The Husband Hunters is a new book by Anne de Courcy
The Husband Hunters is a new book by Anne de Courcy
In the popular UK television series Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern plays Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American who married into British aristocracy.
In the popular UK television series Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern plays Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American who married into British aristocracy.

From 1874 to 1905, dozens of young American heiresses married into the British peerage, bringing with them all the fabulous wealth, glamour and sophistication of the Gilded Age.

The Husband Hunters reveals the extraordinary lengths American heiresses went to snap up impoverished British blue bloods in a cash-for-class deal that saved the aristocracy.

Elizabeth Banks was curious. A young US journalist who lived and worked in 19th century London, she had an eye for a scandal and specialised in undercover stories, having "worked" as a flower girl, a chambermaid and a laundress to expose them.

Now, she’d heard on the grapevine that there was a thriving transatlantic trade in brides. Rich American girls were buying their way into the top ranks of British society and as good as selling themselves to impoverished aristocrats. She determined to learn the truth.

In 1894, she put an ad in a London magazine, posing as an heiress: "A young American Lady of means wishes to meet a chaperon of Highest Social Position who will introduce her into the Best English Society."

To her astonishment, she received 87 responses from well-connected women promising to launch her and even get her presented at Court. Their fees ranged from £500 to £10000 (equivalent to £250000 today).

Eager for their pay off, upper-crust English grandes dames were offering their services as go-betweens in a transfer market - taking a huge cut along the way.

Men wrote, too, with proposals of marriage. One inquired if she wanted "to marry an Englishman of high social position, who could place you in a certain circle. I am a country gentleman, have a fine house and estate, have been an officer in a distinguished regiment, and know many people of position and rank".

Banks agreed to meet him, and he turned out to be "a fine-looking aristocratic man" of middle age. She discovered he was a widower and exactly what he said - from a titled family with a large place in the country, but whose fortunes were "decaying".

He told her he would treat her "with all honour and respect", but added: "It would be an absolute necessity that you should be a lady of considerable fortune".

Like everyone else she encountered in this burgeoning cash-for-coronets business, he was prepared to overlook her lack of background and ancestry in return for dollars.

"Had I carried my experiment further," Banks wrote, "I would've been one of numerous Americans who walked on a golden pavement to the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace."

The crucial factor in this trade - as detailed by historian Anne de Courcy in her new book, wasthe fabulous fortunes made from virtually nothing in the fast-growing economy of the US.

To the rich of America, everything seemed buyable, including family history. Tiffany’s had a special department designing coats-of-arms. A would-be customer recalled how you went in and said: "want armorial bearings in the name of Smith. Show me a large selection, please".

A massive book was produced, with illustrations: "Which Smiths would you prefer - the Herefordshire Smiths or the Yorkshire Smiths?"

And in such snobbery and desperation for a touch of class lay that fruitful trade in brides.

Rich Americans craved aristocratic credentials. Impecunious British aristocrats, their incomes from the land slashed by falling food prices, their castles falling, were desperate for injections of capital.

The result was a marriage market in which wealthy girls from the US came hunting for titled toffs to wed, bed and breed from. Dukes were top of the shopping list, but a belted earl would do. The longer the pedigree, the better.

For impoverished would-be husbands, the newcomers’ polished looks and glamour were secondary to the number of noughts in the dowry and their freedom to plunder it at will. Thus did the fictional Cora Levinson from Cincinnati snap up the Earl of Grantham in TV’s Downton Abbey and save him and his estate from ruin.

Bevies of real-life Coras did the same between 1870 and 1914, with at least a hundred marriages into the British aristocracy and many more into ancient French, Italian and Spanish families.

Deal-making could be a tough business, however. A marriage was arranged between beautiful US heiress Adele Beach Grant and the hard-up Earl Cairns.

Invitations to the wedding had already been sent out when, at the last minute, it was all called off. The gossip was that his financial demands were so extortionate her family decided he wasn’t worth it.

Adele went instead for the widowed Earl of Essex, also in need of a dollar or two.

She got her part of the bargain. When he took her to his stately home as his new bride, she was soon taking tea with countesses and duchesses and partying with kings and queens.

English journalist William Stead described such bargains as no more than "gilded prostitution". It is estimated that between 1875 and 1905, Americans marrying into the nobility brought with them close to a billion dollars in dowry payments.

But such social climbing often came at another price. The newcomers didn't always find it easy to fit in when they came face to face with deeply ingrained English snobbery. Eventually, the cash-for-coronets trade ceased, but American dowry money left a permanent mark on Britain. The restoration of many grand houses is thanks to them. - Daily Mail

Price: R355,