Karen Harper | Cash for Class: American Dollar Brides
April 17, 2019
One of the most unusual upper-class traditions during the
American Gilded Age and the English Victorian and Edwardian Eras was that of American
heiresses marrying into British nobility for money. This fascinated me and led to years of
research to write American Duchess.
Some famous examples of dollar brides include Winston
Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome; Cora, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey (yes, I
know that one is fiction) and my very real heroine Consuelo Vanderbilt whose social-climbing
mother forced her to wed the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895 when she was in
love with someone else. The Vanderbilts paid a fortune to help renovate the duke’s massive
Blenheim Palace in exchange for Consuelo becoming his duchess. At age 18, how would you
like to have a starter home of nearly two hundred rooms and be wed to a man you hardly
Consuelo’s New York City marriage was dubbed ‘the wedding of
the century.’ Perhaps the 60-piece orchestra, 54-voice choir singing O Perfect
Love and 4000 guests did make it undisputedly that. Yet Consuelo found ways to live
her own life and help others, as well as producing ‘an heir and a spare.’ And, fortunately for
this author, who likes to write and read great love stories, she later found and wed (in a small,
private but joyous ceremony) the love of her life.
If this strange dollar bride concept intrigues you, the
Smithsonian channel has an entire series, Million Dollar American Princesses, in
which Consuelo is featured. A clip of her wedding as depicted in the series can be seen
Also, Googling Consuelo Vanderbilt or
9th Duchess of Marlborough brings up amazing paintings and photos of this
intriguing woman, two which I’ve included here. One is of the duke, Consuelo and their sons
which hangs at Blenheim. The photo of Blenheim is from the guidebook I bought there. It has
the center crease, but it’s the best from the overhead picture I have which shows its size.
The year of the wedding, there was an editorial cartoon
in Life magazine which depicted Consuelo’s mother holding the rope wrapped
around her daughter’s wrists as she knelt at the altar to wed the duke—who was half a head
shorter than she. His nickname was Sunny, which hardly fit his personality. But she had
enough courage and care to change the feudal way the massive estate was run.
American Duchess takes the reader through World
War II when Consuelo was living in France with her second husband, a pilot and French war
hero. Hitler had Consuelo on his “kidnap for ransom list,” hoping to capture her to get
American dollars for the Third Reich, so they had to flee the Nazis. Money can be a blessing
and a curse—for Consuelo, it was both.
Many are fascinated by our current ‘American Duchess’ Meghan
Markle who has a happy British marriage. But Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough Balsan was
the original ‘postal girl’ for such a cash for class international union. To read more about this
dollar bride phenomenon try To Marry An English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol
Mcd. Wallace. Consuelo is on the cover.
Please comment for a chance to win one of four autographed
copies of American Duchess.
A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt
Before there was Meghan Markle, there was Consuelo
Vanderbilt, the original American Duchess.
Karen Harper tells the tale of Consuelo Vanderbilt, her “The Wedding of the Century” to the
Duke of Marlborough, and her quest to find meaning behind “the glitter and the gold.”
On a cold November day in 1895, a carriage approaches St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New
York City’s Fifth Avenue. Massive crowds surge forward, awaiting their glimpse of heiress
Consuelo Vanderbilt. Just 18, the beautiful bride has not only arrived late, but in tears, yet her
marriage to the aloof Duke of Marlborough proceeds. Bullied into the wedding by her
indomitable mother, Alva, Consuelo loves another. But a deal was made, trading some of the
vast Vanderbilt wealth for a title and prestige, and Consuelo, bred to obey, realizes she must
make the best of things.
At Blenheim Palace, Consuelo is confronted with an overwhelming list of duties, including
producing an “heir and a spare,” but her relationship with the duke quickly disintegrates.
Consuelo finds an inner strength, charming everyone from debutantes to diplomats including
Winston Churchill, as she fights for women’s suffrage. And when she takes a scandalous leap,
can she hope to attain love at last…?
From the dawning of the opulent Gilded Age, to the battles of the Second World War,
American Duchess is a riveting tale of one woman’s quest to attain independence
—at any price.
Historical [William Morrow Paperbacks, On Sale: February
26, 2019, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780062748331 / eISBN: 9780062748348]
Duchess is a must read if you love historical fiction
researched look at the vivacious life of Consuelo Vanderbilt.
Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary
suspense and historical novels about real British women. Published since 1982, she is a native
Ohioan who has also spent thirty happy winters in Naples, Florida as a snowbird. Her current
suspense series is set in Southwest Florida and the Caribbean under the title THE SOUTH
A former high school and college level English instructor, Karen and her husband love to travel
to places where she sets her novels, especially England. Her early historical fiction focused on
the Tudor era, and her recent historicals examine the lives of amazing women, both lower and
upper class, who lived in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. (Think Downton Abbey.) Her
latest historicals are THE ROYAL NANNY and coming in October of 2017, THE IT GIRLS.
