Global Politics

A look back at the "dollar princesses"

By Laura Lynch

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Next week, Prince William will take Kate Middleton as his wife in what's being hailed, again, as the wedding of the century.

The pews will be filled with world leaders, other royal family and members of the British aristocracy.

Within that aristocracy will be a strong American connection. For many of their number are descendants of a generation of U.S. women. They were called the "dollar princesses."

The dollar princesses were a breed of very rich American girls who came over at the end of the 19th century to Britain and to Europe, looking for titles. And it was simple as that. It was cash in return for a title.

Daisy Goodwin has written novel, "The American Heiress," based on the lives of these women. Goodwin said newly wealthy Americans like the Vanderbilts had just about everything they wanted, except social status.

"Even though the Vanderbilts, for example, had more money than anybody, they weren't being asked to the nicest parties."

The solution lay across the Atlantic in Britain. Dukes and earls, struggling with debt and dilapidated castles, were looking for wives with multi-million dollar dowries. The Vanderbilts 19-year-old daughter, Consuelo, married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

Goodwin said she was one of the first to make the journey, and the deal.

"When these American girls came over they were so much richer, so the men could hardly resist. And a quarter of the British aristocracy married American money in the period between 1890 and 1910. It's no exaggeration to say these dollar princesses saved the British aristocracy for a generation. They kept the stately homes of England going."

The phenomenon sparked a magazine called "Titled American," which Goodwin said was the "match.com" of its day.

The lives of the dollar princesses were closely followed in the U.S. press.

British men found them vivacious and independent. But for all their fame and considerable fortune, Goodwin said they failed to make fans out of one group — the English women who suddenly lost their chance at nobility.

"They had kind of grown up from the nursery expecting to marry the Duke of This or the Earl of That, and that's what they were trained to do. And then suddenly, their career prospects were kind of jettisoned by some American girl from nowhere in their opinion who came in looking lovely but had no idea about how to dress, what to do, how to hold her fork or whatever and she would just pinch the most eligible bachelor from under these poor British girls' noses. And they hated it."

As in the much-watched case of Princesses Diana, many of the dollar princesses ended up in loveless marriages. That includes Diana's own great grandmother, Frances Work who was, in fact a dollar princess.

And so, Prince William also has stateside ancestry, thanks to the American obsession with British class and status. In some ways, said Goodwin, it marked the start of Anglo-mania.

"America had all the money but Britain had all the tradition and hey, that's something that hasn't really changed has it, you know. I would say that in America, there's probably more interest in the royal wedding than there is here even. And I'm amazed by that. But I think it's rather wonderful."