American heiresses – confident, stylish and outgoing – invaded the Shires from the late-19th century. The fox was no longer the only thing being pursued, says Dr Hannah Clark
Much has been documented on the invasion of American heiresses, or ‘Dollar Brides’, in British high society. And yet, less has been written about how crucial the hunting field was to procuring an aristocratic husband. Here, Dr Hannah Clark corrects the omission.
For more on Melton Mowbray, discover how the Meltonian Dandy transformed hunting dress to the distinctive costume known today. Read Meltonian Dandy: by his clothes you shall know him.
During her first foxhunting trip to the hunting capital of England, Melton Mowbray, the American, Nancy Langhorne (later Lady Astor), recalled being approached by some British women on the hunting field and asked if she had come to capture “one of our husbands”. Recently divorced and bemused, she quickly retorted: “If you knew how much trouble I had in getting rid of my own, you’d know I don’t want any of yours.”
Fears that American women were using the English hunting field to entrap British men were not unfounded. By the late-19th century, a new breed of American foxhunting femme fatale was increasingly competing with British women for marriage to a titled peer upon the hallowed turf of the Leicestershire hunting Shires, the traditional winter stomping ground of the aristocracy. American heiresses, known as ‘Dollar Brides’, would go on to marry more than a third of the aristocratic British titles represented in the House of Lords during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Yet, while the American ‘invasion’ of London society is well documented, less recognised is that many of them arguably first entered British society on the Leicestershire hunting fields.
By the end of the 19th century, flocks of rich heiresses came to England with the hope of procuring a British aristocratic husband. Notable transatlantic marriages included Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Spencer Churchill and later gave birth to Winston Churchill; Nancy Langhorne, who married William Waldorf Astor; Mary Leiter, whose husband Lord Curzon became Viceroy of India, and Eloise Breese who became Lady Ancaster. It was often a mutually beneficial arrangement. At the time, a depression in agriculture threatened the estates of many noblemen and these heiresses brought much-needed wealth to keep estates afloat with dowries financed through steel manufacturing, oil production and railways. In exchange for their wealth, they received a highly desirable aristocratic title and distinction from their American peers. As Life Magazine satirised in 1908, much fun was made of these marriages:
“Here dearest,” said Lord Blessington
His hand waved to and fro –
“Is my estate, it needs a great
Expenditure, you know.
“The roof is leaking badly;
The grass is much too long
A million might make it all right
For you the merest song.”
Yet, some of these marriages were also genuine love matches. These women were often courted by numerous members of the British and European nobility, and often turned down any number of titled suitors.
THE AMERICAN INVASION
Outside of the American ‘colony’ in London, the fashionable Leicestershire hunting resort of Melton Mowbray was central to the American ‘invasion’ of British high society. Between 1871 to 1891 alone, the American community in Britain increased from 7,370, to 19,740, showing that the ‘Americanisation’ of the Melton hunting season was part of a much wider process of Anglo-American integration. From November to April, few places apart from Melton could advertise such a concentration of transnational elites and by the 1920s, the presence of not one but three Royal princes in residence. Not only did Melton attract much of the British and European aristocracy but also large swathes of new American wealth looking to integrate itself into the European nobility. Such was the importance of this American wealth to the UK that in 1927, Winston Churchill specifically mentioned Melton as an important centre for American expats and investment when he repealed the tax on American temporary residents.
For American heiresses looking to find their dream British aristocrat, the Melton hunting season offered distinct advantages to gaining access into British high society over the heavily policed London Social Season and, in particular, the Court of St James’, where an introduction to British royalty was the ultimate prize and sign of social acceptance. The relatively compact nature of Melton, and the comparative lack of elite private space, meant that the Anglo-American community was forced to mix far more than it was in London, where private clubs and residences created physical and social boundaries. Additionally, hunting’s necessity for mobility, the high concentration of ‘the right sort’ of people in town during the Season, and the location and organisation of the surrounding Quorn, Cottesmore and Belvoir hunts not only encouraged conscious and organised social interactions but serendipitous meetings. Many visitors stayed and stabled their horses within the town precincts, and on hunting days the roads leading out through the town to hunt became routes where new acquaintances and opportunities could be made.
The Virginian Phyllis Langhorne (Nancy Astor’s younger sister) had been encouraged to visit Melton in the hope she might meet someone after the breakdown of her marriage. This was accomplished successfully when she met the dashing British Captain the Honourable George Henry Douglas-Pennant while riding back to Melton after a day’s hunting in 1907.
Melton’s opportunities for socialising through après-Hunt activities were also considerable compared with the officiously guarded society events in London. Hunt balls, house parties, hunt clubs and, by the 1920s, American Country Club-style lodgings such as the fashionable Craven Lodge (where the Prince of Wales took apartments), were the setting for cocktails, fancy dress parties and theatrical performances that echoed society in the capital but were free from its stringent social policing. As Simon Blow recorded in his evocation of Melton society: “the socialites of a fast and international Melton dined and danced as regularly as they hunted”.
Melton society had long had a reputation for enabling affairs and transgressions. For Lady Sibell Grosvenor, it was the “haunt of man-eating Delilahs” and she took a melancholy view of her husband’s hunting in Melton. Transgressions were largely tolerated, with the town seemingly representing a space where the normal rules of elite society could be subverted. The Prince of Wales was well known for his womanising in Melton and during the 1920s, Captain Tommy McDougal was known to have kept his mistress in a Melton covert.
