How American Dollar Princesses Changed British Nobility

Family History, Lifestyle
25 January 2016

Jennie Jerome [Wikimedia Commons]
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Old World and the New came together in the form of “Dollar Princesses,” a phenomenon that captivated the public’s attention then and still does today.

A Dollar Princess referred to an American heiress, often from newly wealthy families, who married a title-rich but cash-poor British nobleman. To find these dukes and earls, American mothers and daughters visited London during the social season with the aid of guides such as the “Titled Americans,” which listed recent Anglo-American matches along with the names of high-born, still-single men. A quarter of the House of Lords had some American connection by the end of the 19th century. In 1895 alone, nine British noblemen, including a duke, an earl, and three barons, married American women.

In the television series “Downton Abbey,” Elizabeth McGovern portrays just such a Gilded Age heiress, who marries the proud but financially strapped Earl of Grantham. McGovern is also host of a new Smithsonian Channel miniseries, “Million Dollar American Princesses,” which explores the lives of Dollar Princesses and other American women influential in Europe later in 20th century. Four of those women demonstrate the range of experiences that Dollar Princesses faced and the effects they had on both British and American history.

Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill

Born in Brooklyn in 1854, Jennie Jerome was one of the earliest Dollar Princesses. As a mother, she was also one of the most influential. Leonard Jerome, Jennie’s father, was a flamboyant stock trader and womanizer; her mother endured rumors that she had Iroquois ancestry. Old-money society in New York did not consider either to be fit company.

Traveling through England, however, Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill, the younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. They fell madly in love, and within three days of their initial meeting, Jennie and Lord Randolph announced their plans to marry.

A wedding solved each of their problems: Jennie’s family rose in respectability, while Jennie’s dowry of 50,000 pounds vastly supplemented Lord Randolph’s meager allowance as the younger son of a nobleman. Jennie’s father also provided her with a 1,000-pound annual allowance.

Jennie and Randolph wed in in April 1874. Seven and a half months later, Jennie gave birth to Winston, the future prime minister of the United Kingdom who would lead the country during its darkest hours of World War II.

Unsurprisingly for such an arrangement, their marriage was marked by several affairs. Jennie allegedly enjoyed a dalliance with Edward, the Prince of Wales, who had earlier supported her marriage to Lord Randolph over objections from the traditional-minded nobility. For years, it was said that Lord Randolph died of syphilis, contracted from one of his many extramarital encounters.

Portrait of the 9th Duke of Marlborough with his family. John Singer Sargent. [Wikimedia Commons]
Portrait of the 9th Duke of Marlborough with his family. John Singer Sargent. [Wikimedia Commons]
Consuelo Vanderbilt and Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

Nineteen years after Jennie’s marriage to Lord Randolph, his nephew Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, married the wealthiest and perhaps most famous Dollar Princess: Consuelo Vanderbilt, great-granddaughter of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Like Jennie Jerome’s Wall Street money, Vanderbilt’s relatively new railroad fortune seemed déclassé to both New York high society and British aristocrats. But Consuelo’s wealth — and her mother’s ruthless ambition to land a noble son-in-law — opened many doors in the United Kingdom.

Consuelo at first had no interest in marrying the duke. She was, in fact, already engaged to a man she loved. But after Consuelo’s mother threatened to kill herself, Consuelo agreed to the trans-Atlantic union her mother had planned. On November 6, 1895, Consuelo married Charles in St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

In her hand, she clutched orchids grown in the greenhouse of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, an estate second only to Buckingham Palace in preeminence.

In his hand (figuratively speaking) was a marriage settlement signed by Consuelo’s father that promised the duke $2.5 million in shares of Vanderbilt stock and $100,000 a year to both newlyweds.

Their marriage, however, was even unhappier than Jennie and Lord Randolph’s. On their honeymoon, Charles is said to have told Consuelo about his English mistress and then set about spending her dowry on restoring his family seat, Blenheim Palace. Despite the renovations, Consuelo complained about its drafts and lack of indoor plumbing, the 65 long miles to London, and, worst of all, her loveless marriage. She and the Duke separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.

Frances Work and James Burke Roche, 3rd Baron Fermoy

Born in 1857 and raised in the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, Frances “Fanny” Work was the daughter of self-made millionaire Frank Work. In 1878, Fanny met an Anglo-Irish nobleman, James Burke Roche, who would become the 3rd Baron Fermoy. Fanny married him in September 1880, over her father’s objections. By mid-1885, the couple had two daughters and twin boys.

During her marriage, however, Fanny suffered from her husband’s profligate spending and abandonment. By 1891, Frank Work agreed to pay off James’s debts if he agreed to divorce Fanny and let her have custody of their sons. Frank Work so detested his former British relations that he would later stipulate in his will that none of his family members could visit Britain again.

His instructions, however, were ignored, and Fanny’s elder son, Edmund Maurice Roche, returned to England to become the 4th Baron Fermoy in 1920. In 1936, Edmund fathered Frances Ruth Roche, who in turn gave birth to Diana Spencer. In 1981, Diana married England’s Prince Charles and became famous worldwide as Princess Diana.

Princess Diana, through the line of her father, the 8th Earl Spencer, was the sixth cousin once removed of Winston Churchill (the Earls Spencer are descended from the younger brother of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough). Through Princess Diana’s maternal connection to the Work family, she, her two sons (Princes William and Harry), and William’s two children (Prince George and Princess Charlotte) are related to eight American presidents and several other famous Americans, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Humphrey Bogart, John Pierpont Morgan, General George S. Patton, and Orson Welles.

Mary Leiter and George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and 5th Baron Scarsdale.

Not all Dollar Princesses suffered through unhappy marriages to spendthrift, noble husbands. Mary Leiter, for example, shared both love and English rule of India with her husband. Mary was born in Chicago in 1870 to a department store magnate worth $220 million. Visiting England in 1890, Mary had a chance meeting with the Prince of Wales, who found her charming and introduced her to London society. In 1895, Mary wed 36-year-old George Curzon, an up-and-coming political star and the son of the 4th Baron Scarsdale.

A devoted wife, Mary rose with George during his political career. In 1898, George was named 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and Viceroy of India, the head of British government in colonial India. Mary joined her husband there, and as Vicereine of India, she held the highest official title of any American woman up to that point. Mary, however, became sick and died in India in July 1906. Their loving relationship is reportedly the inspiration for the Earl of Grantham and his wife, Cora, in “Downton Abbey.”

With the coronation of King George V in 1911, royal and public sentiment began to turn against the Dollar Princesses. The new king disapproved of such unions, and the trans-Atlantic matches began to slow. Nevertheless, Jerome, Vanderbilt, Work, Leiter, and the other Dollar Princesses provide a fascinating glimpse into a world being remade from ancient traditions.

They also provide genealogists with a lynchpin for connecting millions of Americans to illustrious British forebears. Those records are available on Ancestry in locations such as The Royal Collection.

— Sandie Angulo Chen