Monday, September 24, 2012

A Buccaneer Love Match

Mary Leiter, future Baroness Kedleston
I'm still knee deep in stories of the Gilded Age but instead of cautionary tales of social marriages gone sour, I thought I would detail the love match of Mary Leiter and George Curzon, Baron Kedleston.

Mary Leiter was the daughter of Chicago businessman Levi Leiter, who co-founded the Marshall Fields department store empire. She was one of the second generation Buccaneers who was highly educated, beautiful, and adept at all those social niceties so coveted by young ladies the world over.
After spending time on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., Mary (who was BFFs with first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland) did the obligatory tour of Europe before landing in London in 1894. There she met George Curzon, an enterprising journalist, world traveler, politician, and heir to the Barony at Scarsdale. They both seem quite enamored of each other, but strangely enough, they went their separate ways at the end of the season. Mary went back to Washington and George continued to gallivant the East Indies.

George Curzon, Baron Kendleston
But absence must have made the heart grow founder, for George turned up in Washington the next year, and the couple was married soon after on April 22, 1895 at St. John's Episcopal Church. Of course they hared it back to England, where George went from one political victory to the next, and soon the couple was headed to India as the Viceroy and Vicerine in 1898.

They lived in India for many years, where Mary was known for her society shindigs and philanthropy. The couple had three daughters--Mary, Cynthia, and Alexandra--all of whom either slept with or were married to the famous socialist Oswald Mosely. As was their future stepmother. Um, gross?

Sadly, Mary suffered greatly from a miscarriage and never fully recovered. Apparently she underwent some sort fertility related surgery as well in an attempt to conceive a son for dear George's barony. She died in London in 1906 at the age of thirty-six. George was so distraught that he erected a memorial chapel for her remains on the grounds of Kedleston Hall.
Margaret "Daisy" Leiter by
John Singer Sargent
Back briefly to the Leiter family, who were quite extraordinary in their own right. All the sisters went British. Nancy Leiter became the wife of Lt Colonel Colin Campbell and was known as America's most beautiful woman for a time. She met Campbell while visiting her sister Mary in India.

The other Leiter sister Margaret, better known as Daisy, was also a successful buccaneer. She married Henry Howard, the 19th Earl of Suffolk (and 15th Earl of Berkshire) in 1904.

In 1931, the Leiter family was divided when Daisy sued her brother Joseph over his mismanagement of their father's multi-million dollar estate. The lawsuit dragged on for eight years and racked up over a million dollars in court and attorney fees. Though Joe's tastes were extravagant (he famously purchased some 50 dozen pairs of silk socks and at one point tried to buy the Great Wall of China), the court refused to intervene since he had managed to increase the estate's working capital from 12 million to 17 million. However, when a special audit was conducted six weeks later, Joseph voluntarily resigned. When he died the next year, his personal estate was worth a million dollars. Daisy was still living in London when a 1937 Time Magazine article documented the trials and tribulations of the fabulous Leiter family.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Gilded Age or My Homage to the Vanderbilts

Biltmore, ca. 1900
I've always been fascinated by the Gilded Age. The clothes were luscious (if you didn't mind being trussed up like a turkey), the houses were huge, and being socially mobile was all the rage. I grew up taking day trips to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina (I highly recommend a visit to both the estate and the city...fabulous architecture, awesome food, and good beer...what else could you want?) and so my childhood fantasies were filled with thoughts of the Vanderbilts. Even though I have visited the estate mulitple times, I never get tired of it. In fact, my hubby and I paid a visit back in April and I was finally able to see the gardens in all of their spring glory thanks to a particularly warm winter. They've added many new features including period clothing to some of the rooms and we were lucky to catch the opening of a new history exhibit that satisfied my obsession for all thing Vanderbilt.

For those of you not familiar with Biltmore, it was built in the 1890s by George Washington Vanderbilt, the grandson of the original Robber Baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt. I don't really think he did anything besides inherit millions of dollars (OK, apparently he managed the family farm in upstate New York). He was rather sickly and upon a visit to the Asheville area, he decided that a mountain estate was just what he needed for his health. He commissioned Richard Morris Hunt (my favorite architect of the era) to design the house and Frederick Law Olmstead (yes, that Olmstead...of Central Park fame) to do the gardens. Ten years later, George moved into the palatial estate, along with his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, a pedigreed old New Yorker who was raised in Paris. Her fabulous portrait by Boldini hangs in the house. She was quite tall apparently!

The house today remains intact and owned by Vanderbilt's grandsons. It is also the largest privately owned residence in the US and I am always marveled by how the family has turned such a palatial estate into a million dollar business.

Lovely family portrait of the Marlboroughs
by John Singer Sargent

As I grew older and my interests began to extend to all things British, I became fascinated by another Vanderbilt--Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough. She was George's niece, the daughter of his brother William Kissam Vanderbilt and the pugnacious Alva Erskine Smith, who from all accounts was someone you did not want to cross. I've been reading To Marry An English Lord: Or How Anglomania Really Got Started and it details all of Alva's machinations to obtain entree into New York society (it's a tongue and cheek account of the time period...very funny). Consuelo was named after her mother's BFF, Consuelo Iznaga, who was one of the original "Buccaneers" -- she married the Viscount Mandeville who eventually became the 8th Duke of Manchester.

It was fitting that Consuelo Vanderbilt became one of the second generation "Buccaneers". She married Charles, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, though sadly, their marriage was loveless at best. She gave him "the heir and the spare" and checked out around 1906 with their divorce being finalized in 1921. She went on to marry the French aviator Jacques Balsan, who incidentally, was the brother of Etinenne Balsan (one of Coco Chanel's early lovers). Small world!

Consuelo was recently used as a model for Cora Cash in Daisy Goodwin's novel "The American Heiress". Many of the incidents (domineering mother, a secret engagement) in the book were ripped from Conseulo's own autobiography "The Glitter and the Gold".

That's enough for today. I might detail more on the other Buccaneers (including Consuelo's aunt-in-law Jennie Randolph, mother of Winston Churchill) at a later date.