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Jeff Groff: The Gilded Age's "Dollar Princesses" Inspiration for Downton Abbey

by SAH News | Jan 12, 2015
Jeff Groff, SAH member and a curator at the Winterthur Museum, Delaware interviewed on The Gilded Ages' real-life "Dollar Princesses."

The gilded girls of America's so-called Gilded Age sometimes looked across the sea for something American men can't offer: a title. Their search is being remembered these days on our TV screens. Here's Jan Crawford:

It's one of "Downton Abbey"'s central plotlines: Cora Lady Grantham (played by actress Elizabeth McGovern) was once Cora Levinson, heiress to an American fortune. She marries Lord Grantham, a British aristocrat, and saves his crumbling estate, claiming the title of Countess for herself.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: "Twenty-four years ago, you married Cora against my wishes for her money! Give it away now -- what was the point of your peculiar marriage in the first place?"

The point, of course, is obvious: Money and status.
In the show their romance plays out like a fairy tale -- and that story line isn't all that far-fetched.

Lady Cora is an example of what came to be known as the "Dollar Princesses" of the Gilded Age: A time in the late 19th century when young American heiresses -- rich with new money and rejected by established high society -- turned their sights to Europe, seeking status through marriage and lofty European titles.

"The heiresses, I'm sure, found the appeal of wearing a tiara or being presented at court an amazing fulfillment of a dream -- if not theirs, their mothers' perhaps," said Jeff Groff, a curator at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It's the former home of America's own brand of royalty, the du Pont family. 
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