At the end of the Victorian era, a peculiar trade route opened between the United States and Britain. Nouveau riche American millionaires married off their daughters to titled British nobles. The influx of money into Britain was considerable.
To make it clear at the outset, the gold diggers sat on both sides of the great pond that separates New York from London. The British aristocracy was digging for the gold that may be found in American money bags; American millionaires were digging for the gold to be found in social upward movement. The throw-away ‘my daughter the duchess’ was probably one of the best paid sentences ever in the way of names dropping.
An early example of this transatlantic trade was Jennie Jerome. Born as the daughter of a millionaire Wall Street gamester she went on to marry the younger son of the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Randolph Churchill. The wedding was held up by an interminable squabble over the dowry or what would more properly be called a prenuptial agreement on what would happen to said dowry in the case of Jennie’s death. Unlike many of her compatriots, Jennie became part of British and World history through her son Winston Churchill.
Jennie’s gamester father was a B-list pauper compared to Consuelo’s Vanderbilt father. Consuelo married the Duke of Marlborough a generation after Jennie’s entry into polite society. Poor Consuelo, when you walk into Blenheim, the guide will still tell you today that the portrait on the wall depicts Consuelo Vanderbilt; and she so wanted to be Lady Marlborough but was never really accepted as such. Her parents wanted it even more; so much so that they paid a dowry of two million pounds (80 million in today’s money) and added a cool further 10 million over the years towards the upkeep of the ducal living standard.
Like Jennie Jerome, Minnie Paget came from the American B-list and hooked the grandson of a Marquess with a measly dowry of 65,000 pounds. She set up as a successful society hostess with the Prince of Wales at the fringe. She threw interested American heiresses at every available and nearly broke coronet in the realm. One of her triumphs was Consuelo’s marriage.
The year of Consuelo’s marriage saw a further eight such American - British marriages including that of Mary Leiter to George Curzon. Her career was the most successful in Britain as she became Vicereine of India at the side of her husband. These days she is probably better remembered, though, in the kitchen for the Lady Curzon soup recipe. In the latter you recognize the profound difference in her reception to that of Consuelo.
The exodus of American heiresses wasn't limited to Britain, however. The vast Royal Families of France and Italy and the even vaster Imperial Families of Russia and Austria soaked up many of the more adventurous girls. Singer sewing machines made one heiress the Princess of Polignac. The continent also saw the greatest triumph of an American heiress. Alice Heine managed to bag a reigning Prince in Albert I of Monaco 67 years before Grace Kelly got Rainier.
The prenuptial arrangements in these marriages involved more lawyers than the merger of British Airways and Iberia and were more contested than the War of the Spanish Succession. These days, Conservatives try to pretend that prenuptial agreements are against the law. It makes their stance slightly ridiculous and definitely hypocritical considering where these prenuptial agreements came from.