Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

American Heiresses & English Lords: A Match Made in Heaven?

The staff at Staatsburgh are great fans of the television program Downton Abbey. We love the show because it illustrates the way a great estate like Staatsburgh would operate with opulent dinner parties and a strict hierarchy of servants. Watching the show can bring to life situations that would have happened here at Staatsburgh. We love it so much that we started a special Downton Abbey themed tour at the site. The tour will be offered again in September and October (check out our facebook page for dates), and in the spirit of Downton Abbey, this blog takes a moment to look at marriages between American heiresses and the European aristocracy.

There has been some interest in the practice of American heiresses marrying titled Englishmen because of the show.  On Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is married to an American woman, the former Cora Levinson, daughter of a dry goods millionaire. At Staatsburgh, Ruth Livingston Mills used her sister's position in English society after marrying an Englishman to help secure her daughter Beatrice's marriage to an Earl.  

Downton's Cora Levinson arrived in England in 1888 at age 20 chaperoned by her mother. She was presented at court and enjoyed a London Season. During a London Season, a young lady would attend countless parties and balls with hopes of meeting a potential suitor. By the end of Cora's first Season, she was engaged to the future Lord Grantham who needed to secure funds to rescue his large estate. What began as a marriage of convenience soon grew into love and on the show the marriage between the Earl and Countess of Grantham is portrayed as loving and happy. Other women who were forced into marriage like Conseulo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, were not as lucky in love and many of these marriages later dissolved. Yet like the fictional marriage between Cora Levinson and the Earl of Grantham, a great influx of American money helped to maintain and preserve the great estates of the English nobility.

All Titles Were Not Created Equal

While the goal for many American heiresses was to marry a titled Englishman, there was a very strict hierarchy among those titles. The most prestigious title was duke (duchess) since there were only 27 at any given time. Certainly a duke would be the best "catch" for a young American heiress. The next rank was a marquess (marchioness) and then an earl (countess). Earls were the most common in the British peerage system numbering into the hundreds. When attending a formal dinner, the earl with the older title (Ex: The 8th Earl of Granard was technically a higher rank than the 2nd Earl of Ancaster) would have precedence and be seated first. Beneath the earl was the viscount (viscountess) which was often a new title awarded for success in politics. The final two ranks were the baron (baroness) and the mere sirs (lady). Men addressed as sir were either a baronet (a hereditary title) or a knight (a title bestowed for a lifetime honor like Sir Elton John or Sir Paul McCartney).

Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough

In a scene on Downton Abbey, Lady Edith commented that the Marlborough's were getting a divorce. The Duke of Marlborough and his American wife, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt were one of the most well known examples of American money marrying English nobility. Conseulo was in love with an American man, but her mother Alva insisted that she marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Alva had raised Conseulo from a young age to become a duchess and had named her after her close friend Conseulo Yznaga, an American who became Duchess of Manchester.**  

Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough with her children, 1899

When Conseulo and the Duke married in 1895, the press was fascinated with the entire affair. By 1895, a marriage between an American heiress and a European aristocrat was common, but the fact that the Duke was known to be in need of money and admitted that the marriage was arranged sparked extra interest in the match. Much attention was paid to Consuelo's large dowry and the overbearing influence of her mother. Conseulo reportedly wept behind her veil during the marriage ceremony and was never happy in the marriage. In 1906, after eleven years of marriage, Consuelo moved out of her husband's home and in 1920 they were finally divorced. One of the most interesting accounts of this marriage was Conseuelo's own in her 1953 autobiography titled The Glitter and the Gold.

Beatice Mills Forbes, Countess of Granard

The phenomena of American heiresses and titled Englishmen was very familiar to the Mills family. In 1880, Ruth's twin sister Elizabeth married George Cavendish-Bentinck, who was the grandson of the 3rd Duke of Portland and a socially prominent Member of Parliament. Mrs. Cavendish-Bentinck was one of the first Americans living in London and she often served as a hostess for other young American women visiting England.  Ruth Livingston Mills would travel to Europe frequently with her twin daughters and stay with her sister, who provided them easy entry into English society. In 1909 Beatrice married Bernard Forbes, the 8th Earl of Granard, and immediately became entrenched in the social circle of the royal family. Beatrice's new husband was the Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and a lord-in-waiting to Edward VII. He was also Master of the Horse for both Edward VII and George V, which allowed the earl's family the privilege of riding in the royal carriages. The marriage was useful to both parties in the way all marriages of this type were beneficial. Beatrice and her future children had a title and the Earl now had the funds to finish restoring his family's home, Castleforbes, in Ireland.

Beatrice Mills Forbes, Countess of Granard in 1910, one year after her marriage.

Some family members have reported that Beatrice preferred another man and her mother pushed her into the marriage.  There were also rumors about an imminent engagement between Beatrice and Lord Howard de Walden, the wealthiest peer in England, but the engagement never materialized.  In December 1908, however, the engagement between Beatrice and the Earl was announced and they were married in New York the next month.  The marriage resulted in four children and Beatrice remained a widow for over 23 years after her husband died. 

Other Mills relations to marry English nobility included Beatrice's first cousin Jean Reid (daughter of Ogden's sister Elisabeth) who married the Honorable John Hubert Ward, 2nd son of the 1st Earl of Dudley.  Also, Gladys Mills Phipps' sister-in-law, Amy Phipps, married Capt. the Honorable Frederick Edward Guest, the 3rd son of the 1st Baron Wimborne.  English titles were plentiful and Ruth Livingston Mills ensured that at least one of her daughters took a prominent place in English society.

This image of Jean Reid and her husband the Honorable John Hubert Ward appeared in The Evening World in 1908 at the time of their marriage.

Not long after the turn of the century, the luster of European marriages began to diminish. Public resentment grew towards English fortune hunters and the newspapers celebrated marriages where the money stayed in America. The American elite had achieved their own status and notoriety and no longer needed the luster of a European title to provide legitimacy and acceptance.


For those interested in the subject, the book To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace is a must read. The book is one of the best resources to learn more about the wealthy American women who married titled Englishmen during the Gilded Age.  Due to the popularity of Downton Abbey, the book was just reprinted with a hearty endorsement by Julian Fellowes, the show's creator.

** As an aside, the Mills was family was also connected to the family of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough.  Ogden Livingston (O.L.) Mills married Consuelo's step-sister in 1911.  After Consuelo's father, William K. Vanderbilt, divorced her mother Alva, he remarried a woman named Anne Harriman Sands Rutherfurd.  In 1911, O.L married Margaret Rutherfurd, her daughter from a previous marriage.

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea how many American heiress's married titled Englishmen. Feeling rather sad for them to enter into arranged marriages. Sounds like they are not all like Cora and Robert! Will definitely read the books mentioned, particularly, " To Marry an English Lord". Looking forward to more!! I am also a huge Downton Abbey fan. I have taken the tour at the Mills Mansion and loved it. Very tastefully done.