Million Dollar Princesses

One Dangerous Desire by Christy Carlyle

During the later years of the 19th century and the early 20th century, hundreds of American heiresses marriedScreen Shot 2016-02-16 at 9.00.36 PM British lords. Some of these “dollar princesses,” as the newspapers dubbed them, brought dowries of astronomical sums. From a practical perspective, such matches made good sense. British aristocrats, their families, and estates benefited from the wealth American heiresses offered in marriage settlements. And the daughters of rich American financiers and entrepreneurs got a title and the opportunity to become lady of a grand estate. To many, these marriages seemed like the perfect unions. Newspapers of the day loved to explore everything from the wedding ceremony details to the bride’s fashionable trousseau. When the Vanderbilt heiress, Consuelo, was preparing to marry the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, the New York Times provided a voraciously curious public with information about the lace and linen that comprised the corsets and petticoats in her trousseau. 

Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon
Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon

Despite the mercenary nature of these international matches, some produced happy relationships. By all accounts the marriage of Mary Leiter to George Curzon was a good one. She was the daughter of wealthy Chicago dry goods magnate, Levi Leiter, and Curzon was a member of Parliament who later became Viceroy of India. After supporting and assisting her husband to rise in local politics, Mary, as Lady Curzon, accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to India in 1898. The two seemed to thrive during their years in India, learning languages, promoting local artisans, and developing a vibrant social circle. Their third daughter, Alexandra, was born in India in 1904. However, when George resigned his post in 1905, Mary was in ill health. Complications from a miscarriage and other factors contributed to her decline, and she died in 1906 at only thirty-six years old. Curzon mourned her loss deeply and had a memorial chapel built in her honor. He is now buried beside her at Kedelston Hall, the family estate in Derbyshire. Some say Mary and her three daughters were partial inspiration for Lady Grantham and her daughters in Downton Abbey.

Consuelo Vanderbilt
Consuelo Vanderbilt

A less happy match was perhaps the most famous of them all. When Consuelo Vanderbilt married the Duke of Marlborough, it was touted in the New York Times as a kind of fairytale union. As mentioned above, even Consuelo’s corset got a mention. Unfortunately, both Consuelo and her duke were in love with others when they wed each other in 1895. Consuelo reportedly spent the ceremony weeping behind her veil. But her ambitious mother insisted on the union, and Sunny, as the duke was known, gained 2.5 million dollars worth of railroad stock by marrying his American duchess. Over the next three years, Consuelo produced two sons, but her relationship with the duke never developed into a love match. In 1921, Consuelo’s marriage to Sunny ended in divorce.

May Sedgwick, the heroine in my upcoming release One Dangerous Desire, is an American heiress. Her father, Seymour Sedgwick, a New York department store entrepreneur, brings his daughter to London with the intention of wedding her to an English lord of the realm. But after a failed match with a viscount and a year of enjoying the social season, May is feeling the pressure to marry the next eligible nobleman who shows her any interest. Just when she catches the notice of a young earl, Rex Leighton strides back into her life. He’s the poor shop clerk who broke her heart years before in New York. Except he isn’t poor anymore, and he’s as determined to find an aristocratic bride as she is to capture a titled gentleman.

10 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this post!

  2. I love the show on Smithsonian about the princesses/heiresses! My new addiction!
    And this book sounds like my kind of read.

    • Oh, wonderful, Jessica! Yes, I ADORE that Smithsonian series. I’ve bought all the videos and they really helped me with research for One Dangerous Desire.

  3. Barbara Monajem

    Enjoyable post! It’s sad that the sort of obnoxious, pushy mothers we read about in romances existed in real life. I’m glad some of these arranged marriages worked out.

    • So true, Barbara! Actually Alva, Consuelo’s mother, was a fascinating woman. She was born in Alabama to an entrepreneurial family. Several of her siblings died young, and her best friend, Consuelo Yznaga was a dollar princess who became Duchess of Manchester. Alva was hungry for success and probably a title. By marrying Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson, she got the money, not the title, so I think that made her even more eager to see her daughter achieve that success. The man her daughter had set her heart on couldn’t give her the life of a duchess, and I suspect Alva felt she was doing the best for Conseulo by insisting on her marriage to Sunny. I don’t see her as a clear cut villain, and she later became a leader in the woman’s suffrage movement. She was a complex woman like her daughter.

  4. Fascinating!! Sounds like a great story Christy!

  5. cool facts!