Actor Roanna Davidson walks us through the challenges and delights of becoming Winnaretta Singer, the provocative heir to a major sewing machine fortune and one of the bold women featured in season 2 of Million Dollar American Princesses.
Join Elizabeth McGovern as she takes an in-depth look at the young American heiresses whose real life stories inspired the acclaimed TV drama "Downton Abbey." This series takes you from the late 1800s, when daughters of America's new industrial millionaires marry into the money-strapped British aristocracy, to the 20th century, when a new kind of American Princess wields power not through wealth, but through character, style, and wit. Through the decades, these women bring dramatic change to the European aristocracy and eventually the world.
Mary Leiter's credentials as a Dollar Princess were assured. She was born in Chicago in 1870, and her family's net worth was in excess of $220 million.
In 1890, a chance meeting with the Prince of Wales opened the doors of London society to her. With no shortage of admirers, it was 31-year-old George Curzon, a member of the aristocracy and a rising political star in his own right, who caught her eye. They wed in 1895.
In stark contrast to other such unions, theirs was a happy marriage, mainly because Mary was a devoted and capable partner to George in every sense. In 1898, he became Viceroy of India with Mary by his side.
Sadly, tragedy struck when she contracted a deadly infection there and passed away soon after at the tender age of 36. Her husband, sick with grief, built a memorial tomb in her honor. An even bigger tribute to their love would follow: Their relationship was the inspiration for that of the characters of the Earl of Grantham and his wife, Cora, in the worldwide hit "Downton Abbey."
Wallis Simpson (19 June 1896 -- 24 April 1986) was born Bessie Wallis Warfield in Baltimore, Maryland. While she grew up in a modest setting, she later came to prominence as part of the inner circle of notorious London-based, American socialite Emerald Cunard.
It was there that the married beauty caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, Edward, a man for whom the trappings of court could not compete with the charm and charisma that Mrs. Simpson exuded.
Before long, they were vacationing openly together and a scandalous state of affairs would come to a head in 1936, when Edward ascended the English throne as King Edward VIII. By the end of the year, he had given up his throne for the recently divorced Wallis, cementing their love story in history.
She remained with Edward until his death in 1972 and lived in seclusion until her death in 1986.
American heiress Sara Murphy, born Sara Wiborg (November 7, 1883--October 10, 1975), the daughter of a printer ink millionaire, Frank Bestow Wiborg, had a privileged upbringing in East Hampton, New York. In 1915, she married the equally well-to-do boy-next-door, Gerald Murphy, and had three children with him.
In 1921, in response to what was perceived to be an overly puritanical attitude sweeping the U.S., Gerald and Sara moved their family to Paris. Charismatic and wealthy, it didn't take long for them to be introduced to the famous figures of the time: from Picasso to Igor Stravinsky, to other expatriate Americans like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. Sara, in particular, was widely regarded as a muse and inspiration, particularly to Pablo Picasso.
In 1923, the Murphy's took a vacation to the south of France. They were so in love with the area, they bought a home there. Once settled, they came into their own as prolific hosts of lavish parties while also inviting friends, leading artists, and writers of the day.
The Murphy's lavish lifestyles in the south of France were cut short when both Sara's sons died a couple of years apart. In 1935, her first son, Baoth, died of meningitis. Two years later, her second son, Patrick, died of tuberculosis. The Murphy's returned to New York shortly after their losses, where they remained for the rest of their lives.
In the early days of Hollywood, Gloria Swanson (March 27, 1899--April 4, 1983) was the biggest movie star in the world. She was born in Chicago to Adelaide and Joseph Swanson.
In 1914, Swanson landed her first acting job at just 15 as an extra in 'The Song of Soul.' She later landed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1919, which resulted in leading silent film roles in hits like 'Don't Change Your Husband,' 'Male and Female,' and 'Something to Think About.' By 1926, and with tons of experience under her belt, she was the undisputed queen of the screen, receiving 10,000 fan letters a week, earning around $30,000 a month. She was dubbed the "movie stars of all movie stars" by legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, with whom she worked often.
Her romantic life, on the other hand, was nowhere near as successful, having married six separate times throughout her life. But it was her third marriage in 1925 to French nobleman Marquis Henri De la Falaise that transformed her into genuine European aristocracy.
In 1927, Swanson became an independent producer at United Artists, making and starring in her own films. She would later partner with the notorious Joe Kennedy, a brash 37-year-old Wall Street millionaire. It was a disastrous decision, both commercially and personally, eventually ruining her marriage to the Marquis.
She would marry three more times in her life. But by the end of WWII, her star had waned. She did, however, score a surprise hit later in her career with the 1950 film, 'Sunset Boulevard,' where she portrayed Norma Desmond, an aging movie star that falls in love with a young screenwriter.
Swanson continued her acting career at a slower pace by starring in a few more films, theatre, and television productions throughout her life. In 1983, she died of a heart ailment.