Karen has three grown stepchildren and one grandson. She and her husband grow roses and
veggies ousidet her office windows, which can be a bit of a distraction in the warm months in
Ohio when she should be looking at her laptop screen. Her 96-year-old mother lives nearby,
so Karen's hoping for good genes to keep writing far into the future.
21 comments posted.
Re: Karen Harper | Cash for Class: American Dollar Brides
Thank you for the opportunity to read more about Consuelo Vanderbilt.
Wow what an intriguing story. Your synopsis was so interesting I just spent
the last 30 minutes googling Consuelo. What a fascinating life she lead. I
would love to read your book!
(Kathy Roope 9:53am April 17)
I love those old portraits and pictures sounds and looks
(Vickie Couturier 10:53am April 17)
Wow this is a fascinating topic. Consuelo sounds pretty amazing.
(Jana B 12:16pm April 18)
We live about an hour from the Biltmore, the Vanderbilt home, in
Asheville, NC and have visited it several times. We visited the
mansions in Newport, RI. It is very obvious that their life styles and
priorities were very different from the rest of us. Their wealth
allowed them to be patrons of the arts, even if was to enhance their
mansions in competition with one another. It is sad the number of
mansions that were razed during and after the depression. So much
art was lost. Marrying off daughters to gain a noble title in the
family was just another form of competition among them. It is really
sad that their children, mostly daughters, were considered
commodities to be used to advance the family's position and
influence. Even more sad is the predatory actions of British royalty
on the hunt for a rich American girl to solve their financial problems.
To be married for just your family's money and not for yourself must
have been crushing for most of them. How very sad for Consuelo
to have such a mercenary mother.
(Patricia Barraclough 12:38pm April 18)
I doubt the Duke was actually shorter than Consuelo--she had heels and big hair.
And why should we attack a man if he actually is shorter than a woman? Is he
unworthy of his wife? Is she degrading herself by marrying a shorter man? That
is plain old bigotry!
(John Smith 12:29pm April 18)
I'm looking forward to reading more. I hope that she was able to come to love, or at least admire her husband.
(Lorena Keech 5:54pm April 18)
sounds like a really great book!
(Lauri Crumley Coates 6:34pm April 18)
Thank you for the chance and looking forward to
reading American Duchess :)
(Gail Vaughn 6:35pm April 18)
I would love to read "American Duchess". It's amazing that
the wealthy actually arranged marriages for their children.
The dollar bride would be an interesting era to read about,
thanks for the chance.
(Dianne Casey 7:10pm April 18)
This book sounds very interesting, I've never heard of this
(Jill Waldmann 8:07pm April 18)
This is an interesting time. I'd like to read the book.
(Susan Beamon 8:23pm April 18)
As a reader and reviewer of historical fiction, especially
when it takes place in WWII, I have been looking forward to
reading American Duchess. Consuelo Vanderbilt occupied a
world of privilege but had little power to live her life as
I first "discovered" Consuelo Vanderbilt when I read the
book, That Churchill Woman, the story of Jennie Jerome,
another American heiress who married into the English
nobility. Consuelo Vanderbilt was only a minor character in
that book, but I wanted to read more about her.
(Kt C 8:35pm April 18)
Just read The Last Castle about Biltmore and the Vanderbilts, so this will be one I need to read. I have always enjoyed your books and look forward to reading this one.
(Sharon Mitchell 9:05pm April 18)
What a fascinating book! Thanks for sharing the info about Consuelo Vanderbilt.
(Bonnie Hometchko 10:24pm April 18)
The life of Consuelo Vanderbilt is fascinating. It's sad that she was more or less forced into a loveless marriage, but at the same time, she managed to develop an inner strength.
(Anna Speed 12:43pm April 19)
love those old pics very nice
(Margo Beredjiklian 9:34am April 19)
I loved looking at the pictures and the book sounds like a
really good one!!
(Darlene Carroll 2:11pm April 19)
I just read That Churchill Women by Stephanie Barron I would
love to see Consulelas perspective in a time that was so
oppressive to women regardless of there station in life
(Candice Bennett-hiebert 5:11pm April 19)
Love reading these. Thank you for the chance
(Jean Craven 6:52pm April 19)
American Duchess sounds fascinating! Thank you for the
(Caryl Kane 10:35pm April 19)
Sounds interesting i love the old photos
(Danielle McDonald 4:30pm April 22)
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