REVIEW: Million Dollar American Princesses

Million Dollar American Princesses

My Twitter feed was filled to the brim with ads for the Smithsonian Channel’s Million Dollar American Princesses in the weeks leading up to the premiere of Downton Abbey‘s fifth season. The American heiress in 19th and 20th century Europe is a topic of which never grows old for me, and I was aggravated that I did not have access to the channel. Luckily, the episodes were made available for purchase, and I settled in for a few evenings over the past week to watch and enjoy this three-part documentary series hosted by Elizabeth McGovern (“Cora” on Downton Abbey).

Drawing from the expertise of such historians, writers, and important personages as Dr. Elizabeth Kehoe, Anne Sebba, Jessica Fellowes, and John Julius Norwich, and using live-action against the lavish backdrop of England’s great countries houses, Million Dollar American Princesses is a treat. There is also a heavy Downton Abbey tie, with each episode drawing connections between the inhabitants of the show and of Highclere Castle. As much as I know about the period, I was still bemused and intrigued by the stories presented in the three episodes. Spanning a time period from the 1870s to the 1930s, this is the story of the American women who conquered high society and whose blood runs in some of the greatest houses in England–including the British Royal Family!

Episode 1: Cash for Class

The story begins in 1873, when Jennie Jerome meets and falls in love with Lord Randolph Churchill. Their whirlwind courtship and love match set the stage for the entry of American girls into British high society, though most found themselves in loveless, passionless marriages. This was the case for Jennie’s close friend, Consuelo Yzanga, a Cuban-American heiress who wed the dissipated Viscount Mandeville (later Duke of Manchester). It was love on her side, but love of money on his side, and his abandonment of her and the subsequent tragedies of her children, are a cautionary tale. The most amusing part of this episode was the segment focusing on Frances Work. She married James Burke Roche, later 3rd Baron Fermoy, and became–through her son, the 4th baron–the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. Frances’s father despised the British aristocracy and wrote codicils in his will to break the ties his daughter and grandsons had to England. The producers of this documentary series cleverly interviewed Frances’s American and English descendants, of which Diana’s brother, the current Earl Spencer is one!

Episode 2: Wedding of the Century

Now in the 1890s, the high point of the American heiress in high society, this episode focuses on the most famous American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Her story is very well known, but the interviews on site at Marble Palace, the very rooms Consuelo walked (and suffered), makes her tale real. There are also plenty of gorgeous shots of Blenheim Palace and the gorgeous paintings of Consuelo that hang on its walls. The other subjects of this episode are May Goelet and Mary Leiter, both of whom found mutual love with their British spouses on their own terms. May was actually from an established “Four Hundred” family, which may account for her experience as an American heiress–free of needing to marry up to enter society, she wouldn’t be taken by fortune hunters. Mary Leiter was nouveau riche, but she fell in love with a rising politician, George Nathaniel Curzon, who eventually fell in love with her soon after marrying her for her money. She became the highest ranking British woman after the royal family as Vicereine of India.

Episode 3: Movers & Shakers

This episode was my favorite because, admittedly, I know all about Jennie, both Consuelos, and the other ladies featured in the prior episodes; the focus on American heiresses of the 1920s and 1930s was brand new territory! We begin with the brilliant, sharp-tongued Nancy Astor, who was the first woman to take her seat in Parliament (Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected, but as an Irish republican, she refused to take her seat). Her long-running feud with Winston Churchill sparked some of their best bon mots! Next we have the plucky, hard-as-nails Maud “Emerald” Cunard, whose San Francisco antecedents are little scandalous. But what can’t money do for a person? She marries an older Englishman, abandons him, and sets up a sophisticated, cosmopolitan salon of movers and shakers. She also gives birth to one daughter, Nancy, who is just as tough and independent, but rebels in a completely different direction. Along the way, we learn the story of Catherine Wendell, the topic of the current Countess of Carnarvon’s Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. She marries the 6th Earl of Carnarvon in a love match, but brings no money at all.

The final chapter in this American heiress saga closes with the scandal that still reverberates to this day: Wallis and the King. Wallis actually got her hands on the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) through another American heiress, Thelma, Viscountess Furness. And Maud–now Emerald, after her favorite precious stone–is in the thick of the plotting to keep Wallis and Edward VIII together; Emerald expects to be Lady of the Bedchamber. The Abdication Crisis spells the end of the nearly sixty year assault of the American woman on British high society!

