16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty

Trista - February 8, 2019

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The character of Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is based on Chicago-born Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India in 1895. ITV/ Daily Mail.

9. Downton Abbey Features a Dollar Princess

In the television show, Cora Crawley, wife of Lord Grantham, is a dollar princess. She hails from a multi-millionaire in Ohio, who paid a massive dowry for her to be able to marry into the British nobility. The character of Cora Crawley is based on the real Lady Almina, who lived at the house where Downton Abbey was filmed. She married the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who came from a family that was descending into penury but still wanted to live a free-wheeling, free-spending good life. The massive dowry that her father paid enabled her husband to continue traveling abroad on private yachts.

Almina was the illegitimate child of Alfred de Rothschild, of the famous family that made a fortune in banking. He indulged her every financial whim; however, because she was born out of wedlock, she wasn’t able to partake of many of the same social circles as her kin. Her father made up for this by paying for her to marry into British nobility. The plan must have worked, because today, Downton Abbey – much of which is based on her – is one of the most popular shows on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, her dowry helped pay for the restoration of the building in which the show is filmed.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The Earl of Yarmouth in 1900. The Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

8. Struggling British Noblemen Took Out Ads for Dollar Princesses

Although the dollar princesses whose parents bought their way into British nobility were met with skepticism and disdain by many in Britain, the trend definitely took off when struggling noblemen realized that they could reclaim their fortunes by marrying an American girl. They were quite eager to list themselves as eligible bachelors in what might have looked like a modern dating service. The Titled American was one publication that not only displayed the happiness that the American brides had found with their new titles but also listed the eligible British bachelors who had paid for an ad and were willing to sell their names for money.

One such ad was from the Marquess of Winchester. It read, “The Marquess of Winchester is 32 years of age and a captain of the Coldstream Guards.” It also listed their incomes, estates, professions, and other eligible family members. If an American girl (or, more often, her mother) was interested in the prospective groom’s profile, she could respond to the ad instead of swiping right or sending a smiley face. The publication was revised every year so that the super-wealthy girls always had an updated list of Britain’s most eligible bachelors to choose from.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Frances Work became Mrs. Burke Roche. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

7. Princess Diana Descended From a Dollar Princess

Frances Ellen Work, known to her friends as Fannie, was born in New York City in 1857 to a self-made multi-millionaire, Frank Work. By the time Frank died, he had amassed a fortune of $15 million, billions in today’s money. Fannie was considered by those around her to be exceptionally beautiful, and her grandmother was keen to see that this beauty be fully appreciated. After all, her maternal grandmother, Ellen Strong, had found herself in the presence of eight presidents. She wanted Fannie to have the same opportunities, if not more, to be able to run in the most prestigious social circles of them all: British nobility.

Fannie married James Boothby Burke Roche, the son of the First Baron Fermoy. He enjoyed a lavish lifestyle but wasn’t particularly wealthy. That is until he obtained Fannie’s dowry. Ironically, Fannie’s father vehemently disapproved of the marriage and wrote her out of his will, possibly to keep more of his hard-earned money from falling into the free-spending hands of the baron. After all, the baron blew most of his wife’s $2.5 million dowries on gambling. The marriage was far from a total loss: Fannie’s granddaughter was Princess Diana, the “people’s princess” who was known for her advocacy for the poor.

Of the mercenary marriage, Diana’s brother said, “I don’t know if he fell in love with her, or her father’s fortune.”

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Lady Curzon wearing the “Peacock Dress” created for her in 1903 by the House of Worth (designed by Charles Frederick’s son, Jean-Philippe Worth). This portrait completed posthumously in 1909 by William Logsdail following Lady Curzon’s death in 1906. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

6. The Attire of Dollar Princesses Was Beyond Glamorous

When Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother, Alva, secured her daughter’s engagement to the Duke of Marlborough, she left nothing to the imagination as she leaked every single detail of her daughter’s wedding to the press. She even gave them details about the undergarments that her daughter would be wearing as she walked down the aisle. To put it mildly, Consuelo’s wedding dress was unparalleled. Moreover, she was far from the only dollar princess who donned the most expensive, elegant attire that money could buy. Consider Mary Leiter, the Chicago-born daughter of a dry goods tycoon who became the Vicereine of India.

In 1902, when King Edward VII was coronated, Mary wore a dress that had been designed by the first couture designer, the House of Worth. The gown was made of gold (that’s right, gold) cloth that was bedecked with peacock feathers. Today, the dress is so renowned that it is on display at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire and is maintained by England’s National Trust, which claims that over 115 years after it was initially made, the dress remains a favorite to visitors. There is no way to understate the extravagance of the dollar princesses, who quite literally had the best that money could buy.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
A self-portrait of Winnaretta Singer circa 1885. Fondation Singer-Polignac Paris/ Wikimedia Commons.

5. One Heiress Married a French Prince… Twice

Winnaretta Singer was the twentieth of twenty-four (yes, twenty-four) children born to Isaac Merritt Singer, the man who invented the modern sewing machine. She grew up mostly between New York City, France, and England. When she was 22 years old, she married the French prince Louis-Vilfred de Scey-Montbeliard. Five years later, the marriage was annulled. The next year, she married a different French prince, Edmond de Polignac. They remained married until Edmond died in 1901. Of course, the annulment of the marriage between an American dollar princess and a French prince raised many eyebrows in France’s more traditional society, but there was a pretty good reason for it: the marriage was never consummated.