Consuelo Yznaga was born in 1853, the daughter of a southern plantation owner from Louisiana. Her father was from a well-established, wealthy Cuban family that owned sugar mills and other properties.
In Saratoga Springs, New York, she encountered the Viscount Mandeville, better known as Kim, the 7th Duke of Manchester. Despite a notorious reputation and an unconcealed interest in the family's wealth, Consuelo's parents accepted their courtship. On May 22, 1876, they were married.
Consuelo would give birth to three children (a boy, and twin daughters) but theirs was a turbulent union, tinged with great tragedy. Despite her devotion to her husband, Kim showed little interest in his family, and eventually abandoned them altogether.
In 1889, after squandering his wealth, he filed for bankruptcy and would die just three years later. Consuelo herself passed away in 1909.
Peggy Guggenheim (August 26, 1898--December 23, 1979) was one of the most iconic figures in the modern art world. Born to a wealthy New York Jewish family, Guggenheim's father, Benjamin, was one of the casualties of RMS Titanic, in 1912.
With a reasonable inheritance in tow, Guggenheim relocated to Paris, married artist Laurence Vail, but then found herself divorced with two children, all by the age of 32.
Inspired by art, Guggenheim opened her own gallery in London in 1938. But the outbreak of WWII forced her relocation back to France, where she proceeded to purchase important works of art by the likes of Constantin Brancusi and Henri Leger, for fear they'd end up with the Nazis. By the time Germany invaded Paris, she'd barely escaped, along with her children and the valuable pieces she owned.
In New York City in 1942, Guggenheim opened a gallery called The Art of This Century, featuring a series of trailblazing exhibitions, blending old-world mastery with the work of up-and-coming young artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Koonig, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. It was a monumental success and Peggy's importance as a collector and champion of the arts was cemented.
In 1947, Peggy moved to Venice where she opened her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which is the most-visited museum in Venice to this day. She died in 1979, and her ashes were scattered there.
Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy (February 20, 1920--May 13, 1948) was the daughter of U.S. politician Joe Kennedy. In 1938, when Kick was 18, her father was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and moved the entire Kennedy clan to London with him.
From day one, Kick was the toast of London society, and considered one of the top debutantes of the year by the English media. In 1938, she met William "Billy" Cavendish, the Marquis of Hartington, with whom she developed a relationship. But their burgeoning romance was shattered by WWII, and Kick was forced to return to the U.S. without Billy.
Four years later, she was back in England. Despite strenuous objection over their religious differences from her mother Rose Fitzgerald, she married Billy in May of 1944 with only her brother Joseph Kennedy, Jr. as the sole family witness.
In August 1944, both Joseph Jr. and Billy were killed in combat within days of each other; Kick had been married for just five weeks. She decided to continue living in London.
In 1948, Kick fell in love with another British aristocrat, Earl Peter Fitzwilliam, an Anglican and a married man. Again, Kick's mother expressed disapproval of her involvement with Fitzgerald and threatened to disown Kick if she married him. Before they could marry, Kick and Fitzwilliam were tragically killed in a plane crash that year whilst en route to the French Riviera.
Winnaretta Singer (January 8, 1865--November 26, 1943) was the 20th child of Isaac Singer, of Singer sowing machine fame.
In 1875, shortly after moving his family to England, Isaac passed away, leaving Winnaretta devastated... and very rich. In 1886, she married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbeliard, but by 1889, the marriage had ended, partly due to the fact that Winnaretta was attracted to women, not men.
Four years later, she remarried, this time to a 59-year-old Prince Edmond de Polignac who was also gay, but, crucially, shared her love of music, art, and all things modern. They developed an affectionate, happy relationship.
Under the cover of marriage, the Princess De Polignac was free to pursue sexual affairs with women, but music remained her greatest passion. She built her reputation as a famous salon hostess and patron, promoting a number of new artists and commissioning works from notable composers, like Claude Debussy and Erik Satie.
In 1901, Edmond fell seriously ill from unknown causes and died suddenly soon after. Winnaretta commissioned a gravestone inscribed with an epitaph by the composer Wagner that read: "Happy in faith, happy in love." She would continue her work as a musical patron, right until her death in 1943.
Her Paris mansion is now the site of the Singer-Polignac Foundation, which continues to patronize the arts and sciences.
Clara Ward (June 17, 1873--December 9, 1916) was the daughter of a wealthy Michigan industrialist who died in 1875, when she was just two years old. Early on in her life, she displayed a rebellious streak, getting herself kicked out of several European finishing schools, as well as a convent.
In 1890, Clara married Joseph Caraman, the 19th Prince of Chimay. The couple had two children together, but Ward soon became bored and conducted numerous affairs. It was only when she ran off with a Hungarian violinist, Rigo Jancsi that her husband divorced her and banned her from seeing her children.
Free from the shackles of convention, Ward proceeded to scandalize high society with her exhibitionist pursuits: performing in various states of undress at the Folies Bergere, an infamous Paris nightclub, and trading nude photographs of herself for money. Her family responded by cutting her off from her inheritance.
