Americans’ Bittersweet Love Affair with Old Wealth and England

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.

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Why you need a second castle

William Randolph Hearst was building a castle in California–and then sent a very startling telegram.

On a hot California day in 1925 newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst drove to his construction project overlooking a bay midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. His mountainous 250,000-acre ranch was called Rancho Piedra Blanca–White Stone Ranch–and here as a boy and a young man Hearst had loved to camp, hike, and savor the glorious view down to the curving peninsula protecting the bay below. However, at age 56 Hearst had confided in architect Julia Morgan, “I get tired of going up there and camping in tents. I’m getting a little too old for that. I’d like to get something that would be a little more comfortable.”* So in 1919 Morgan began designing something “a little more comfortable” that also met Hearst’s other more extraordinary specifications.
Hearst was delighted with the progress on the project. Nevertheless, on this particular day, August 13, 1925, he also took a few moments to send a cable to London. The recipient of the cable was Alice Head, editor of Hearst’s three-year-old British version of Good Housekeeping. She read the message multiple times to make sure she had not imagined it:
The brief cable was stunning: in under forty words Hearst had authorized Head to see about the purchase of any English castle of good quality at an acceptable price. The request was probably unique in the history of the world; and, as a personal order from her American boss, it sent a dazed Head scurrying to turn her hand to the task.
Any observer standing beside Hearst at that moment would have been equally startled; because on this day when Hearst authorized the purchase of an English castle, he was overseeing the construction site of what would become the spectacular Hearst Castle. He fondly referred to his castle overlooking San Simeon Bay as “the ranch,” but he formally named it La Cuesta Encantata, The Enchanted Hill. It would cost over half a billion dollars in 2018 value and take thirty years to complete.

In the next post, let’s see why an American would buy a second castle.


Photo Credit: Free Image, Wikipedia

*Wilson, Mark Wilson: forward by Lynn Forney McMurray. Julia Morgan:
Architect of Beauty. p. 105