Winnaretta was a lesbian and, like so many other dollar princesses, married the prince so that she could get a noble title. On their wedding night, she reportedly climbed onto the wardrobe and, waving an umbrella at her husband, said, “I am going to kill you if you come near me!” The second prince that she married happened to be gay, so the two enjoyed a platonic union that was more of a friendship and business arrangement. They hosted musicians at their home and championed the arts and other creative endeavors.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. xlibber/ Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Dollar Princesses Revamped Britain’s Aristocracy and Economy

The rise of American agriculture and industry proved to be a bust for Britain, which had previously been an industrial powerhouse for the world. Food could be grown, and usually for much cheaper, on the vast prairies and farmlands of rural America, and goods that had once been exclusively made in British factors could be produced en masse in the United States. Rural English families lost their farms, which were usually owned by nobles, and had to move to the cities. These noblemen and women found their fortunes eroding as the British economy slowly crumbled beneath their feet. They needed to be rescued, and fast, or else their free-spending lifestyles would come to an abrupt end.

Enter the dollar princesses. The money in their dowries was enough to revive the fading fortunes of newly-impoverished noblemen. Not only that, but their American tastes frequently meant that they wanted to renovate their centuries-old estates. All told, they injected the present-day equivalent of about $25 billion into the British economy – just through their dowries. That number doesn’t account for the number of jobs that were created to satisfy their tastes, such as the construction workers and architects who were hired to renovate their homes. Still, many wealthy (and unfortunate) British families turned their noses up at them.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
A portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926. The Print Collector/ Print Collector/ Getty Images.

3. One Dollar Princess Became the Second Woman in Parliament

Ever since John Jacob Astor made his fortune in fur-trapping and trading in the eighteenth century and went on to buy up much of the property in Manhattan, the Astor family has been synonymous with the most elite circles of American society. The New York 400 was a list of the most prominent socialites, kept by Caroline Astor, and was veritable who’s who of American aristocracy. Of course, they weren’t real aristocracy, because the American government cannot give titles. But who cares when you have money coming out of your ears? William Astor was born in the US, but he spent most of his life in London and was so surrounded by British aristocracy that he adopted their lifestyle.

When he married Nancy Langhorne Shaw, a girl from Virginia, she shed her country roots and adopted the title Lady Astor. She immediately was accepted into both British and New York social circles with incredibly high status. So high, in fact, that in 1919, she decided to run for the British Parliament in a bid to gain the seat that her husband had once held. When she was elected, she became the second woman elected to Parliament. Not bad, considering that she was American.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
The Ninth Duke of Marlborough, and Winston Churchill’s grandfather, was born in India in 1871. Geni.

2. They Helped Noblemen Rebuild Crumbling Palaces

British noblemen who were finding themselves short of funds for their lavish lifestyles needed more than money to continue traveling on private yachts. Their homes, which were often centuries-old, frequently were in dire need of repairs that they could not afford. When Alva Vanderbilt arranged for her daughter to marry the Duke of Marlborough, he was thrilled at the match because the money from her dowry could help repair Blenheim Palace, which was falling apart. As soon as the marriage was official on both sides of the Atlantic, the duke began using the money from his wife’s dowry to undertake repairs.

16 Facts About Dollar Princesses, the American Girls Who were Sold Into Royalty
Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, with Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough (born Vanderbilt), and their sons John, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Blenheim Palace/ John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery/ Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Practice of Selling Girls for Titles Came to be Viewed as Slavery

Frances Work, who married into nobility against her father’s wishes, became the great-grandmother of Princess Diana. However, her father never got over what she did. In his obituary, he was quoted as having said, “It’s time this international marrying came to a stop for our American girls are ruining our own country by it. As fast as our honorable, hard-working men can earn this money their daughters take it and toss it across the ocean.” Apparently, he wasn’t too happy about being used as a bank account with unlimited funds, or about his daughter marrying a British aristocrat just so she could get a title.

He saw right through the practice, realizing that the British noblemen who were obtaining massive, multi-million-dollar dowries (which could be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions, in today’s money) so that they could spend it on themselves, often through gambling or expensive vacations. Though the marriages might have been seen as mutually beneficial, ultimately, they were destructive, not only to the individuals who engaged in them but also to the countries that were involved. Americans were shedding money to prop up Britain’s economy, just for status artificially. There had to be a better way for the daughters of the nouveau rich to be accepted.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“The ‘Dollar Princess’ and the Duke.” Christie’s. October 22, 2016.

“Meet the real-life Lady Cora.” The Independent. September 18, 2011.

“Titled Americans, the 1890s Guide to Snagging an Aristocrat,” by Evangeline Holland. Edwardian Promenade. August 9, 2012.

“Frances Ellen Work: The New York roots of Prince Harry,” by Chris Graham. The Telegraph. November 28, 2017.

“Lady Mary Curzon’s Peacock dress.” The National Trust.

“Who the F Is … Arts Patron Winnaretta Singer?” by Trudy Ring. Pride. January 29, 2015.

“The Dollar Princesses: How American Social Climbers Sold Their Daughters To British Nobles For Rank,” by Genevieve Carlton. Ranker.

“The Real-Life ‘Downton’ Millionairesses Who Changed Britain,” by Tim Teeman. The Daily Beast. Dec. 31, 2014

“When New Money Meets Old Bloodlines: On America’s Gilded Age Dollar Princesses,” by Caroline Weber. Lit Hub.
November 13, 2020

“How American Rich Kids Bought Their Way Into the British Elite”, by Angela Serratore. Smithsonian Magazine. August 13, 2013

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