Ward's erratic behavior eventually took its toll on her relationship, and in 1904, she and Rigo separated. She married twice more, to a waiter and then a railway man. In 1916, Clara passed way, aged just 43.
Jennie Jerome (January 9, 1854 -- June 29, 1921) was born in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, one of three daughters to Clara and Leonard Jerome. Despite their wealth, the family found the doors of Knickerbocker high society firmly shut to all but a select few.
Determined to propel her daughters into the ranks of the upper echelon, Clara took them first to Paris and then to London. There, Jennie caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, better known as Bertie, whose friendship ensured that no door would be ever be shut before her again.
In 1873, Jennie met 23-year-old Randolph Churchill, the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. He was so smitten with her that he proposed after just three days. Their marriage, while distant, did produce a son who would go on to become the greatest British statesman of all time. His name was Winston Churchill.
Frances "Fanny" Work (October 27, 1857 -- January 26, 1947) was the daughter of eccentric, self-made millionaire Frank Work. She grew up in fabulous wealth in their Elm Court home in Newport, Rhode Island, where her descendants continue to live to this day.
In 1878, Fanny met James Burke Roche, the second son of Baron Fermoy. Despite her father's objections and barely-concealed annoyance, they were married in September 1880. It lasted just seven years.
Tired of supporting the extravagant tastes of his son-in-law, Frank Work negotiated an extraordinary settlement, agreeing to pay off James's debts in return for a divorce and custody of his sons. Such was Frank Work's disdain for the British upper class that he would later stipulate in his will that none of his surviving family should ever visit Britain again.
Had his wishes been honored, the course of history might have been different. Years later, Fanny's granddaughter gave birth to a girl, named Diana Frances Spencer. The world would later know her as the iconic Princess Di.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was born in New York in 1877, the first child of railway tycoon William K. Vanderbilt and his wife Alva. Consuelo grew up in unimaginable wealth -- which made her a valuable prize to any number of honor-rich but cash-poor members of the British aristocracy.
Through the considerable efforts of her mother Alva, 18-year-old Consuelo was introduced to the Duke of Marlborough, and on November 6, 1895, they were married at the altar of St. Thomas' Church on New York's Fifth Avenue.
Their union, aside from capturing the interest of the American public, would in time come to define the Dollar Princess phenomenon. And despite producing two sons, it was an unhappy and distant one.
Finally, after a number of embarrassing affairs, they were officially divorced in 1921. Consuelo devoted the rest of her life to a number of important social causes for the poor and was even an instrumental figure in the Suffragette movement. She died in 1964, at the age of 88.
Grace Kelly (November 12, 1929--September 13, 1982) was born in Philadelphia. She was the third child of Jack Kelly, a self-made millionaire and an Olympic gold medal-winning oarsman.
After graduating high school, an interest in acting led her to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. From there, in 1949, the 20-year-old Kelly made her Broadway debut in August Strindberg's 'The Father,' followed by stints in live television dramas.
In 1952, after a successful audition, MGM snapped her up for a seven-year contract, giving her the opportunity to work with famous names like Alfred Hitchcock and Gary Cooper. It wasn't long before Grace won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954 for her performance in 'The Country Girl,' the same she made two of her biggest hits with Hitchcock--'Rear Window' and 'Dial M for Murder.' These star turns cemented her status as one of the most famous and highest-paid actresses in the world.
But everything changed in 1955 when Kelly met Prince Rainier III, the 32 year-old heir to the principality of Monaco. They fell in love quickly, and in April 1956, they were married. She severed her ties with Hollywood for good and went on to have three children with Rainier.
Kelly spent the rest of her life redefining Monaco's image, from a relatively unknown region to a glamorous vacation destination--her journey from queen of the screen to real-life princess was complete.
On September 13, 1982, Kelly was killed in a car crash--she was just 52. Because of Kelly's kind spirit and popularity, her funeral in Monaco was a global event, a testament to the enduring icon she's become.
Elizabeth McGovern is an Academy Award--nominated film, television, and theater actor, and musician. Born in Evanston, Illinois, McGovern studied acting at The Juilliard School and the American Conservatory Theater. While at Juilliard, she was spotted and hired for her first film role, playing the girlfriend of a troubled teenager in 1980's "Ordinary People." Throughout the following three decades, McGovern played numerous film, TV, and theater roles, including "Ragtime" (1981), "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984), "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990), "Kick-Ass" (2010), and "Clash of the Titans" (2010).
She also has strong ties to the U.K., with many highly regarded roles on British television, including her standout performance in the television drama "Downton Abbey." Some of McGovern's more recent projects include acting in the 2015 film "Woman in Gold" with Ryan Reynolds, performing and touring with her band Sadie and the Hotheads, and reprising her role as Lady Grantham in the fifth season of "Downton Abbey."
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