THE HUSBAND HUNTERS
American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy
By Anne de Courcy
Illustrated. 307 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.
Why on earth did they want to come?
After all, an English stately home was drafty, isolated and so devoid of creature comforts that a cosseted American heiress might find she had to take her evening ablutions in a tin hip bath filled with lukewarm water hauled up in buckets by a housemaid. Her titled sprig of a husband had married her only because the ancestral seat was crumbling and he was deeply in debt. Once the knot was tied, the fortune and property she brought to the union now all belonged to him, including the children. Even so, between 1870 and 1914 (peak year: 1895), a total of 454 American “dollar princesses” streamed across the Atlantic and married titled Europeans.
“The Husband Hunters,” Anne de Courcy’s diverting new study of this phenomenon, is at its best when she’s exploring why. She makes a persuasive case that a prime driver in the American heiress exodus was escape from the savage competitiveness of Gilded Age society in the capital of status, New York.
Across the ocean, no minor earl’s wife, however wealthy, could ever be socially superior to a duchess, however dusty, and all rank flowed down from the unchallengeable position of the monarch. In America, though, status was based not on rank but on pre-eminence. To achieve and maintain social position required relentless aggression and ceaseless extravagance.
A powerful but not quite sufficient mechanism for cementing status in New York was blunt-force bling. Wives literally dripped with diamonds. It was, de Courcy tells us, “impossible to be over jeweled; a wife festooned with gems was admired both as displaying her husband’s wealth and being a credit to the society in which she moved.” Some wore diamond chains or ropes of pearls slung over one shoulder, or hung a huge uncut sapphire or ruby from a long chain of pearls hanging from the waist, “kicking it gently ahead of her as she walked into her box at the opera.” It required 80 or 90 different dresses, often acquired at Worth in Paris, to get a young woman through the Newport summer season alive.
Wealth, however, wasn’t the only path to social success. That would have been too easy. Something, or rather someone, stood in the way: From a period of time right after the Civil War until the turn of the century, the creamy battle-ax Mrs. William Astor was the era’s implacable social arbiter. Her enforcer was her powerful major-domo, Ward McAllister, a Gilded Age Steve Rubell whose velvet rope was his veto over an invitation to the annual Astor ball. Between them, they decreed that the only people entitled to an invitation in New York society were the 400 “old” families who had got there first.
In vain did new American fortunes made in railroads, minerals and real estate campaign for invitations. Alva Erskine Smith, a Southern belle who had escaped genteel poverty by snaring Willie K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the filthy rich railroad baron Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, was so desperate to pass the test that she built a gigantic Fifth Avenue manse in the style of a French chateau. Its two-story banquet hall was crammed with treasures, including some made for Marie Antoinette. Alva Vanderbilt entertained there in a frenzy of excess, but still Mrs. Astor declined to accept or extend an invitation. Until, that is, Alva baited the hook with the visiting Lord Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester, in whose honor she threw a now legendary fancy-dress ball. Mrs. Astor, who had a daughter pining to attend, finally succumbed, carte de visite in hand.
The same logic held true for securing a trans-Atlantic aristocratic marriage. A daughter who could not get off the B-list now had a backdoor entry into New York society. Even Mrs. Astor couldn’t resist a returning bride with a handle.
“The Husband Hunters” has a lot to say about the young American women who married titles, but at heart it’s a wonderful study of monster mothers. Alva was a true horror. “There was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards,” she wrote. “I have known this condition often during my life.” Almost in her league was Mrs. Bradley-Martin, who inherited an unexpected fortune from her father and shoved her daughter, Cornelia, into a marriage to the impecunious Earl of Craven, who was after her million-dollar dowry. The poor girl was just 16. The wedding’s excess and the obviously transactional nature of the match shocked even the usually fawning Gilded Age chroniclers. During the ceremony, Cornelia’s scared young face peered nervously out from under a diamond tiara once worn by the Empress Josephine.
If American society was a cutthroat matriarchy, the world the heiresses married into was exactly the reverse. In England, the men called the shots. A gilded girl who thrived in an urban setting and was used to seeing women get their own way now found that the sparkle of London was confined to the three months of the summer social season. Life as the chatelaine of an English country seat revolved around the sporting calendar and dour male management of the estate. (This is still true today, as Meghan Markle will discover after a few weekends with Harry’s friends.)
The American bride also found she had to bone up on British politics. As de Courcy reminds us, Britain’s ruling class actually did rule. As late as 1965, a mere 60 families dominated the House of Lords and one third of the House of Commons. Mostly, though, once the dowry changed hands it was isolation, childbirth and rain, rain, rain.
The way to get sprung, however, was a lot easier than escaping Mrs. Astor’s thrall in New York. It only took a pair of dancing eyes to catch those of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. This gregarious libertine, who in 1901 would become King Edward VII, introduced the pleasure principle to aristocratic life. Waiting as long as he did to assume the throne from his indomitable, censorious mother, Queen Victoria, Edward made it his prime quest in life to be amused. He was the undisputed arbiter of taste and position. A society woman might enter his circle via her looks, her vivacity and her gifts as a hostess. He adored and cultivated American women, considering them less stuffy and better dressed. Plus, they had the cash to lay on a great party. Arriving heiresses seeking his imprimatur needed only to show up during August at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, the yacht-racing capital of the world, to upstage the British competition in a blaze of Worth-designed taffeta silk.
The money honey Maude Burke had a dodgy background in the lawless American West. Her father was reputed to be one of the four gun-toting partners who shared in the great Nevada Comstock Lode silver mine. Her mother was reputed to be a woman of light virtue. After Maude married Sir Bache Cunard, an affable dud and a grandson of the founder of the cruise ship line, her life as the mistress of a minor stately home might have been as dull as her husband if she hadn’t come to the notice of the Prince of Wales. His visits soon made the Cunard country seat, Nevill Holt, in the depths of Leicestershire, a hotbed of social action.
Emerald Cunard, as the former Maude Burke repackaged herself, reigned for decades over her adopted country’s high society, thanks to the dazzling conversation of the famous musicians, artists, men of letters, visiting beauties and political players she attracted to her table. Edward, for his part, was loyal to his American charmers as long as they catered to his exacting standards of social amusement — and sometimes (like Jennie Jerome, widow of Randolph Churchill) agreed to serve him Japanese tea, which came with a beguiling flash of what was under the kimono.
What impresses about de Courcy’s American imports is how efficiently they adapted their native skills to England’s resistant class structure. They deployed not only looks and flair but also an organizational dynamism that whipped the stately homes and their owners into shape. They were brave. They were venturesome. They opened the windows of English aristocratic life, culturally as well as literally. It wasn’t just their money. With all that drive, all that enterprise, they were just what was needed to shake the cocktail and bring some pizazz to the party. De Courcy conjures it all with skill.