The extravagant lives of the Jerome sisters: Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen and Leonie Leslie,
by Elisabeth Kehoe
Fortune's Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters - Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen, and Leonie Leslie
Atlantic, £16.99, 368 pp
Raymond Seitz reviews Fortune's Daughters by Elisabeth Kehoe.
"Thank you for the fiver - it is very welcome." So wrote Clara Frewen to her husband Moreton in 1901 while he was off in pursuit of another of his grandiose, hare-brain schemes. Clara was no doubt sincere in her gratitude for this unexpected bounty, because in the Frewen family the cash flow, insofar as there was any, usually ran in the opposite direction.
In his well-connected world, Moreton managed to scrounge from everyone he knew, even swindling his children. His projects all came to naught - cattle ranching in Wyoming, railroad-building in Canada, marketing a new-fangled icemaker, promoting a "gold-crushing" machine, etc. For these dubious and failed undertakings, Moreton Frewen earned the nickname "Mortal Ruin", and most of his big-talking, impecunious career was a cat-and-mouse game with bailiffs and creditors.
It was not the life that Clara had been raised to expect. She was the eldest of three beautiful, talented and energetic Jerome sisters. Leonard Jerome, the father, was a New Yorker who made and lost three fortunes in the wide-open financial markets of America's 19th century. He was a high-liver who spent what he earned. He loved horses and the opera, and in his days of plenty he built a Manhattan mansion at the corner of Madison Square and 23rd Street, which included stables and a 600-seat theatre.
In 1849 Leonard had married Clara Hall, who was rumoured to have Iroquois blood in her otherwise impeccable veins. This may explain her fixation on breeding and status, and once she had produced her three daughters - Clara, Jennie and Leonie - her sole goal was that they each marry nobly and lucratively. So in 1867 Mother Clara packed up the girls and sailed for Paris where, she believed, the Court of Napoleon III would inevitably fulfil her most ambitious social fantasies.
Daughter Clara indeed made her debut and briefly fluttered through the glittering enchantments of Imperial Paris; but then in 1870 Bismarck made his debut, too, and Napoleonic society collapsed. Mrs Jerome took the girls to London and started over.
The Jeromes' descent on London came at a perfect historic moment. The British aristocracy, whose fortunes were largely based on land, was in a precarious condition as agricultural prices declined internationally and taxes rose domestically.
In one of the oddest episodes in Anglo-American relations, the English nobility then went looking for the daughters of the American rich who could subsidise their failing estates. And simultaneously, the American rich went looking for aristocratic young men who could confer titles, status and respectability on their girls. Elisabeth Kehoe, in this well researched book, points out that by 1914 fully 100 peers or sons of peers had struck transatlantic, cash-for-titles bargains.
So the Jeromes were something of pioneers in this fleshly market, and the three daughters were eminently marriageable. In addition to their physical allure, they were stylish, vivacious and witty. Each was a pianist of concert-level standard. They were devoted to each other (for a period, they each had a house in a street near Marble Arch which was nicknamed "Lower Jerome Terrace"). But none of them could tell a pound from a penny, and each married romantically and therefore well below target; and because of Papa's financial tribulations, the sisters did not in fact have much money to contribute to their respective unions. In the burgeoning transatlantic marital stakes, you could call these Jerome matches dry runs.
The most famous of the trio was Jennie, who married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874. Randolph had neither money nor prospects, but he eventually launched a parliamentary career that might have conferred lasting social status and acceptable security. Afflicted with syphilis, however, Randolph's mental and physical condition gradually deteriorated (Lord Rosebery: " . . . he died by inches in public"). But at least the couple managed to produce a good prime minister.
Jennie became a fixture in London's social scene, an intimate of the Prince of Wales, a leading light of the Marlborough House Set and the Souls, an energetic organiser of nursing charities in the Boer War and Great War, and a successful writer. After Randolph's death, she married two more broke blokes, first George Cornwallis-West (16 days older than her son Winston), who soon ran off with Mrs Patrick Campbell, and then Montagu Porch (three years younger than Winston). In Jennie's active life, her lovers were almost as numerous as her creditors.
