There were also American women who were not as unwilling to marry as Consuelo Vanderbilt; there were some who welcomed marriage to a British aristocrat as an opportunity for them, as there was a stronger tradition of female involvement in philanthropy and public duty in Britain.  British women of all social classes did not have legal rights but marriage to an aristocrat provided the opportunity for the American heiress to escape pressures back home and make a fresh start. Crucially marriage to an aristocrat offered a sense of useful occupation, adventure, romance while others saw it as a way to broaden their horizons and learn something new

Looking at the marriages whether successful or unsuccessful, both parties did benefit – the American heiress was able to gain a title and status as well as purpose in life while the British aristocrat obtained the money needed to keep the estate going and an heir. The British aristocrat wasn’t a fortune hunter; he had the status and the property but not the money to keep it solvent and so quite naturally he went in search of what was missing.

By 1910, trans-Atlantic marriages were losing their novelty as the supply of heiresses was thinning and despite the money, the economic decline of the aristocracy could not effectively be arrested. Even the top ranks of the peerage were selling off property and works of art, and the tone set by the new King, George V with his insularity and xenophobic suspicion of anything not British (including the Empire) meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins of high society; while in the United States, the emerging self-confidence due to the acquisition of colonial possessions from Spain and the growing clout in world affairs after the First World War made Americans realise that they did not need coronets and titles for social validation. The great era of trans-Atlantic marriages was well and truly over.

Notes

* Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) is an American political scientist best known for developing the “clash of civilisastions”, a thesis of a post-Cold War world order. His ideas were first published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 then were later expanded into a book entitled The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). His ideas were developed as a reaction to the ideas of a former student, Francis Fukuyama outlined in The End of History and the Last Man (1990). While Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War had resulted into the triumph of liberal democracy, human rights and the free market economy leading to the “end of history” in a Hegelian sense, Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to the state where conflict would be along cultural lines with his main argument that this conflict would be characterised by cultural and religious fault lines.

The phrase “clash of civilisations” itself was already used back in 1990 by Bernard Lewis in an article for the Atlantic Monthly and still earlier by Basil Mathews in a 1926 book entitled Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations.

Photographs taken from various sources such as Wikipedia and hoop-skirts-and-corsets.tumblr.com. Photo of the portrait of the 19th countess was taken by author during a visit to Kenwood.

Photo of cartoon was taken from Blenheim & the Churchill family : a personal portrait by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill

Further Reading

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

David Cannadine. Aspects of the Aristocracy (London, 1994)

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. The Glitter and the Gold (New York, 1953)

Elisabeth Kehoe. Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters (London, 2004)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age (London, 2005)

F.M.L. Thompson. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1963)

Maureen E. Montgomery. ‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914 (London, 1989)

Charles Jennings. Them and Us: The American Invasion of High Society (Stroud, 2007)

David Gilmour. Curzon (London, 1994)

Anne de Courcy. The Viceroy’s Daughters (London, 2000)

Dominic Lieven. The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914 (New York, 1993)

Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl. To Marry an English Lord (New York, 1989)

Titled Americans, 1890: a list of American ladies who have married foreigners of rank (with an introduction by Professor Eric Homberger) (Oxford, 2013)

Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and Alexandra Parsons. Blenheim & the Churchill family : a personal portrait (London, 2005)

Mary S. Lovell. The Churchills (London, 2011)

Laura Houliston. The Suffolk Collection (London, 2012)

Secrets of the Manor House (PBS documentary, 2013)

Million Dollar American Princesses (Smithsonian Channel documentary, 2015)

https://examininghistory.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/consuelo-vanderbilt-american-heiress-and-duchess-of-marlborough/

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-american-rich-kids-bought-their-way-into-the-british-elite-4252/?no-ist