To talk about privilege is to make assumptions, stated or otherwise, about what advantages that word denotes. In contemporary discussions, its meanings are many and ever expanding. Whiteness. Maleness. Equality under the law. Freedom from harassment. A vote that counts. A life that matters.
I have spent much of my career writing about “privileged” people in French history, from statesmen to socialites and famous authors to infamous queens; and I have been struck by both the complexity and the mutability that term has evinced over time. Currently I am working on a social history of the Parisian nobility during the Belle Époque (1889-1914).
This period saw intense social change in France and America alike, as old elites who derived their authority from hidebound notions of pedigree and decorum came under siege by an emergent group lacking those benefits but armed with a potent alternative: unprecedented wealth.
In the first part of this essay, I would like to look at these rival contingents and at the curious social phenomenon—that of the transatlantic “dollar princess” marriage—to which the tensions between them gave rise. In the second part, I will tell the story of an American heiress and a French prince who defied social convention to assert still another form of privilege, one arguably more compelling than either title or treasure alone: fulfillment.
On February 12th, 1892, the New York Times gave a new name to an old social stratum: “Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.” This designation referred to the ladies and gentlemen whom New York’s reigning grande dame, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, had deemed worthy to dance in her ballroom. A follow-up piece on February 16th listed the elect by name, scions for the most part of the city’s old-line Knickerbocker families or similarly blue-blooded clans in Newport, Boston, and Virginia.
Conspicuously absent from the list were the so-called robber barons, typically natives of hardscrabble regions far from the genteel East Coast who since the end of the Civil War had reaped millions from ventures thought too grubby for gentlemen: railroads, manufacturing, lumber, oil. To Mrs. Astor, these upstarts lacked the polished manners and ingrained respect for tradition that only generations of superior breeding could produce.
As for the upstarts, the Times reports merely confirmed something many of them had already discovered on their own: the American social establishment did not welcome their nouveau fortunes and families.
Surely not all the tycoons barred from Mrs. Astor’s ballroom subscribed to her belief in the supremacy of Mayflower over Midwestern bloodlines, or of old money over new. Yet a number of them actually did. Toward their anointed betters, these men and their families bore much the same blend of reluctant admiration, simmering status envy, and desperate yearning to belong that the fictional Jay Gatsby (né Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota) would come to typify a few decades later.
In this sense, they unknowingly replicated a dynamic from the old court aristocracies of Europe. When a sovereign “elevated” a nobleman or woman to a given place in the royal retinue, his or her standing at court rose appreciably. The work such appointments entailed was ceremonial and often menial. Nonetheless, the nobility prized them because the monarch who defined the social hierarchy had cast them as signal honors. (At Louis XIV’s Versailles, noblemen vied bitterly for the right to take off the king’s riding boots each day, even though his hygiene regimen involved only one bath a year.)
The admiration, envy, and longing a plum assignment generated among courtiers less favored imbued it with a palpable social reality, obscuring the flimsy reasoning at its root: the post was desirable because His or Her Majesty said so. The prestige of Mrs. Astor’s invitations was founded on the same spurious logic.Paris—the center of noble French society and a favorite destination for Yankees of means—became the next-best hunting ground for heraldically laden game.
It was fitting, then, that those plutocrats most determined to avenge their exclusion from her guest-list should do so by going back to its source in the European nobility. To the sons of this storied caste, the robber barons offered their daughters, styled “dollar princesses,” in transactional wedlock. In exchange for a dowry generous enough to support him in pampered indolence (or at a minimum to pay off his gambling debts), the groom conferred on his bride a title grand enough to reverse her and her parents’ social fortunes back home.
While these trades rarely brought connubial bliss, they generally achieved their intended aim. The aristocrats got rich; the Americans got respect. As Tina Brown quipped in a review of Anne de Courcy’s group biography, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy (2018): “Even Mrs. Astor couldn’t resist a returning bride with a handle.”
