For Edith Wharton’s Birthday, Hail Ultimate Social Climbers
By PAT RYAN
Published: January 19, 2012
In dramas about the British aristocracy we Americans await with tingly pleasure the inevitable moment when the family learns that there is no more money to run the estate, and everyone must retrench or — worse — the heir must get a job. Then, like the arrival of the cavalry in a western, all is saved — the footmen, the ancestral portraits, even the Georgian silver — by the imminent commingling of fortunes with an American kissing cousin who has daughters and dollars. The “Upstairs Downstairs” details long familiar from novels, movies and television shows, and now from the popular “Downton Abbey,” seem to render us spellbound.
Edith WhartonThe English actor and writer Julian Fellowes, who created the PBS mini-series “Downton Abbey” and wrote the screenplay for “Gosford Park,” told The Telegraph that the idea for the series came from a book he was reading at the time, “To Marry an English Lord,” by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace. It was about “American girls who had come over to England in the late 19th century and married into the English aristocracy.” Mr. Fellowes added, “It occurred to me that while it must have been wonderful for these girls to begin with, what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a house in Cheshire aching for Long Island?”
One answer comes from a native New Yorker who grew up among such heiresses: “These awful English marriages” tie you tight and “strangle you in a noose when you try to pull away from them,” Edith Wharton wrote in 1937 in her unfinished novel “The Buccaneers.” But she saw both sides of these Anglo-American unions. In an earlier novel, “The Custom of the Country,” she told the scathing tale of Undine Spragg, an American serial social usurper who blackmails her ex-husband to get enough money so her lover can bribe the pope to annul her previous marriage. Mr. Fellowes cited this Wharton book as another “Downton” influence (although Undine lands herself a French nobleman).
Edith Wharton, whose 150th birthday on Tuesday will be celebrated around New York — she was born on West 23rd Street — knew exactly what she was delineating. She was the ultimate insider, born into the New York upper crust, which she called “a group of bourgeois colonials” transformed into “a sort of social aristocracy.”
In “The Old Maid” (one of four “Old New York” novellas) Wharton wrote that in the 1850s New York was ruled by a few very affluent families. These “solidly welded blocks,” a mixture of sturdy English and Dutch genes, “had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account.”
In “To Marry an English Lord” Ms. Wallace and Ms. MacColl (who married an Englishman, though not a lord) write that in the 1860s “a whole new group of people began making money in industry — in armaments, in railroads, in preserved meats to feed the soldiers, in harvesters that freed workers from the fields. These enterprises made a lot of men very rich, very fast. And when they got rich, they came to New York.”
But when they arrived, the aspiring nouveau-riche folks were not accepted socially by the vieux-riche clans, so they looked eastward across the Atlantic to England, France and Italy, acquiring titles and lineages they felt would give them prestige, at least for the next generations. In Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” old Mrs. Manson Mingott, the must-be-obeyed matriarch of her line who “put the crowning touch to her audacities” by building a large cream-colored stone house in the wilderness near Central Park, “married two of her daughters to ‘foreigners’ (an Italian Marquis and an English banker).”
In Britain these Americans all seemed simply “rich,” with no qualifying adjectives. In an interview last year on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Mr. Fellowes estimated that 350 free-spirited heiresses made transcontinental marriages from 1880 to 1920. Hermione Lee, in her biography of Wharton, put the number who married into the British peerage at about 100, “several of them connected to Wharton.”
There are vestiges of these heiresses all over New York.
One of the most famous of the gilded girls was Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, who became the mother of Winston Churchill. Her father, Leonard Jerome, a financier and avid horse-racing fan, took Jennie and her sisters, Clarita and Leonie, abroad, where Jennie soon crossed paths with Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill. They were engaged three days later, which caused some raised eyebrows, as did Winston’s birth about seven months after the marriage. Clarita married Moreton Frewen, son of Thomas Frewen, M.P., and Leonie married Sir John Leslie, an Irish baronet.
