Following in the footsteps of the US heiresses who snapped up English aristocrats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Meghan may be older, wiser and self-made but she still has a lot in common with her predecessors, says Julie Ferry
Harry and Meghan announce their engagement, November 2017
The crowds had gathered several hours earlier. Schoolchildren, bouquets in hand, dutifully practised their curtsies and the band tuned its instruments in anticipation. People jostled for position desperate for a view of the couple – and especially of her. For months they had pored over newspaper coverage of the stylish American who would call England her home. Now the chance to lay eyes on her had drawn hundreds on to the streets.
The young Consuelo Vanderbilt, left, and as the Duchess of Marlborough
No, this wasn’t a public appearance by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It was 1896 and the Duchess of Marlborough – American-born Consuelo Vanderbilt – was arriving at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, her first visit since marrying the duke the previous year.
When Meghan marries Harry next month she will follow in the well-trodden footsteps of those mega-rich American brides who married English aristocrats at the turn of the 20th century – more than 100 of them between the 1870s and the start of the First World War. (Think Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora, bringing her father’s Cincinnati millions to the Grantham estate.)
But these were mostly naive Fifth Avenue princesses and Southern belle heiresses who came in search of titles and brought large dowries to secure them.
Left: Consuelo with Winston Churchill, 1902. Right: her mother Alva, 1919
By contrast Meghan, independent and successful in her own right, is marrying for love and is aware of the change in lifestyle ahead of her.
So will she face the same challenges as the dollar princesses of more than a century ago?
ACE THE ETIQUETTE
For an outsider marrying into the British royal family, the complicated code of conduct is a steep learning curve. The Duchess of Cambridge had years of practice as Prince William’s girlfriend before she married him; Meghan hasn’t had the same preparation.
However, Meghan can take heart from the American debutantes who navigated the upper classes in Edwardian Britain. One such young woman was 25-year-old Mary Goelet from New York, who married Henry, Duke of Roxburghe, in 1903 and found herself chatelaine of Floors Castle in Scotland. She would have studied etiquette manuals to learn how to host lavish parties as the duchess of a great estate.
American-born Mary Goelet, Duchess of Roxburghe (centre) at Kelso races, 1925
Likewise, Meghan’s tentative curtsy to the Queen at Sandringham at Christmas may have revealed her concerns at mastering royal manners.
Unattached American heiresses could consult Titled Americans, a book listing the most eligible nobles to home in on during the London Season. English aristocratic ladies would coach the debutantes, advising them which social occasions to attend and gently pointing out that, when it came to diamonds, less was considered more on this side of the pond.
The Duke (far left) and Mary Goelet, Duchess of Roxburghe (far right) on a pheasant shoot, 1922
English society was a minefield and one wrong move could spell disaster for these women. Yet most of the new arrivals, armed with their trademark vitality and sparkle, which one commentator called their ‘snap and go’, took the upper classes by storm.
They shook up the aristocracy with their vibrant personalities, often bypassing stuffy protocols and winning the affection of the people. Meghan’s relaxed, natural approach is reminiscent of how quickly the heiresses established themselves in society.
SET THE STYLE
Prince Harry’s fiancée has already experienced how her style can impact brands. From the androgynous tuxedo suit she chose for a charity function to the cream wrap coat worn for the couple’s engagement announcement, her fashion choices sell out within hours.
The American heiresses of a century ago made a similar impact on the fashion scene. With their limitless supply of money, they could leave any aristocratic singleton looking dowdy. Their go-to designer was Paris couturier Frederick Worth, who declared that Americans were his favourite clients because they had the three Fs: ‘faith, figures and francs’.
It was not unusual for wealthy clients to spend up to $500,000 (in today’s money) per season to ensure their wardrobe outshone their English rivals.
NAIL THAT NICHE
Meghan will be expected to find her role in public life. Judging by her track record as a campaigner and humanitarian, it is thought she will build on her charitable work.
The newcomers, armed with ‘vitality and sparkle’, took the English upper classes by storm
Many of the Edwardian transatlantic brides became involved in philanthropic ventures, fundraising for charities and even financing a hospital ship called the Maine to aid British soldiers in the Boer War. In England these women found an opportunity to pursue interests that were unavailable to them at home. In the US they were expected to remain in the drawing room organising luncheons and teas while their husbands ruled in Wall Street.
Lady Emerald Cunard (who had married the grandson of the British shipping magnate) gave her support to the composer Thomas Beecham. She made such an impact on the London opera scene that she was dubbed the Duchess of Covent Garden. Politics proved a draw for women such as Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie, who became a savvy operator and valuable canvasser for her Tory MP husband Randolph.
The Viscount and Viscountess Astor, Waldorf and US-born Nancy, 1938; Lady Astor in 1948
Eloise Breese, the US-born Countess of Ancaster, accepted the position of justice of the peace (by becoming a magistrate). But it was Nancy Astor, a Virginian, who took up residence at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire after her marriage to Waldorf Astor (later becoming 2nd Viscount Astor), who outdid them all when she became the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919.
Away from the puritanical atmosphere of the US, these women enjoyed more freedom in their personal lives. As long as they were discreet and had provided an ‘heir and a spare’, they found the aristocracy was prepared to look the other way if they embarked on an affair.
