The Million Dollar Duchesses offers the reader fascinating insights into the lives of American heiresses, eager to marry into the British aristocracy. With names we all recognise as Churchill, Cunard, Astor, and Vanderbilt, this book shows us how these marriages were arranged and how, in the end, only a few of these marriages were happy, based upon love and respect.
Set in 1895, this is a description of the life of the New York society matron, Marietta Stevens, and her daughter, Minnie Paget, accomplished society hostesses very successful in bringing American heiresses in contact with eligible British bachelors – eligible in the sense that above anything, a title was required. Not a handsome spouse-to-be, not their wealth (most lacked it – hence their willingness to marry American girls to maintain their manors and castles); love was certainly not a necessary condition for such a marriage. The fact that Minnie Paget was the favourite of Bertie, the Prince of Wales, opened doors to her and her entourage, necessary to introduce the American heiresses into the British aristocracy.
‘The Million Dollar Duchesses’ is an account of the doings of the high society, both in America (New York) and in England. We are offered peeks into the lives of the New York upper class and realise, that underneath the open display of riches, the beautiful dresses and exquisitely decorated homes, they are desperate to keep up appearances. Marietta Stevens has one fierce opponent, Mrs Astor, with “the power to accept or shun social climbers into the fashionable set.” A worthy adversary and a constant source of irritation to Marietta. She has set her mind to marry Minnie, her daughter, to a Duke or higher – but it does not take long before both mother and daughter realise that is not going to happen – even if Minnie has become Bertie’s favourite. In the end, Minnie marries Captain Arthur Paget, Bertie’s bookmaker.
With Jennie Jerome, to become Lady Randolph Churchill and the mother of Winston Churchill, the future British Prime Minister, as a lightening example of a successful transatlantic marriage, the mothers were eager to find an English aristocrat for their daughters and willing to do whatever it would take. Their names are all too familiar even if the game is always the same and love is regarded as a luxury. Alva Vanderbilt has high ambitions for her daughter, Consuelo. That she is in love with a man (no money, no title and, above all, American!) only enhances the mother’s efforts to find her a suitable husband, and we know what ‘suitable’ means. As it happens, the Duke of Marlborough is keen – he has been looking to restore Blenheim Palace to its former glory and thus, they become married. In England, most American heiresses have a difficult time settling in. Some, like Millie, succeed, some will never be accepted.
‘The Million Dollar Duchesses’, formerly known as ‘The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau,’ is a combination of a biography of the lives of American heiresses who found their way to an English title, entwined with an insight into life at the end of the 19th century in both America and Britain as well as a work of fiction as to the feelings and predicaments of those ladies, who not only bagged themselves a rich husband but also arranged many a splendid marriage indeed. With famous names as Jennie Jerome, the American heiress to become the mother of Winston Churchill, and Ava Vanderbilt, out to find a titled British husband for her daughter, Consuelo, and many more. Most of all, it is a tale of perseverance of mother and daughter, Marietta Stevens and Minnie Paget, who, even though not always accepted into America’s high society, were very successful in introducing the British gentry to rich American heiresses.
The book is not easy to read as it consists of so many facts, references, and names that I wondered whether deleting some of it in favour of concentrating on a few of the heiresses we meet, would enable us more to empathise with the individual characters instead of just taking in the occurrences. For instance, one moment you are fully engaged in specific events but the next you learn what will happen in the far future and then it is on to the next person… This makes The Million Dollar Duchesses a book that you have to put down from time to time but also a book that intrigues and dazzles you with the descriptions, all the names and how they are connected, the sheer extravagance and vanity of it all. In the end, it becomes clear money may have restored many a castle in decline but it rarely brought with it happy relationships. Insightful and fascinating!
About the Author
Julie Ferry is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and the Independent, among others. She writes on subjects ranging from protecting women’s rights to discovering Paris alone.
She graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in English Literature and then upped sticks and moved to a tiny island between Japan and South Korea to teach English, where she quickly got used to being followed around the supermarket by her students. It was in Japan that she got her first byline and was quickly hooked. Since then, she’s been fortunate to write for most of her favourite publications, but always harboured dreams of seeing her name on the front of a book.
Now, she manages to combine her love of writing and an obsession with interesting and largely unknown women from history, with the school run in Bristol, where she lives with her husband and two children.