Americans like to claim we’re independent from the class traditions and distinction of the British. But as America became an industrial power, we also gained a wealthy class who, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “are different from you and me.” American wealth is still on elaborate display in the necklace of fabulous summer “cottages” at Newport (actually huge mansions), at Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in Asheville, and in grand homes of New York City. There has even been a parsing of the better wealth: Eastern versus Western, Northern versus Southern, Harvard-educated versus Princetonian.
So perhaps it became inevitable that the New Wealth of America began gazing fondly–or jealously–at the Old Wealth of Great Britain as William Randolph Hearst and others came to do. The English system of Lords and Ladies was politically repellent—but socially irresistible. We Americans became fascinated with how the British upper class system excluded or condescended to anyone who did not hold inherited wealth and title.
Wealthy Americans easily found themselves tripped up by the unspoken rules of the class. The story is told of American Consuelo Vanderbilt, who had married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, the highest rank in the social class: “Once, at a party at Blenheim Palace, her husband’s seat, Consuelo was unsure of the sequence in which the Ladies should be withdrawing from the dining room. Not wanting to appear rude, she dithered in the doorway, only to be shoved in the back by a furious Marchioness, who hissed at her, ‘It is quite as vulgar to hang back as to jump ahead.’” *
A social system that insisted on a particular order for leaving the dinner table?
Now that was a system that commanded Americans’ attention.
Next Time: How to get a gift of 2,700 acres and a palace with a 7-acre roof
*From The Countess of Carnarvon’s Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey:
The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011; p. 74.
Photo credit: blenheimhorse.co.us