And while the chemistry between Meghan and Harry has been obvious during their public appearances, their affectionate gestures suggest Meghan is expressing her own freedom within the confines of the Firm.
IGNORE THE CRITICS
Just as Meghan has had to face prejudice over her mixed heritage (prompting Prince Harry to issue a strongly worded rebuke to the media in 2016), the original transatlantic pioneers were subject to similar comments when they landed in the UK.
When Consuelo Montagu, who had a Cuban father, became the new Duchess of Manchester, she endured abuse about her ‘exotic’ background. Jennie Churchill wrote that American women were looked on as something between a ‘Red Indian and a gaiety girl’. When one American heiress visited her husband’s estate for the first time, an elderly relative looked at her and shouted, ‘Take her away!’
Yet these young women were expected to accept their treatment and prove themselves up to the role – especially having already been excluded from the upper echelons of American society because of their ‘new money’.
Coming from families (known as Swells) that had made enormous fortunes in the wake of the American Civil War, they did not have the social pedigree to be invited into New York’s exclusive social circles. These were populated by families who could trace their heritage back to the early Dutch settlers, and revolved around the elite Four Hundred list (so-called because that was the number of people who could fit into the ballroom of the ultimate society hostess, Mrs Astor).
The right marriage could secure entry into the Four Hundred and if one of their daughters became a lady or a duchess, the exchange of cash for titles would let them buy the respectability they craved. Judging by the warm public reception Meghan has received, it seems the British have taken this American to their hearts.
PUT THE CHIC IN SHABBY
Prince Harry and Meghan will live in the comfort of Kensington Palace. A far cry from Meghan’s childhood home in Los Angeles, the palatial surroundings will take time to adjust to.
A far cry from Meghan’s childhood home in Los Angeles, the palatial new surroundings will take time to adjust to
But while Meghan will move into fit-for-purpose Nottingham Cottage, the American heiresses were shocked to find crumbling stately homes that had been woefully neglected – very different to the state-of-the-art Fifth Avenue residences they had left behind. With no central heating, leaky roofs and kitchens that were located so far away from the dining room that food could be cold by the time it reached the table, English houses left newcomers shivering through chilly dinners in flimsy evening gowns.
Meghan may echo the experiences of her compatriots when she experiences the shabby chic of Balmoral and Christmas at the cramped Sandringham.
A MATCH THAT ROCKED THE MONARCHY
Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
Although their relationship began decades after the arrival of the American duchesses, the most famous – and controversial – upper-class Anglo-American coupling is the relationship between King Edward VIII and socialite Wallis Simpson.
Stylish, confident, a woman of the world, Wallis invoked the ire of conservative royal-watchers, not least because she began her affair with Edward in 1934 while still married to her second husband. Critics considered her dangerous, the ultimate social climber in hot pursuit of Edward’s wealth and status.
In 1936, King Edward’s intention to marry twice-divorced Wallis scandalised society, causing a constitutional crisis – at the time, a divorcée could not marry in the Church of England if their former spouse was still alive. But such was Edward’s desire to wed ‘the woman I love’ that he abdicated the throne.
Back then, it was unthinkable that a divorcée would marry into the monarchy, let alone an American. How times have changed.
AIM FOR TRUE LOVE
Despite the distance they had travelled, love remained elusive for many of the heiresses. In some cases they were pushed into marriages organised by a calculating mother, desperate for the social cachet their daughter’s title would bring.
Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother Alva faked a heart attack to stop her daughter from marrying her true love and didn’t bat an eyelid when Consuelo walked down the aisle weeping into her veil at her wedding to the Duke of Marlborough. Many of the husbands became cold and unresponsive, a far cry from the fairy tale the newcomers thought marriage into the aristocracy would bring.
Prince Harry and Meghan’s official engagement portrait
Often ignored, brides would spend hours waiting for a moment’s acknowledgment. One duke kept his wife waiting by not tucking into the dinner plate that had been served, knowing she could not begin before him. She filled the time by bringing her knitting to the table.
The royal code is a steep learning curve
In other cases, genuine early passion was gradually extinguished as reality set in. The cigar-smoking Duchess of Manchester, from Louisiana, who had married her duke for love when she was only 18, quickly found that he was more interested in gambling away her fortune and cavorting around town with his music-hall-star girlfriend than he was in his wife. They ended up so broke that when the Prince of Wales came for dinner she couldn’t afford to feed the guests and asked her friends to bring a dish.
And this is surely where the fates of Ms Markle and the heiresses diverge. While many of the American debutantes of the Gilded Age were young and naive, Meghan is an intelligent and well-travelled woman who has built a successful career as an actress and campaigner.
An obvious love match, this is a relationship that the couple has conducted privately and carefully, ensuring that, unlike the transatlantic marriages of the past, this very modern fairy story has every chance of a happy-ever-after.
- The Million Dollar Duchesses: How America’s Heiresses Seduced the Aristocracy by Julie Ferry will be published by Aurum Press on 3 May, price £9.99. To pre-order a copy for £7.49 (a 25 per cent discount) until 6 May, click here or call 0844 571 0640. Free P&P on orders over £15