It is the most animated this Downton Abbey fan has ever seen Lady Grantham. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the period soap opera’s slack-jawed, sleepy-eyed matriarch Cora—who always seems listlessly zonked, whatever disaster has just befallen her husband or unlucky-in-love daughters—gallops with gusto through the stories of the real-life American heiresses who married British aristocrats in the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary series Million Dollar American Princesses.
The three-part series, which begins on Sunday night just before the first episode of Season Five of Downton, focuses on the stories of a clutch of the 200 or so American heiresses who married British lords at around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
The marital exchange, on the surface at least, seems crisp and sound: Hard-up British aristocrats benefit from the wealth of American heiresses, while American heiresses get a title and to live in a grand, crumbling castle way before their great grandkids get all Harry Potter-obsessed with exactly the same thing. What this seemingly symmetrical trade of desires neglected to factor in was greed, personalities, and marriage-killing personal frailties.
What the program persuasively shows is that Britain should be jolly grateful for the American women who alighted on its shores—one union produced Britain’s inspirational wartime PM, Winston, while another marriage, generations later, resulted in Princes William and Harry, and now Prince George. The Royal Family has benefited hugely from the American blood in its veins.
Jennie Jerome, who went on to become Lady Randolph Churchill, was born in Brooklyn in 1854. Her mother, Clara, was wealthy; her father, Leonard, a classic New York striver, a Wall Street speculator and gambler—the same persistence, one of the documentary’s commentators says, that would later be seen in Winston. The problem in New York for the Jerome family was the top tier of Manhattan society—the so-called Knickerbockers—did not accept them. Their money was too new. Leonard may have been worth $10 million, and the family may have enjoyed a mansion on Madison Avenue with its own 600-seat opera house, but they were seen as arrivistes by the Astors and Co. (the Astor family pile was where the Empire State Building stands today). Divorcees, Jews, and new money were excluded from the Knickerbockers. Even worse in the eyes of these racist snobs, Clara was rumored to have Iroquois blood.
Stymied at home, Clara took her daughters to Europe to launch them in the social scene there—first in Paris at the court of Eugenie, the Spanish-born wife of Napoleon III, then London, where they became acquainted with the ruthless rules of British aristocratic succession where the first-born son inherited all.
The British problem of the era was the material fortunes of the grand estates were crumbling because of falling revenues from agriculture (itself due to globalization).
The young American women entering British high society had more spirit, and were more confident, than their English counterparts—and so, it was all the play for during “the season,” where young debutantes were (in polite terms) presented to society, or, in less polite terms, paraded around as marriage-meat to young, titled men.
The Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde were fans of Jennie, who, like other young American women, came ready to party in fabulous Charles Worth gowns from Paris. They spent an equivalent today of $400,000 on a season’s-worth of gowns.
Jennie met Randolph Churchill in 1873 at a ball; three days later they were engaged. His letters to her show he is smitten, hers to him show a more nuanced control: “I won’t marry you unless you let me do exactly as I like.”
Neither family was happy: his deemed her a dubious American, hers because he was a third son, and therefore not about to inherit a title or money. Leonard, Jennie’s father, objected to all his daughter’s money passing to Randolph—in the U.K. at that time, women were not allowed to own money in their own right—but eventually agreed a dowry for her of 50,000 British pounds.
Still, Jennie threw herself into the marriage, campaigned for Randolph’s political career, while noting his mother’s dislike of her was a barely contained volcano. At least she, and other American new-money princesses, had their revenge on the snooty Knickerbockers back in New York: They had to accept the women now, with their newly gained, fancy English titles.
The documentary also follows the fortunes of Consuelo Yznaga, later Duchess of Manchester. Viscount Mandeville, like many British aristocrats, had met her in the U.S. while “hunting” for an American wife. He was already notorious for his love of drinking, showgirls, and prostitutes. When they married, she would send sad letters to a gambling club he frequented begging him to come home, and be a proper father and husband. But he elected instead to have a very visible affair with a music-hall star.
Diana, Princess of Wales, was the great-granddaughter—and her brother, Earl Spencer, the great-grandson—of Frances Ellen Work, an American heiress who married the beyond-feckless James Roche, the 3rd Baron Fermoy.
Roche may have been dashing and charming, but, as Earl Spencer says today, “I don’t know if he fell in love with her, or her father’s fortune.”
Earl Spencer—as great a storyteller as you’d imagine from the person who delivered that stinging oration at Diana’s funeral—recalls how his great-great-grandfather Frank Work was a hellraiser who rode horses, who had left home with five dollars in his pocket and made $15 million. He wasn’t particularly enamored with the idea of his daughter funding the dissolute pursuits of a layabout of a British aristocrat. Work Senior’s fears proved depressingly well-founded: Roche blew through $100,000 ($2.5 million today) of Frances’ money by gambling alone.
Consuelo and Viscount Mandeville’s marriage also broke down, as did Randolph and Jennie Churchill’s (she remained in love with him, though); her voracious sex drive, says one commentator, led her to take 200 lovers, including the Prince of Wales. Churchill contracted syphilis—known then as a “general paralysis of the insane”—and then the couple left the U.K. to travel, with a lead-lined coffin in case he died from the disease. They made it home, after which he did die, she nursing him to the end.
Jennie kept his parliamentary vestments for her son, apparently instilling in Winston the sense that he would be a leader. The strong ties he would cultivate with America were first instilled by his American mother.
Consuelo not only lost her husband, but also her twin daughters, who are lastingly memoralized on a church window in the family’s estate.
Most dramatically—and most tellingly in how it illustrates the Americans practically exercising the reins of their financial power—Frank Work told his daughter, when she was divorcing her husband, that he would not fund any more of her reckless British aristocrat husband’s behavior.
Earl Spencer says his great-great-grandfather said to his son-in-law, “I’ll pay off your debts, but I’m bringing up your sons.” Earl Spencer adds, “Effectively, my great-grandfather sold his children to his father-in-law.”
Frank Work wasn’t done. He stipulated in his will that Frances was never again allowed to reside in the U.K. or Ireland, and that his grandchildren should assume the surname Work, not Roche, and that they should all become U.S. citizens.
His demands were in vain: Frances’ son Maurice moved to England, where his daughter married the eighth Earl Spencer, giving birth to Diana Spencer, later the Princess of Wales, and mother to future King William, and grandmother to future King George.
The relationships, and motivations of their chief participants, are as tangled and shady as you expect of the super-rich. The notion that this is “dollars for a title” or “cash for class” obscures the pesky reality that feelings and responsibility, and good and bad behavior, can sour even the most pragmatically formed of unions.
In none of the three stories did husband and wife end up living fully happy, realized marriages—yet Jennie and Frances arguably became key players in shaping future chapters of British history.
Future episodes of the Smithsonian series will explore Consuelo Vanderbilt’s tumultuous life, and the American women who emerged as British society influencers in the 1930s, prime among them Wallis Simpson, whose love affair with Edward, the Duke of Windsor, led to his abdication as King in 1936.
“The guilty secret of the British aristocracy is how much American blood runs through its veins,” McGovern says—but it’s less a guilty secret than a vivid, little-known history, and knowledge which can be usefully deployed by an American any time they scent even a whiff of British snobbery.