Goodwin, Daisy, Newsweek
Byline: Daisy Goodwin
The American heiresses who inspired 'Downton Abbey.'
the third season of Downtona[umlaut]Abbey is back on our screens, and the series introduces a new character, the American mother of Lady Grantham, played to eye-popping excess by Shirley MacLaine. This is not some concession to American audiences, but an accurate reflection of the extraordinary links between the English aristocracy and the American plutocracy in the Edwardian era, a time when the all-conquering "dollar princesses" married their way into a third of the a[umlaut]titles represented in the House of Lords. Pretty much every aristocratic family a[umlaut]in Britain has an American connection, including that of Princess Diana, a[umlaut]whose great-grandmother was an American heiress.
It was the beginning of a special relationship, and just as Downton Abbey is a transatlantic hit today, these Anglo-American couplings were headline news in the early 20th century. The marriages of heiresses like Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough and of May Goelet to the Duke of Roxburghe were front-page stories in the lands of both the bride and the groom. Editorials were written in the American papers deploring the flight of American capital to the Old World--and when Gertrude Vanderbilt bucked the trend by marrying a Whitney, American commentators rejoiced that a U.S. heiress had at last contracted an all-American marriage. The dollar princesses also found their way into the literature of the period: rich American girls looking for titled husbands are featured in the novels of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Anthony Trollope. There was even an operetta called The Dollar Princess, which had a successful run in the West End and on Broadway.
The appeal of these rich American girls--gorgeously dressed and full of what contemporaries called snap--invading the English country houses continues to this day. I published my novel The American Heiress in England a[umlaut]a month before Downton Abbey a[umlaut]premiered in the U.K. Weirdly, both a[umlaut]Julian Fellowes and I called our American heroines Cora. Downton Abbey a[umlaut]has been a global hit, while my novel has been a bestseller on both sides a[umlaut]of the Atlantic.
My interest in the heiresses started on a visit to Blenheim Palace, the home of the Dukes of Marlborough and Britain's largest nonroyal residence. In the hall there is a wonderful John Singer Sargent painting of Consuelo and Sunny Marlborough, their two sons, and a couple of dogs. She stands tall and gorgeous, her swanlike neck encased in her signature pearls on one side of the canvas; her husband, the ninth duke, is placed as far from her on the canvas as possible, perhaps to conceal the fact that he is several inches shorter that his wife. Between them are the children, the dogs, and a vista of the palace. It is clear from the painting that all is not well in the Marlborough marriage.
The story behind the picture is revealed in Consuelo's fascinating memoir, The Glitter and the Gold. Consuelo had been blackmailed into the marriage by her socially ambitious mother, Alva, who threatened to commit suicide if her daughter did not agree to marry the duke. Things did not start well. When the newlyweds went on honeymoon on a yacht in the Mediterranean, Sunny insisted that they should pay their respects to the Spanish court. Consuelo refused and told him that she had never wanted to marry him because she was in love with somebody else. Sunny retorted that he had been in exactly the same position. The couple did their dynastic duty and produced, in Consuelo's phrase, "an heir and spare," but from then on they lived effectively separate lives--Consuelo had an affair with the Marquess of Londonderry, while Sunny fell in love with another American girl, Gladys Deacon. The couple eventually divorced in 1921; Sunny waited until Consuelo was past childbearing age, as her enormous dowry ([pounds sterling]100 million in today's money) was settled on her children, and he didn't want any of the money to be diverted away from Blenheim. …