For women, this society offered them the chance to turn the tables and pursue men. Most famously, the American divorcée Wallace Simpson met the future Edward VIII at Burrough Court while in Melton for the hunting season – something that would have never occurred in London. Likewise, the Indian heiress Indira, Maharani of Cooch Behar, took a house in Melton each season to hunt with the Quorn and Cottesmore, and, rumour had it, for a new husband, after she was widowed at a young age.
Hunting was the ideal activity for wealthy heiresses in pursuit of men. It provided a perfect place to encourage mixing between the sexes and overturn normal society rules of courtship. Crucially, before 1900, the hunting field was one of the few spaces where women could mix with men without a chaperone. In contrast to other sports or society activities, which emphasised the gulf between the leisure interests of men and women in the upper class, hunting provided a space where riders of both sexes competed equally and traditional social status was superseded by a preference for athletic ability and daring horsemanship.
For the American Mina Field (niece of the American millionaire department store owner Marshall Field), this provided the ideal conditions for her to pursue, quite literally, the British object of her affection, Major Algernon Burnaby, across the Leicestershire hunting fields. “I shan’t enjoy myself unless I follow AB [on the hunting field],” she wrote in her 1908 diary, “so I shall pretend not to and shall do so.”
While hunting, she was able to escape from her governess and spend time alone with him under the subtext of him helping her find suitable hunting horses and explaining the traditions of hunting in England. Indeed, showing off her ‘superior’ riding skills learned in Virginia, and competing with him across the challenges of the hunting landscape, became a form of flirting.
Many wealthy American women were already well prepared for the social mores of British high society, with hunting included as a necessary part of their education. Thus a young Wallace Simpson, future Duchess of Windsor, attended summer camp at Virginia’s prestigious Foxcroft School, where the education positioned foxhunting as a vital accomplishment in the curriculum to be taught actively and engaged in at least once a week with the prestigious Virginia hunts.
These American women also had a distinct advantage over their British counterparts; new ideas of desirable femininity, beauty and athleticism, both in America and Britain, increasingly took their lead from America. In many cases, British men preferred American women for their personalities, regardless of wealth. By the turn of the 20th century, American women arriving in Leicestershire often embodied the image of the popular ‘Gibson Girl’. In the 1890s, the American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson had created the ‘Gibson Girl’ and her grace, beauty and intelligence were emulated by a generation of women and used as a pin-up by men.
IDEAL OF WOMANHOOD
Hugely popular in Britain, this new idea of desirable womanhood meant young American women became associated with the grace and glamour of the ‘Girl’. For 20 years, this wholesome New World version of beauty proved so popular that an entire industry was built around her image, the Gibson Girl appearing in songs, clothing lines, hairstyles and publications. That Gibson had based his character on his wife, the celebrated Virginian belle Irene Langhorne, a keen Virginian foxhunter and the eldest sister of Nancy Astor, was surely no coincidence.
Many British men liked American women specifically because of their ‘Americanness’, and the fast-paced Leicestershire hunting field showed off their more outgoing personalities. According to contemporaries, the American girl’s appeal to Europeans was due to her “intelligence, quickness, freshness, animation, fullness of character, always her individuality”, which marked her out from her British counterpart who was not “sure of herself, or of anybody else. She has no conversation… she has been taught to be timid.” By 1924, it was recorded that numerous American women were hunting in the Shires with considerable aplomb, with many often being the first in at the kill and presented with the brush.
Mina Field certainly used her American pluck and daring to her advantage on the hunting field and was celebrated by the British men. After mounting a difficult horse that had attempted to buck her off, she recorded being complimented by a number of British men who told her she rode “beautifully”, and she knew it. She admitted to enjoying letting them see “how [she] could hang on by [her] American eyelids”. Similarly, she took every opportunity to differentiate herself from the British girls by showing off. Having been warned not to jump a particular dangerous Leicestershire hedge, she did it anyway, and noted with pride that she “happened to open [her] eye whilst in the thickest part of the fence and… caught that of the man behind [her] who, unable to restrain his appreciation at [her] prowess just winked”.
Added to their desirable American pluck on the hunting field, these Amazons of the chase knew that their sidesaddle riding habits were deemed a symbol of feminine grace and desirability. Close cut, corseted, tailored and elegant, the tight-fitting silhouette of her habit and the black lace net on a silk top hat could be used to beguile and seduce. American women made sure they went to the best London tailors, such as Busvine, for their habits.
Those American women who avoided hunting found it could bar them from a successful transatlantic marriage. The marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Marlborough suffered greatly because of her dislike of hunting. Recalling her husband’s preoccupation with hunting in Melton each season, she admitted that she “never became completely addicted to hunting, and during those Leicestershire winters bereft of congenial companionship… a horrible loneliness encompassed [her]”. Even the evenings offered no reprieve, as she had to spend them “listening to the hunting exploits of others”.
Nonetheless, for all the complaints that American women were stealing British men, they arguably also gifted their English competitors a new sartorial and physical freedom by bringing the fashion for wearing breeches and riding astride to the English hunting fields during the early-20th century. As America’s cultural confidence as a world power grew, these women increasingly rejected the restrictive styles of modest hunting dress imported from Europe, in favour of an American idea of sportswear that emphasised the new American desire for a ‘healthy’, athletic female body – an aesthetic that was subsequently adopted by the British and has remained with us ever since.