As those of us on this side of the pond eagerly anticipate season three of the award-winning Downton Abbey, it was a real treat to meet Carol Wallace, co-author of To Marry An English Lord, the book that was influential in the creation of Downton. Carol’s had a long interest in late 19th/early 20th century American social history, an especially interesting period for Anglo-American relations. I’m not referring to diplomatic relations, but something far more exciting: romance.
Using Edith Wharton and Henry James as inspiration, Carol and her co-author, Gail MacColl, spent five years researching To Marry An English Lord before its publication in 1989. The book takes a lively and informative look at the American girls who came over to England — mostly between 1890 and 1914 — to marry into the British aristocracy. More than one hundred American heiresses invaded Britain and swapped dollars for titles. Explaining her interest in this period, Carol laughs and says, “I’ve always been a sucker for a tiara and a title.”
Included among the American heiresses were a LaRoche (pharmaceuticals), a Rogers (oil), a Whitney (New York trolleys) – and most famously, Jennie Jerome, who would become mother to Winston Churchill. Leonard Jerome had made a fortune in stock speculation and was determined that all three of his daughters marry well. At a shipboard ball, Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill and the rest is history. On their marriage, Leonard Jerome provided Randolph with $5 million dollars and in exchange Jennie became Lady Randolph Churchill.
The renewed interest in To Marry an English Lord has “been like a dream” for Carol. As Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey explains, “I was reading it [To Marry an English Lord] when Gareth Neame, co-executive producer [of Downton], first approached me to write a new series that explored `Gosford Park’ territory for television…. Cora Grantham was the first character of Downton to be imagined, thanks to Ms. MacColl and Ms. Wallace.”
Cora Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern, above) represents one of the so-called “self-made girls” (1880-1900) that Carol writes about in her book. As Carol describes them, “These self-made girls were really, really rich, and superbly dressed by Parisian couturier, Charles Worth.” Because the English aristocracy focused so heavily on the boys of the family, aristocratic English girls often paled in comparison to their American counterparts.
There were of course also economic reasons for these Anglo-American marriages. In To Marry an English Lord, Carol writes, “the American heiress was more than a mere novelty, more than just spice to be added to the endless round of dinner parties, house parties, receptions, and teas. To them [the English aristocracy], she was salvation. They intended to get their hands on all that American money and see that it was spent right there in London.”
Some of the marriages proved quite successful. One of Carol’s favorite heiresses is May Goelet. May’s family had made a fortune in New York real estate. In 1903, May married the Duke of Roxburge and became “quite the Englishwoman.”
Growing up in Connecticut the daughter of a sports writer for the New York Times, Carol found writing both a passion and a career choice. As she puts it, “When I graduated from college (Carol was in one of the first co-ed classes at Princeton), I had the idea you could make a living as a writer.” While it hasn’t always been easy to make a living, Carol has authored or co-authored nearly 20 books – the most well known of her books is the Official Preppy Handbook, published in 1980. When I ask Carol about the relevance of the book today, she opines that, “the economic foundation that was so integral to the preppy lifestyle ( and so familiar to those of us growing up in the 50’s and 60’s) won’t come back.” As she explains, “It’s difficult to maintain the casual country club lifestyle today without working really hard.”
What’s so impressive in talking with Carol is the range of topics she’s written about including artists (Leaving Van Gogh), weddings (All Dressed in White), baby names, and even one on how to have fabulous nails. Carol says, “I write about what the market lets me write. Today it’s really about how books find their readers.”
This leads me to ask, how do mini-series like Downton Abbey find their viewers – and why has Downton proved such a success?
Carol attributes Downton’s success to the public’s need to escape from the “vulgarity of popular culture.” Downton Abbey “is so pleasant and pretty to look at. The clothes are fabulous and there’s a real sophistication that is seductive.”
Carol often gives presentations on the “Downton” period. At a recent talk to an audience of primarily older women on the Upper East Side, Carol provided a bit of color around Downton’s character, Lady Cora Grantham. We’ll learn in season three, for example, that Cora hails from Cincinnati and is truly one of the “self-made girls” Carol writes about in her book. Cora’s “social success would be entirely her own doing, built…on her own charms, her own merits, her own increasing efforts.” No wonder Lord Grantham found Cora so beguiling – and why Downton Abbey and its wonderful cast continue to beguile us.
When Carol isn’t writing, she and her husband, also a writer, enjoy exploring New York and its many cultural attractions. They are also members of the Upper West Side’s St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, singing in the church choir and serving on its vestry. Carol was happy to share her passion for New York with WAT’s six questions below.
Photo credit for books covers and Carol at table: Jamie Hopper.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Zoe and A Voce
Favorite Place to Shop: Posman bookstores, Blue Mercury for really good perfume; Loehmann’s and Marshall’s.
Favorite New York Sight: The city skyline when I’m coming back from a trip.
Favorite New York Moment: Years ago I was taking the subway from Grand Central to Port Authority very early in the morning, which was a bit scary. I sat down next to an older man on the train and realized it was my father who was on his way to work at the Times.
What You Love About New York: You never know what’s going to happen. It has wonderful surprises and always provides a mix of intimacy and privacy.
What You Hate About New York: The post office with its long lines and on occasion rude employees.