How to Buy Your Way Into High Society: the Dollar Princesses of New York

Dollar princesses

The Queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey, was in New York for a few days this past weekend, spreading her Christmas cheer. Sitting on the throne set up at her Chelsea pop up shop reminded me of New York’s “dollar princess” trend, where the city’s financial elite were obsessed with marrying off their daughters into the British nobility.

You see, many of the Gilded Age’s nouveau riche, like the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys, had tons of money, but without the right pedigree New York’s social elite (e.g. the Astors) didn’t deem the newcomers classy enough to join their ranks.

So, as people with money do, some families decided that they would buy their way into New York society. Intermingling with the lineages of old money families was off-limits, but there were plenty of pedigrees for sale in the form of broke, single aristocrats across the pond. Why was this? At the same time millionaires were popping up like daisies in the US, several of the British nobility had depleted their resources and were looking for an influx of cash that would keep them from resorting to—gasp—working for a living. Thus the transactional marriages of loaded American girls to titled British nobles took place.

The most infamous of these dollar princess marriages was the one of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Poor Consuelo protested against the arrangement set up by her mother from the start, and rumor has it that the duke told her during their carriage ride leaving the ceremony that he had a mistress waiting for him back home that he intended to keep seeing.

But not all of these marriages were purely transactional. For instance, Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill fell in love at a boat racing event and announced their engagement three days later. And their union produced statesman extraordinaire Winston Churchill.

Regardless of how the marriages turned out, the most important question about all this is did these marriages grant nouveau riche families entrance into New York’s high society? As it goes with a lot of societal changes, it’s hard to say for certain. Perhaps it played somewhat of a role, but perhaps, as History.com points out, the old money society warmed up to the nouveau riche because they realized that country’s economy was firmly in the hands of these railroad and industry tycoons.

If you’re interested in reading more about the fascinating lives of the “dollar princesses,” check out “The Husband Hunters” by Anne de Courcy and Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s tell-all, “The Glitter and the Gold.”

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