I knew that it was common near the end of the 1800s for American heiresses to go hunting around Europe for impoverished noblemen. It was the perfect win-win in some ways: an aristocratic pedigree for America’s nouveau riche and a much-needed cash infusion for Europe’s destitute nobility.
But a couple of American heiresses seem particularly interesting to me now that I’ve gotten to know Cora Crawley, whom Lord Grantham initially married strictly for her fortune (not falling in love with her until about a year after their wedding, if memory serves).
One was Consuelo Vanderbilt, U.S. railroad heiress, who at age 18 in 1895 nabbed the Duke of Marlborough. Or should I say her mother nabbed him on her behalf. Poor Consuelo. Her pushy mother picked out the fortune-hunting Duke as the most highly placed of potential noble suitors and forced her beautiful young daughter to marry him. Consuelo brought a huge dowry into the loveless marriage, £2 million at the time, which would be about £80 million or $67 million in 2010.
Another was Jennie Jerome, who married the younger brother of Consuelo Vanderbilt’s Duke’s father. So, in other words, Jennie was the aunt of the Duke who married Consuelo. Jennie also was the mother of Sir Winston Churchill, who eventually served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II.
Interestingly, the Dukes of Marlborough family is a branch of the Spencer family, the very old and important aristocratic family from which also came Diana, Princess of Wales.
As an American I can’t really get too excited by all the royalty/aristocracy-as-celebrity nonsense, but I do find the history of these families rather fascinating nonetheless. If you’re interested in learning more, this very well-written Daily Mail article from three years ago tells the story of these and other Gilded-Age American heiresses-turned-aristocrats in more depth.