When the recent British royal wedding occupied the air waves, everybody seemed interested in “everything British” once again. There was a great deal of excitement over how a Prince fell in love with and married a Commoner, and America once again became fascinated with English royalty.
I recently came across a book that describes the earliest days of the American preoccupation with social ambition, royal rank, and the love of aristocratic titles. This book could be considered a multiple biography in that it tells the story of three Jerome sisters, nicknamed Good, Witty and Beautiful. Their story is one of the first transatlantic unions linking American Heiresses with members of poor British aristocracy. (The book also proves a plausible explanation of why the British aristocrats were becoming increasingly poorer. British farming income began to fall as transatlantic shipment improved. Cheaper, imported foods became more readily available, so British landlords had to reduce rents for their farmlands).
The oldest daughter married lord Randolph Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and became the mother of Winston Churchill, Britain’s most famous prime minister. Her marriage shifted her sisters’ matrimonial hunting grounds to a higher circle of society. The Jerome sisters’ marriages started a trend of "match-making" rich Americans with poor Europeans. In fact, available bachelors were printed in a match-making magazine which also touted previous successful matches and transactions.
The book highlights over 100 years of family history, as well as social commentary on their times. It tells the story of the Astor family, one of the Dutch settlers, also known as knickerbockers. It highlights the social restrictive system of the social structure, of the newly wealthy and the old money (called knobs and swells), and of how they were not allowed to intermingle. At that time, there were 19 millionaires living in New York. The Rothschilds, one of only a few Jewish families, were accepted into the highest social circles.
The book also provides a historical description of several geographical locations. It tells stories of the shaping of New York in the 1860s when it had only a half million inhabitants, and 5th Avenue was still farm land. It describes newly established neighborhoods for the rich and the great architectural contribution of a famous and socially-conscious architect named Jacob Riss.
The book provides an inside look into various communities of New York living minutes from each other, yet never interacting. It takes us to the seaside Newport villas where the rich escaped to have their lavish balls, as the Civil War was underway in the city.
The sisters’ first trip to Europe in the 1860s caused a sensation. They rented apartments on Champs Elysses to mingle with French royalty in the court of Napoleon II. Later the outbreak of war between France and Prussia, and the consequent invasion of Paris and the resolving starving population of Paris, changed their plans of marrying into the French court. They moved to England and entered the court balls and parties organized by the Prince of Whales.
The book is an interesting biography and commentary on the social history of British-American relations. It’s a good read, and is sure to appeal to those who awoke at 5 a.m. to watch the royal wedding live.