Yet, as Elizabeth McGovern cheekily says, American blood runs through the veins of the highest houses in the United Kingdom–a truly guilty secret.

For more information, including biographies of the American heiresses, visit the Smithsonian Channel website.

Purchase all three episodes online at iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu

The documentary featured insights from Dr. Dana Cooper, professor at Stephen F. Austin State University College and author of Informal Ambassadors: American Women, Transatlantic Marriages, and Anglo-American Relations, 1865-1945, and I was fortunate enough to catch up with her to discuss her experience with contributing to Million Dollar American Princesses:

In the spring of 2014, I was contacted by Finestripe Productions (a production company based in Glasgow, Scotland) about my book, Informal Ambassadors, which was scheduled to be published that fall. Based on the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey, the Smithsonian decided to commission a documentary on the historical basis of the character Cora Crawley, or Lady Grantham, as she is known in the show. As the American-born, British-wed woman whose family fortune has maintained Downton for decades, Cora functions as the historic consolidation of the hundreds of American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Informal Ambassadors examines the experiences of five such women and their individual and collective transatlantic experiences.

Through a series of emails and phone calls through the spring, I communicated frequently with Michael Burke, the producer of the series, and Robert Neill, assistant producer. They were both tremendously kind throughout the process, and I enjoyed getting to know them during this time. We made arrangements for me to fly to New York in June, and I was interviewed for the documentary at the House of the Redeemer, in upper Manhattan, which provided a beautiful setting for filming.

The transatlantic crew—some from Britain, some from the United States—reflected the nature of the documentary. Everyone was very nice and helpful and more than willing to guide me through the process as I had not been interviewed for a documentary before. Michael guided me through the question and answer process and reminded me to repeat a bit of the question posed so that the answer would make sense in an editing room. The room was quite dark and the lighting was so hot and bright and near my face, I’m still surprised that it wasn’t in the actual picture! In all, I was interviewed for just under three hours. It still intrigues me that after all of that, the five seconds or seven seconds of commentary in the documentary is what people see!

It was very odd to not see the documentary before it aired on the Smithsonian Channel in January. I no idea what had made the cut and what had not. I watched it with my family, and my six-year-old daughter was just amazed that “Mommy was on TV!” My three-year-old son fell asleep every time as the documentary was beyond his normal bedtime!

I must say that it was quite an honor to be included in the documentary. I was thrilled to be contacted and to participate in something along these lines at this level. It was a terrific experience and one that I will never forget.

Manners for Men: In Church

Worshippers amused by off-key singer

I know a young man who makes it a practice to arrive late in church every Sunday. I often wish that he did not go to church, for he makes me cordially despise him, thus disturbing the calm and quiet of the proper frame of mind for Sundays. I conclude that he likes to be looked at, though why he should do so is not apparent. It is, in fact, not only rude, but irreverent, to be late in church for the beginning of the service.

If one should be accidentally late, it is good manners to wait till the congregation rises from the kneeling posture before making one’s way to a seat. It is almost an awful thing to interrupt a prayer. But I have seen people do it with no more scruple than if they were passing in a crowded street.

Eighteen inches are the measurement of space allowed to each sitter in the churches. In some on the space it may be more; in others ma? occupy, it may be less. But I have reason to believe that this is the average. Now, if any man of extra size should find himself in a pew with other persons, he must, in common courtesy, keep himself as well within the limits of eighteen inches as the width of his shoulders will allow. But I have occasionally seen quite slim young men sprawl far beyond the frontier lines.

Lounging is a habit of the day, and there are men who get themselves into marvellously corkscrew attitudes, in church as elsewhere. Fidgety men are more so in church than anywhere else. They seem to find it impossible to keep still. Sometimes they even produce a cough wherewith to amuse themselves, though they are not troubled with it at any other time. The charm of a reposeful manner is denied to them. Reverence for the sacred place conduces to a quiet manner; but this is not always felt by those who attend public worship.

The conventional idea seems to be that such assemblies are merely phases of social life; that it is respectable to be there; and that the service and the sermon are things to be worried through in deference to a prevalent idea that they form part of an institution that is generally regarded as excellent. The small minority are those who regard church services in their true light as lifting the thoughts above earthly things, and yet by no means unfitting them for earth. Where, for instance, could a better law of good manners be found than in the Book of Books? A glance at the end of the fourth chapter of Ephesians will show a code of conduct that, if followed, would make a man a perfect member of society.

