American Heiresses Invade As Buccaneers

The social meaning of the word buccaneer arose from an unfinished 1938 novel by Edith Wharton titled The Buccaneers (1938).  Though her work was fiction, Wharton recorded an assault that genuinely faced the English upper-class near the end of the nineteenth century:  the invasion of American heiresses. 

America’s Gilded Age capitalists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Mellon had amassed huge fortunes and built great houses in America that could compare with those in England.  An English title, however, was a tantalizing attraction beyond the reach of most Americans–and so took on the lure of the Holy Grail to these American entrepreneurs.   Under the supervision of ambitious mothers, young American heiresses–the so-called “Dollar Princesses”–streamed to England in attempts to leap that final hurdle into the elite circles of British society. 

The “buccaneers” were genuine temptations to any English lord down on his luck,  because an impoverished noble could use the wedding dowry to replenish his coffers, repair his estate, and maintain his accustomed lifestyle.  The popular PBS series Downton Abbey showed this very situation with the fictional Grantham family. 

Consuelo Vanderbilt told the story–which may be apocryphal–that in 1938 her family locked her in a room until she agreed to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, owner of Blenheim Palace.  There was no doubt, however, about the fact that William Vanderbilt paid the Duke a dowry of $67 million in stock shares with guaranteed minimum dividends and annual allowance of $100,000 (2012 conversion).*  Consuelo could justifiably feel ill-treated.  Her dowry restored a crumbling Blenheim Palace but did little to gain her husband’s affections:  he never even considered breaking his liaison with his lover Gladys Deacon.   Consuelo Vanderbilt’s case was dramatic, but historian Bill Bryson notes that nearly ten per cent of marriages among the titled during this time period were, in fact, to American heiresses.**  This statistic included the Duke’s cousin, Lord Randolph Churchill.

Randolph Churchill’s prospective father-in-law Leonard Jerome dabbled in the railroad business with Vanderbilt, invested in the New York Times, and speculated in the stock market.  He enjoyed yachting, thoroughbred racing, and hunts in the American West guided by Buffalo Bill Cody.  The Jerome Mansion in New York City had a ballroom with fountains that spouted champagne.  He was, as well, entirely unfaithful to his wife, Clarissa, though they never divorced.  Clarissa eventually moved with her three daughters to Paris and allowed Leonard’s wealth to support them in an aristocratic lifestyle.  Her daughters became polished in the social graces and even became friends with the Empress Eugenie.  

The beautiful Jennie Jerome’s English debut occurred in 1872 with her presentation to Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra at Cowes, the small village on the Isle of Wight that swelled to prominence with yacht races during The Season.  Jennie and the Prince of Wales would be close lifelong friends and–at one point–lovers.  It was also at the 1873 Cowes Season, though, that Jennie met the twenty-three-year-old Randolph Churchill.***  He was slender, well-dressed, witty–and an English lord.  

Her face was classically modeled with a patrician nose and slightly pouting lips.  Her hair and brows were dark, as were her eyes, and her gaze–a potent mix of challenge and invitation–created an air of smoky sexuality that would, throughout her life, excite men and draw them to her.  She understood her power and used it effectively.

Three days later Randolph proposed marriage.  Within nine months, they welcomed a son whom they named Winston.


Next time:  The Rise of Jennie Churchill’s son, Winston



Photo Credit for Jennie Jerome Churchill’s image: Pinterest

*Bailey, Catherine.  The Secret Rooms: A True Story of A Haunted Castle, A Plotting

Duchess, & A Family Secret.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2012, p. 184.

**Bryson, Bill.  At Home:  A Short History of Private Life.  New York:  Anchor Books,

 2010, p. 258.

***Martin, Ralph G.  Jennie:  The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895.

Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, p. 49. 

6 thoughts on “American Heiresses Invade As Buccaneers”

  1. Dr. Parrish, I was Googling you to show a friend your first book & came across your blog — what a complete delight! I’m excited to catch up on your adventures. xo, former student Jennifer Whigham


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