Dollar Princesses, or how the American heiress saved Downton Abbey and other estates like it

Perhaps it goes without saying that among the Collections crew here at the Museum there are a number of huge fans of the Masterpiece Classic series Downton Abbey.   In the weeks since season three drew to a close, we’ve been attempting to placate our sense of loss over the absence of the Crawleys from our Sunday nights by hypothesizing about various plot lines for the rumored Downton prequel.   Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton, has spoken to the press about what he wants to do next: a series for American network television called The Gilded Age, set in 1880’s New York City.  One of the main storylines of the new series would revolve around the meeting of Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and the future Countess of Grantham, the American Cora Levinson.  As referred to several times throughout multiple episodesDownton Abbey would have been lost if it weren’t for Cora’s inheritance.  In exchange, Cora obtained a royal title.

Reception of the Prince of Wales, 1860, in the Society Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 34.241.8.

Reception of the Prince of Wales, 1860, in the Society Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 34.241.8.

While the marriage of Robert and Cora may sound calculating, crass, and even downright cold to us today, it is steeped in historical fact.   The growth of United States industrialism following the Civil War created a whole new set of exceedingly wealthy American families.  Meanwhile, the British aristocracy was faced with centuries-old, crumbling estates, and minimal funds to maintain their properties.  Edward, Prince of Wales, made his celebrated visit to the United States in 1860, and New York’s wealthiest families sponsored and hosted numerous events such as the dinner listed in the menu above, in his honor.  These events founded relationships between the Prince and wealthy New Yorkers that continued to develop over the ensuing decades.

By the late 19th century, the practice of seeking noble matches for American heiresses  was commonplace enough that the term “Dollar Princess” was coined to describe these young women.  One of the most well-known matches was that of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

Invitation to the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborogh, 1895, in the Society Collection.  Museum of the City of New York. 36.177.116.

Invitation to the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough, 1895, in the Society Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 36.177.116.

The marriage was orchestrated by Alva Vanderbilt, a prominent socialite of the Gilded Age, who sought to assure the social position of the Vanderbilt family through the union.   Hundreds of police were called out to restrain curious onlookers the day of the wedding.  The image below briefly catches the bride as she climbs into her carriage.  Click here to see more photos of the event.

Byron Company. Weddings, Vanderbilt-Marlborough, 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.16376.

Byron Company. Weddings, Vanderbilt-Marlborough, 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.16376.

Sadly, unlike Lord and Lady Grantham, who take every opportunity to remind us that they did “grow to love each other,” while Consuelo gained a royal title, and the Duke was said to have obtained $2.5 million in railroad stock as the marriage settlement (roughly $68 million today), the 9th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were reputed to have a rather unhappy marriage.   The couple separated in 1906,  divorced in 1921 (an event referred to in the season three finale of Downton), and in 1926 the marriage was annulled.

Invitation to the marriage of Cornelia Bradley-Martin tot he Earl of Craven, 1893, in the Society Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 33.213.3

Invitation to the marriage of Cornelia Bradley-Martin tot he Earl of Craven, 1893, in the Society Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 33.213.3

The Museum also holds an invitation to the marriage of Cornelia Martin, or Cornelia Bradley-Martin, as her mother preferred to refer to the family’s last name, to the 4th Earl of Craven, in 1893.   The Bradley-Martins, equally socially mobile as the Vanderbilts, may be best known for the lavish Bradley-Martin Ball held at the Waldorf Astoria in 1897.  According to the World, which reported on the event, of the 40 men present, less than half a dozen were not millionaires.  The series of renovations at Coombe Abbey, the ancestral home of the Earl of Craven, begun the year of his marriage to Cornelia, suggests that without the influx of American money, Coombe Abbey, like Downton Abbey, would have been lost.

So as we wonder what comes next, or in this case, what came before, for the Crawleys and the Granthams, stay tuned for more highlights from our collections as we prepare for this fall’s exhibition on the Gilded Age in New York.  Now I think I hear the dressing gong – time to pick out a gown for dinner!

6 responses to “Dollar Princesses, or how the American heiress saved Downton Abbey and other estates like it

  1. Charles von Hamm

    None of these fair ladies gained royal titles. They gained noble titles, specifically, becoming peeresses. Not only did Alva Belmont orchestrate her daughter’s marriage to the duke, she also testified to that effect (in her favour) at the divorce proceedings to have the marriage dissolved (“I forced my daughter to marry the duke…”). Good summary of the marital trade of the Gilded Age though.

  2. A “must read” for D.A. fans!

  3. Interesting Lindsay! Love D.A.

  4. The marriage of the ninth Duke of Marlborough to Consuelo Vanderbilt was a famous non-success, but the second marriage of the duke’s father, the “wicked” eighth Duke of Marlborough, to Lily Price Hamersley of Troy, New York, was surprisingly happy. Lily re-roofed Blenheim in 1888–89 with income from the estate of her first husband, a New York City Knickerbocker and real estate tycoon. A plaque on the exterior of the Metropolitan Club states (somewhat wrongly) that the land on which the club sits was purchased in 1891 from Lily, Duchess of Marlborough. Lily’s third husband was the English horseracing partner of another well-known New Yorker, William C. Whitney.

  5. It’s like my two favourite worlds collide. A lovely blog, thank you. Cheers

  6. Pingback: The World’s Richest Boy – the Life of William B. Leeds | mcnyblog

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