Manners for Men by Mrs. C. E. Humphry

WWI Weekly: Real Life War Horse, Cornell University Goes to War, and Testament of Youth


The real-life War Horse: Incredible story of stallion nicknamed ‘The Sikh’ who WALKED back to Britain from Russia after spending years delivering supplies to troops

The incredible story was unearthed by Chris Chatterton, the curator of the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, last week.

He said: ‘I was reading a book about The Glosters and I came across a mention of The Sikh.

‘I did some more digging and it really is a remarkable story. She was viewed by many men in the Battalion as an Omen of good luck.

‘A statue to honour The Sikh would be great. We will certainly be doing something at the museum to commemorate her.’

The Sikh arrived at the front line with her devoted master Lieutenant A.C. Vicary, of the Gloucestershire Regiment Vicary, and the regiment’s Second Battalion in Ypres.

The Unley Museum provides an insight of life for those left behind in the inner-city Adelaide suburb during World War I through their vast collection of photographs.

The In War, At Home: Unley 1914- 1918 exhibition captures the feelings of local residents during the Great War, with fascinating insights into how those at home contributed to the war effort.

A feature of the display is the handwritten diary of Unley teenage school girl Dorothy Treloar.

“It’s really a heart warming sight to see that this is what her take [on the war] is,” Unley Museum curator Elizabeth Hartnell said.

“It’s an entire four years captured in about five or six lines.”

In her diary, Ms Treloar followed the plight of local men, Ernest and Lawrence Cutts, and their younger brother Rowland.

Cornell Rewind: A great school faces the Great War

Wilson signed the Congressional declaration of war April 6, 1917, and scarcely a week later about 575 Cornell male undergraduates registered for military service.

In fact, Cornellians already were participating in the war effort. In October 1914, Mary Merritt Crawford, Class of 1904, M.D. 1907, went to France to serve as a “house surgeon” in the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Service de Santé [health service] of the French Army and decorated for surgical work under heavy bombardment.

Rick Steves: Museums that remember the cost of war

With major anniversaries for the First World War and the Second World War coming this year, I’ve been thinking back to my recent stay in the Rhineland. A monument below my hotel window remembering Germany’s war dead still had an unused panel. My hunch is that it’ll never be used; Germany, mighty today without the help of its military, has a profound distaste for wars. As so many nations have, it rose by the sword . . . and then fell by it.
All over Europe, there is little stomach for war. The motto of one military museum I visited in Vienna says it all: “War is something for museums.” And many European countries have followed this advice, creating fascinating exhibits about their military heritage.
For some, visiting military museums is the highlight of a European trip. For others, “military” plus “museum” equals “dull.” But you don’t need to know how a Jeep works to enjoy the ride. Even if you’re not a veteran or war buff, here are four national military museums worth visiting

Lieutenant was married after his death in World War One

It was after his death that what the Signet magazine described last August — in a series about Writers to the Signet who died in World War One — as the story of Mrs Rodger and the fatherless child unfolded. Seven days after Mathew’s death, a baby boy was born on October 30 1916 at 2.50pm in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, to whom the mother gave his father’s name, Mathew Freer Rodger. The Lieutenant had a girl friend who became his fiancée and the mother of his child, and after his death she petitioned the Court of Session in Edinburgh to be declared his wife. This is how the Scotsman of Wednesday December 19 1917 reported the case under the headline ‘An Officer’s Marriage’ . . . Evidence was led in an action in which Helen Esson or Rodger, Dryden Place, Roslin, Midlothian, asked the Court to declare that she was legally married to Matthew Freer Rodger, who was a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, and who was killed in action while serving as an officer in the Army.

Watch: 10 Minutes Of Clips From WWI Drama ‘Testament Of Youth’ With Alicia Vikander & Kit Harington

Arriving in U.K. cinemas is “Testament Of Youth.” If you’re near a theater screening the flick, we urge you to check it out, and if not, we’ve got ten minutes worth clips to show you what the World War I drama delivers.

Starring a stellar cast, including Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Dominic West, Miranda Richardson, and more, the film is adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir, chronicling her decision to hold off attending Oxford in order to participate in the war effort after he fiancé and brother head into battle. It’s a movie that, while not breaking any genre tropes, works very, very well, with our BFI London Film Festival review noting the pictures adds up “to a sort of mosaic of grief, loss and even anger at the absolute waste of an insane, inhuman conflict, and all without showing a single bullet fired.”

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