Downton Abbey prequel: How America"s Dollar Princesses married into the crumbling British aristocracy

The woman who saved Downton: How America’s Dollar Princesses married into the crumbling British aristocracy

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UPDATED:

13:29 GMT, 1 October 2012

Beautiful, vivacious and fabulously wealthy, they were known as the Dollar Princesses.

At the end of the 19th century, hundreds of eligible young women turned their backs on America and crossed the Atlantic, with a steely glint in their eyes. The only intention was to snare a member of the British aristocracy.

It might all seem terribly crass but, in fact, these were matches made in heaven.

Huge impact: An upcoming prequel to Downton Abbey will focus on the character Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern), a rich American who goes on to marry the Earl of Grantham

Huge impact: An upcoming prequel to Downton Abbey will focus on the character Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern), a rich American who goes on to marry the Earl of Grantham

In return for receiving titles, the daughters of US millionaires offered fistfuls of much-needed cash.

The women’s huge impact on British life is expected to feature in a Downton Abbey prequel. It will concentrate on the courtship of the character Cora Crawley, the rich American who goes on to marry the Earl of Grantham.

With their vast armies of servants estates like Downton were expensive to run, so the US dollars provided a lifeline. Some of the nation’s most historic country estates were threatened with ruin at the time, because of a depression in agriculture which had halved the value of some fortunes.

The American predators also helped shape the future of the aristocracy by providing heirs, including a future Prime Minister, in addition to their money.

It must have been akin to the cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue of the upper classes.

During this period, lasting from the 1870s to the outbreak of World War 1, some 350 US heiresses married into the British aristocracy. At today’s values, it’s estimated that they brought with them the equivalent of 1 billion of new world wealth.

New, ultra-fast ocean liners propelled these marauders from New York.

It was hardly surprising when they began swarming here that the brash, confident, women caused such a stir. They could afford the latest Parisian fashions and different wardrobes for every season.

Well-matched In Downton, Robert (played by Hugh Bonneville) marries Cora for her money before he eventually falls in love with her

Well-matched In Downton, Robert (played by Hugh Bonneville) marries Cora for her money before he eventually falls in love with her

The woman were bedecked in jewels and some even played cards for money, which would have been out of the question for their demure English rivals. Another trait was laughing aloud, rather than follow the conventional style of simpering quietly behind a hand.

Melanie Stafford, of the American Museum in Britain, in Bath, says: 'They came from a different culture and had a very different outlook on life. They were more forward than English women, who were expected to know their place and be seen and not heard.

'The American women were socially confident and competitive. If they had a view they’d make it known, so they could be very good company.

'There’s no doubt that noses were put out of joint among the English women who might otherwise have got these titles.'

During the period, lasting from the
1870s to the outbreak of World War 1, some 350 US heiresses married into
the British aristocracy. At today’s values, it’s estimated that they
brought with them the equivalent of 1 billion of new world wealth

When the women disembarked, often with their mothers in tow to arrange introductions, they’d ingratiate their way into London society by letting it be known they had money.

Stafford adds: 'Soirees and musical evenings were held, where the women would be introduced to members of the aristocracy. It was all very hasty and this was like the speed-dating of its time, involving impoverished members of the English aristocracy and wealthy American heiresses.

'They were marriages of convenience, but you have to remember that there was much less emphasis on marrying for love in those days.'

A quarterly publication called The Titled American listed the successfully married ladies, as well as the names of eligible titled bachelors.

In 1890, it carried this blatant appeal for a wealthy bride: 'The Marquess of Winchester is the fifteenth Marquess and Premier Marquess in the Peerage of Great Britain.

'He is also the Hereditary Bearer of the Cap of Maintenance. The entailed estates amount to 4,700 acres, yielding an income of $22,000. He is 32 years of age, and a captain of the Coldstream Guards. Family seat: Amport House, Hampshire.'

In Downton, Robert marries Cora for her money before he eventually falls in love with her, but the reality was often very different for the Dollar Princesses.

These lively, well-educated women were whisked off to spend their days in isolated, draughty stately homes which were thousands of miles from their families.

Prequel: Fans of the ITV period drama will get an insight into the back story of its characters

Prequel: Fans of the ITV period drama will get an insight into the back story of its characters

/10/01/article-0-03F8454C0000044D-583_306x447.jpg” width=”306″ height=”447″ alt=”Early match: Jeanette (Jennie) Jerome, the daughter of a wealthy New York stock broker, married Randolph Churchill in 1874. The couple's first son was future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill” class=”blkBorder” />

Early match: Jeanette (Jennie) Jerome, the daughter of a wealthy New York stock broker, married Randolph Churchill in 1874. The couple's first son was future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Jennie Jerome

The marriage in 1874 of Jennie Jerome to Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough, opened the floodgates.

Within three days of meeting, Randolph and the daughter of a wealthy New York stockbroker had decided they would tie the knot. It was a match which shocked society, but broke the ice for all the other Americans.

Jennie, who was just 20-years-old, had a
snake tattooed around her wrist and was known as the panther because of
her dark beauty.

As Randolph rose through the political ranks, she
helped write his speeches and later had a career of her own promoting
Conservative policies. She was to marry three times and her son was the
future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

Mary Leiter

Another
was Mary Leiter, the daughter of a Chicago millionaire, who became Lady
Curzon at the age of 25. It’s been claimed she’s the inspiration for
the character of Lady Cora in Downton.

When
her husband of three years became Viceroy of India, in 1898, overnight
Mary became one of the most powerful and influential women in the
British Empire. His career was bankrolled by US dollars.

Among
the most flamboyant of the Dollar Princesses was Consuelo Yznaga, who
beacme the Duchess of Manchester. She was an unconventional
cigar-smoking beauty from Louisiana, who taught the Prince of Wales to
play the banjo.

Duchess Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became the ninth Duchess of Marlborough at the age of 18, had passed entrance examinations to both Cambridge and Oxford but found marriage to an English aristocrat incredibly dull.

Teenage bride: Consuelo Vanderbilt became the ninth Duchess of Marlborough at the age of 18 when she married the The Duke of Marlborough (far right)

Teenage bride: Consuelo Vanderbilt became the ninth Duchess of Marlborough at the age of 18 when she married The Duke of Marlborough (far right)

She became an international emblem for social climbing but complained that the only women she met wanted to talk about babies and dresses.

The marriage failed but Consuelo’s legacy was the restoration of Blenheim Palace, paid for by a massive dowry worth 2.5 million.