From the endlessly regenerating stock of books like Courcy’s and the recent success of Downton Abbey, 21st-century audiences may have gained the impression that the barter of New World cash for Old World escutcheons was unique to the British Isles. But in fact, exchanges of this type also found eager counterparties throughout continental Europe, notably in France.
Battered by the Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, the hereditary nobility there had by the end of the 19th century lost all of its once-formidable economic and political prerogatives, from special tax exemptions to disproportionate voting rights. With a republican régime governing France throughout this era, the sole privilege the nation’s aristocrats formally retained was the courtesy use of their titles.
Disenfranchised and frequently broke, their coffers drained by an age-old custom of spurning gainful employment, these grands seigneurs needed the dollar princesses even more than did their counterparts across the Channel, who whatever their own money problems still enjoyed the official precedence and political power of an authentic ruling class.
Although this distinction made British lords and lairds the most sought-after candidates for dollar princedom, demand for these prime specimens soon outpaced supply. So Paris—the center of noble French society and a favorite destination for Yankees of means—became the next-best hunting ground for heraldically laden game. In 1887, the American magazine Town Topics poked fun at the trend:
M. le Duc de Charenton is a typical nobleman…. This old court animal lived for years in a tawdry flat in Montmartre and was generally seen as a burden to society. So imagine the surprise of onlookers in the Bois [de Boulogne] the other day, when M. de Charenton reappeared in a brand-new carriage, with magnificent horses, on the arm of a pretty blonde who spoke in what sounded like a Chicago accent.
It would seem that M. le Duc has successfully courted, and been courted by, one of the young ladies who tried to obtain a title in London last year… This must come as a relief to all her friends who knew how badly she wanted one.
Its broad humor notwithstanding—the Duc shares his name with a notorious lunatic asylum—this sketch captures the main elements of a standard French “title for treasure” swap. Relegated to a hovel in what was then one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Paris, the Duc personifies the hard times on which his class has fallen. By the same token, his identity as “an old court animal” indicates that before France’s monarchy fell for the last time (in 1848), he served as an attendant to the king.
Combined with his ducal rank, this remnant of classic noble cachet suffices to attract an American girl whose uncouth voice reveals why she has had to seek social glory abroad. (One suspects that nothing “like a Chicago accent” ever sounded its prairie-flat vowels amidst the lock-jawed murmurs of the Astor crowd.) Luckily for the Duc, what she lacks in elegance she makes up for in largesse, and the two of them seem poised to live happily ever after, the old man enjoying his fancy new carriage and the young woman her fancy new title.
The one key sociological detail this satire omits to mention is the disdain with which, even in penury, French aristocrats tended to regard all commoners, not just the nouveaux riches. (Their slang for plebeians, “not born,” applied as much to Mrs. Astor, a descendant of 17th-century Dutch merchants, as to any rube from Michigan.) When the New York Herald reported one dollar bride’s betrothal to a French duke in 1888, the headline said it all: “She Pays All the Bills—He Thinks Himself Cheap at the Price.”
A corollary noble conviction was that the “not born” lacked the polished manners and ingrained respect for tradition that only a millennium (or at least a good seven centuries) of superior breeding could produce. This bias, too, found memorable pop-cultural expression. In French playwright Abel Hermant’s comedy of aristocratic manners Le Faubourg (1899), the biggest laughs came when a blue-blooded spinster cried: “[Those people] were nobodies in the middle of the 12th century!”
Even so, unions between titled Frenchmen and American heiresses multiplied in the 1880s and 90s, to such a degree that wags on both sides of the Atlantic mock-complained about foreigners depleting the local marriage pool. By the end of the century, 21 of the 31 titled Americans in the Social Register were French noblemen’s wives. Whether any of these ladies ever saw the inside of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom is unknown. That at least a few of them did seems likely, though, given that the last ball she held before her death in 1906 drew upwards of 1,000 guests. Society was dead; long live Society.
Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was ten years old when her father died, leaving her an immense fortune. True to robber baron type, Isaac Singer (1811-1875) had come from nothing, rising from a dirt-poor broken home in upstate New York to found the Singer Sewing Machine Company, one of the most profitable businesses of the age. Winnaretta was born on her father’s estate in Yonkers, New York; but because her mother, Isabelle Boyer, was European—the offspring of a French inn-keeper and his Anglo-Scottish wife—she spent most of her childhood abroad.
After Isaac’s death, Isabelle settled permanently in Paris with Winnaretta and her older sister, Belle-Blanche, hoping to marry both girls into the city’s high aristocracy, a set known in local parlance as the monde [great world] and the gratin [upper crust].
Of Isabelle’s two daughters, Belle-Blanche proved the more pliable to Isabelle’s aims, obediently marrying a high-born French duke—the very one, as it happens, who judged himself “cheap at the price.” (On a possibly related note, Belle-Blanche died in a rumored suicide eight years later.) Winnaretta posed more difficulty, as she had inherited a goodly share not only of her father’s millions but of his infamous propensity to buck convention. This trait had allowed him to sire 24 children by five different women while shrugging off the divorce scandals and bigamy charges that inevitably ensued.
As a teenager, Winnaretta reportedly showed her penchant for “riotous living” by openly pursuing same-sex love affairs. Biographers have speculated that she may have deliberately flaunted these romances to disqualify herself for marriage in the gratin, which held rigid notions of female propriety.
But at age 22, Winnaretta reversed her position on marriage, having reached the conclusion that even if her mother could be persuaded to let her remain single, the rest of society could not: she was simply too rich for aspiring husbands ever to leave her alone. (“Impossible to escape,” she wrote of one importunate swain. “[He] starts at nine in the morning and finishes at midnight.”)
What was more, Isabelle herself had recently remarried, and her husband had obvious designs on Winnaretta’s inheritance. French law defined women as lifelong minors—charges of their fathers before marriage and of their spouses after. As a result, Winnaretta’s new stepfather stood some chance of success in claiming her fortune, unless she found a husband to replace him as her legal guardian.
And so, in 1886, Winnaretta tied the knot with Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, a bland, 29-year-old Frenchman with the requisite 1,000 year-old lineage and its attendant dearth of cash. Everything about Louis’s upbringing had led him to expect meek submissiveness from his bride; in the gratin, the husband’s authority brooked no dissent. Winnaretta had other ideas. When the short, delicately built prince came into their bedroom on their wedding night, he found his big-boned, lantern-jawed bride crouched on top of an armoire, waving an umbrella and shouting: “If you touch me, I’ll kill you!”
Not long afterward, Louis discovered that she had also made it impossible for him to touch her fortune, having taken the highly unorthodox (for a woman in France) step of transferring it to a trust managed by two of her brothers “for her personal benefit.” Though Winarretta did buy Louis his own house—she preferred to live separately—the marriage deteriorated; and in 1892, she had it annulled by the Vatican. In the monde, where wives alone bore the disgrace of failed marriages, her decision to take this step cast doubts not only on her morality but on her sanity: “Mme de Scey-Montbéliard is three parts mad!”
Unshackled from her prince, Winnaretta initially enjoyed her freedom. A passionate music-lover, she began commissioning works by innovative composers (Gabriel Fauré was her favorite), and she founded a weekly salon to introduce her protégés’ music to the aristocracy. She also started collecting the work of contemporary painters such as Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, and Paul-César Helleu. She approached Helleu with a commission to paint her closest female friends and assemble the portraits in a special album for her eyes only.
When Helleu gossiped about the unusual request, the monde erupted in a flurry of whispers about Winnaretta’s “unnatural” tastes. Ultimately she scrapped the project over Helleu’s exorbitant fees. (As the gratin’s portraitist of choice, he was much more expensive than Monet.) But the scandal lingered, facing Winnaretta with a sobering fact. If she carried her transgressions too far, the monde might cast her out for good. In forfeiting her husband’s title and protection, she had lost any claim to the forgiveness of his peers: a boon seldom accorded even to “born” noblewomen who erred.
