The Real Women Behind Creation of Lady Cora

By Rohan, Virginia | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Real Women Behind Creation of Lady Cora


Rohan, Virginia, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Today, most of their names are, at best, only vaguely familiar.

But in their day -- the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- the real-life American heiresses who inspired the fictional Lady Cora Grantham on "Downton Abbey" were true celebrities. These women, who married British aristocrats, trading "cash for class," were, as the Smithsonian Channel calls them in a new series, the "Million Dollar American Princesses."

"They were the Kardashians of the era, if you like," says Carol McD. Wallace, co-author of "To Marry an English Lord," a book that "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes has cited as an important influence on his work.

"They were very, very famous, these girls. In fact, the American Beauty rose was named for American heiresses."

Smithsonian series

Wallace is one of the experts interviewed in Smithsonian Channel's three-part "Million Dollar American Princesses," which debuts tonight. It tells the stories of some of the several hundred wealthy American women who married British aristocrats between 1880 and 1920 -- their romances, heartbreak, secrets, scandals and legacies. These women included Winston Churchill's mother and Princess Diana's great-grandmother.

The series, which uses historical documents, interviews, location filming and dramatic re-enactments, is hosted by Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora.

These young women -- also known as "Dollar Princesses" -- grew up in fabulous homes, with legions of staff, and they married titled, cash-strapped British aristocrats who often resided in crumbling century-old castles.

Among those we meet in tonight's episode, "Cash for Class," is Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome, whose son, Winston Churchill, would become one of the 20th century's most famous statesmen. She had grown up in a Manhattan mansion that today would be worth more than $250 million, yet still was not accepted by New York society. When she spied Lord Randolph Churchill at a party in England, it was said to be love at first sight for both.

"Jennie was, in a way, a remarkably modern personality," Wallace says. "Not only was she a raving beauty, but she was also quick- witted, energetic. She had a lot of verve and bubble and snap, they used to call it. And she adapted very well to the English way of life."

Episode 2, "Wedding of the Century" (8 p.m. Jan. 11), begins with the ultra-luxurious nuptials of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough on Nov. 6, 1895, at Manhattan's St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Crowds lined up for blocks, hoping for a glimpse of the couple. The bride, pressured by her mother into this union, cried before the ceremony. …

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