Then there were “the Marrying Wilsons,” as they became known in New York and Newport high society as a result of all their similarly advantageous alliances. The former Caroline Schermerhorn (the Mrs. Astor, a legendary founder of the elite “400”) saw her daughter married to Marshall Wilson. Marshall was the son of Richard T. Wilson, whose five children married British royalty and American millionaires with last names that included Goelet and Vanderbilt. Marshall’s niece, Mary Goelet, became the Duchess of Roxburghe, and at the time of her marriage in 1903 she was one of the wealthiest American heiresses of the pre-World War I era, rivaling Consuelo Vanderbilt, the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire. Consuelo unhappily married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and her father’s millions helped bail out a leaky Blenheim Palace. The marriage ended in divorce and, later, annulment.
Consuelo’s namesake, Consuelo Iznaga, a Cuban-American heiress and dear friend of Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother (the suffragist Alva Smith), married Viscount Mandeville, the future Duke of Manchester, in 1876. Consuelo Iznaga, an acquaintance of Wharton’s, was the basis for the character Conchita Closson in “The Buccaneers.” Poor Conchita ended “head-over-ears in debt,” in love with one man “while tied to another.” As for the real-life couple, the duke was “a feckless philanderer who squandered her money,” Ms. Lee writes in her Wharton biography.
The early Fifth Avenue Vanderbilt mansions are gone, but the reminders of the old world of Wharton and the heiresses include Grace Church, where the baby Edith Newbold Jones was christened and also where Consuelo Iznaga married her duke in waiting. Consuelo Vanderbilt married her own duke at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue (though not the current building), even though the Vanderbilts traditionally attended St. Bartholomew’s Church. As Ms. Wallace explained in an e-mail on Wednesday, in 1895 St. Bart’s “wasn’t big enough to hold the 50-piece orchestra and 60-piece choir that Consuelo’s mother, Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt, wanted, so the wedding reception took place at Sherry’s restaurant.” Ms. Wallace added, “This was really unusual — wedding receptions were normally at home, but Consuelo’s mother had divorced Consuelo’s father and didn’t have a big house at the time. (Can you imagine the scandal? Huge!)”
The fictional Lady Cora in “Downton Abbey” (played by Elizabeth McGovern), another monetarily well-endowed American, married the fictional Earl of Grantham. And as money is the root of all plots, the “Downton” estate itself (played by Highclere Castle, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon) is also a character in the show. “They serve the house,” Mr. Fellowes says of his people.
The act of acquiring and spending (and owing), and the fine details of renovating and decorating, are integral too. Wharton, who was an expert on interior design and published “The Decoration of Houses” in 1898 with the architect Ogden Codman, denounced with a moral zest any room with overstuffed furniture, heavy curtains or Victorian whatnots. “If only I could do over my aunt’s drawing-room,” Lily Bart says in “The House of Mirth,” “I know I should be a better woman.”
The present Countess of Carnarvon has written about Highclere’s own money-for-title swap (though not American money this time) in “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.” An ancestor, Almina Wombwell, the countess says, was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred Charles de Rothschild and Marie Wombwell, née Boyer. In 1895, she writes, with a marriage contract from Rothschild granting the Earl of Carnarvon a “stupendous” payoff, “Almina went into St. Margaret’s the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish banker and his French kept woman,” but she emerged the fifth Countess of Carnarvon.
Mr. Fellowes points out that “in Europe, to get an heiress, you need everyone else in the family to die,” making European heiresses rare, but American heiresses proliferated because they could be created whenever a rich person divided his wealth among the children.
Wharton’s family, though it had solid social credentials — Edith was a cousin to Mrs. Astor — were merely comfortably off, part of a circle of what the author Louis Auchincloss, another Wharton biographer, termed “haute bourgeoisie.”
“Downton Abbey” is growing strong in its second season on PBS’s “Masterpiece” and won a Golden Globe on Sunday for best mini-series. But Lady Cora should watch her step. When Wharton’s Annabel, one of the buccaneers, asserted herself and said, “I think I’m tired of trying to be English,” the dowager Duchess of Tintagel replied:
“Trying to be? But you are English. When you became my son’s wife you acquired his nationality. Nothing can change that now.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 20, 2012, on page C25 of the New York edition with the headline: Tales of New York: For Edith Wharton’s Birthday, Hail Ultimate Social Climbers.