American Royalty — 5 Americans Who’ve Married Up: Part One
~ first in a four-part America’s Princess series
by Sonja Rouillard, author of the Romance Readers Guide to Historic London
I love historical romances and my favorites are about commoners “marrying up.” Even better, if they feature an upstart American. So, you can guess that I’m over the freakin’ moon about the upcoming royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event since the House of Windsor is now fresh out of eligible bachelors, and the likelihood of boy George growing up to fall in love with another Yank is about as likely as me winning the lottery. So, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating this modern Cinderella story.
However, Meghan isn’t the first American to marry up. By my unofficial count there have been at least 35. But while all of the women were commoners—as in not of royal blood—most were not your average Joe…sephine, either.
Take socialite Betsy of Baltimore, who married Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother in 1803. Sadly, her love match did not end well and she never become Queen of Westphalia (Google it). Or philanthropist Mary, who became the Countess von Waldersee in 1874. Born with the proverbial silver spoon, these and others like them were never really one of us, having started out life already in possession of the glass slipper.
But Meghan’s upward mobility is the real-deal, a fairytale love story that also represents our cherished belief in “The American Dream”— get an education, work hard, and you can move up in the world. Here are five Americans of mostly humble-ish birth who found their glass slipper:
I. Lesser-known is gold-digging Peggy, Duchesse de Nemoursand Duchesse de Vendome et d’Alencon. Born in 1899, she actually had some noble ancestry but no wealth, her family even rumored to have run a boarding house for a while. In her twenties, she lived in the fringes of New York society, attempting to hook a wealthy husband, including a Vanderbilt. The press dubbed her “Golden Peggy.” Eventually, she scored, big-time: Prince Charles Philippe d’Orleans (for fans of the fabulous Versailles on the tele, yes, he is a descendant of that Philippe). However, the French royal family did not approve, giving them a small allowance and forbidding her the titles; she prevailed in a court battle. With love but not wealth, it’s reported they had to resort to sheep farming in Morocco at one point. Peggy must have loved him dearly, for she stayed with Philippe throughout her sometimes-difficult life. But it was only after her death in 1993 that was she was accepted by the in-laws, being interred next to him in the Royal Chapel of Dreux in the Loir Valley where the duchess rests alongside many of the august relations who had snubbed her in life.
|Grace Kelly (Public Domain)|
II. Perhaps most famous is Princess Grace Kelly, an Academy Award winning actress who married His Serene Highness Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. However, their marriage wasn’t quite the “love affair” that was lauded in the press. She met him while attending at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, but then she returned to the U.S. Supposedly, they became pen pals, and when Rainier came to America eight months later he visited her. Talk about a short romance, after only three days he proposed, but it’s doubtful it was love on third sight. As in many romance plots, the prince was required to marry—either produce an heir or the Kingdom of Monaco would revert to France! They married in a glamourous royal wedding four months later, and, voilà, we have the legendary story of Princess Grace and her tragic death at 55.
|Lady Astor (Public Domain)|
III. Then there’s the rise of Viscountess Astor, who started life as Nancy Langhorne in a modest home in Danville, Virginia. Divorced after a bad marriage, she moved to England at age 26. In a time when many Americans were snagging nobles, she was supposedly asked, “Have you come to get our husbands?” She was known for charm and wit, and responded, “If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine...” She did “get” an Englishman—however, one born in the U.S before his dad, William Waldorf Astor, one of the wealthiest men in the world, moved the family to Britain. Dad’s extraordinary generosity to English charities earned him baron and viscount titles, which passed to his son in 1919, making Nancy a viscountess. What appeals to me about Nancy is her indomitable American spirit, if not always her politics. She broke an English glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to win and take a seat as a Member of Parliament.
Lord and Lady Astor lived an aristocratic life. You can play Lady of the Manor too by staying in Cliveden House (for a hefty fee)—their palatial estate is now a hotel. While you take tea, envision Queen Victoria joining you as she was fond of the place. Later, one of England’s biggest sex/spy scandals got its start there, the Profumo Affair, but that’s another story. [Season Two of The Crown gets into that scandal a bit--anyone else watch? ~RMW]
Thanks, Sonja, for the fun tales of royal marriages! Come back next week for more.