In 1893, help came to Winnaretta from an unexpected source. Through the Parisian art and music worlds, she had gotten to know two of the gratin’s leading tastemakers: Comte Robert de Montesquiou and Élisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe. This enterprising pair wanted to help a batty old prince of whom they were fond. Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834-1901) came from exceedingly lofty stock, but in his indigence, he could have been a model for the Duc de Charenton.
In 1892, he had lost his meager savings to a bad investment and all the furniture in his apartment to debt collectors. Too poor to heat the place, he spent his days and nights huddling under a blanket on the floor until Montesquiou and Greffulhe showed up with a suggestion: he should marry Winnaretta de Scey-Montbéliard.
At age 59, Edmond had avoided matrimony his entire life. He was gay, and unlike many gay men of his class, he refused to trick a woman into acting as his beard. But Winnaretta, his friends reasoned, would be all too happy play that role. Theirs could be a mariage blanc, an unconsummated union allowing them both discreetly to indulge their separate desires under the cover of wedded respectability. As an added plus, Edmond shared Winnaretta’s love of music: he was a gifted composer but had never had the money to get his works published or performed.
Among his fellow noblemen, whose interests were generally confined to hunting, gambling, race-horses, and courtesans, Edmond’s artistic ambitions had earned him the reputation of an odd duck—“an unbearable maniac” was his own family’s verdict. Yet these traits too promised to endear him to Winnaretta, and they did. After a chaste, leisurely courtship that grew into a deep mutual affection, the couple wed in December 1893. The pope sent his blessing.
In the decade that followed, the Polignacs stunned the gratin with their most unorthodox achievement yet: they were happy together. Socially and artistically, they formed a remarkable partnership. Together they added important new works to Winnaretta’s art collection and hosted more performances of ambitious new music, Edmond’s included, in her ever more influential salon. They collaborated with an experimental dancer named Isadora Duncan (who later had a son with a brother of Winnaretta’s); and they befriended an aspiring writer named Marcel Proust.
They bought and restored a stunning early-Renaissance palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice and enriched the cultural life of the city there as in Paris. The combination of Winnaretta’s treasure and Edmond’s title lent a novel kind of luster, at once aristocratic and avant-garde, to all they did, and brought them a level of influence neither of them could have gained alone. Until Edmond’s death in 1903, they were each other’s most fervid supporters and trusted friends.
Only in their love lives did they pursue separate paths, an arrangement that never seemed to trouble the harmony between them. Every now and then, some jealous lover would make a scene; as when a man whose wife Winnaretta had seduced stood beneath her window yelling: “You’ll come out and fight me if you’re half the man I think you are!” Otherwise, the only trouble they faced in this quarter came from the scandal-mongers who periodically took umbrage (real or feigned) at their unconventional sexual mores.
The author Jean Lorrain, one of the few “out” homosexuals in the Polignacs’ Parisian circle, parodied Winnaretta in a novel as the “Princesse de Seiryman-Frileuse,” a Yankee lesbian “ogress” who “serves her old prince 80 thousand francs in order to bear his name while she parades her vices and independence before the whole world.” Montesquiou, perversely enraged by the success of the match he himself had brokered, mocked the pair’s “double cuckoldry” in a vicious bit of doggerel.
Nevertheless, they persisted. One reporter described the Polignacs as “sail[ing] like a gilded battleship through…the age,” as serene as the floating city that was their second home. And although currents of bigotry and intolerance continued to flow all around them—when Winnaretta died at age 78, Frenchwomen still did not have the right to vote—they always returned safely to the harbor they had built together.
They resumed the work which brought them pleasure and purpose, modestly serving the art and music that they loved. They followed their hearts to places the monde did not approve of, and followed their dreams to places the monde could not conceive of. This was the privilege they had created and claimed for themselves; this was the privilege that made their lives matter.