Clara was the most naive and dreamy of the three. Mortal Ruin's ships always remained on the horizon and never came in. Clara hung on to their house, Brede Place in Sussex and established its magnificent gardens, but not before all her possessions had gone to auction.
Leonie, the youngest, married Jack Leslie, the son of an Anglo-Irish baronet, and at least enjoyed the comforts of the family estate in County Monaghan as well as the intimate patronage of the Duke of Connaught. But the Leslies were almost always broke, too.
This is an interesting book about people who, with the exception of Jennie, aren't very interesting. The author writes well but needs an editor with a strong hand to rip out the redundancies and ponderous diversions. Still, it is good to read about a time when Anglo-American relations were just Anglo-American relations.
Raymond Seitz was US Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1991 to 1994.
07 October 2004
The extravagant lives of the Jerome sisters: Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen and Leonie Leslie
439pp. | Atlantic Books. £16.99. | 1 84534 158 0
Recent revelations in the press show what a disaster it can be if you choose to
live like the super-rich when you are, in fact, only very rich. This was the
mistake that the three Jerome sisters made, and went on making until the end of
their long and financially rackety lives. Although they are thought of as
“dollar princesses” – fabulously wealthy American girls who married into the
aristocracy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to prop up its dwindling fortunes – in fact, as Elisabeth Kehoe convincingly shows, the Jerome girls grew up feeling the pinch right from the start. Their millionaire father managed to make and lose fortunes with abandon in their native New York, so that by the time Clara, Jennie and Leonie descended on London in the 1870s determined to ensnare a duke, or at the very least a baronet, their market stock had already plummeted.
However, the girls were pretty and charming, with the sort of Yankee unstuffiness to make heads turn, even if these heads were not quite as coroneted as they would really have liked. Jennie, the unofficial star of the sisters, did best, marrying Lord Randolph Churchill, the younger son of the Duke of Marlborough, and giving birth to the unpromising boy who would become Winston Churchill. Clara, the eldest, did least well, throwing herself away on
Moreton Frewen who was soon leeching away her modest fortune and ended by cheating his children out of their inheritance. Leonie, the youngest, married into an Anglo-Irish family, and was mortified to discover that they didn’t think her good enough for their lacklustre son (her parents, naturally, assumed that it was she who was doing the favour).
The real strength of Kehoe’s book lies in her patient reconstruction of the Jerome sisters’ financial affairs which, due to the fact that they constantly borrowed from each other, soon became chaotically enmeshed. Indeed, it would hardly be going too far to say that together they perpetrated a kind of fraud on the world. For far from the image of heedless ease that they carefully cultivated as they floated round the grander parts of Europe, they were mostly as desperate for cash as any hard-pressed tradesman’s wife. Constitutionally unable to live within their means, by the end of their days they were leaning on each other for the loan of a fiver and sitting in first class carriages having only paid for third (since
these were still the days of deference they reckoned on being able to stare down the ticket inspector). If Britain had failed to provide the Jerome girls with the ermined elder sons that they had aimed for, they in turn had proved to be disappointing milch cows to their hopeful hosts.
Despite this mutual disappointment, Clara, Jennie and Leonie remained remarkably merry, managing on the whole to be better daughters and sisters than they were mothers. The well-known story of Jennie’s wilful indifference to the young Winston and his brother is told once again, although Kehoe takes care to redeem the story by showing how close and helpful Jennie became to her eldest son in later life. She is excellent too at teasing out unexpected horizontal and diagonal alliances within this large yet close-knit clan. Indeed, one of the advantages of Kehoe’s large scope is seeing Winston Churchill from a different angle, as a cousin and a nephew in someone else’s story, rather than as the central gravitational pull in his own.
Fortune’s Daughters is a book which, on the one hand, wants to tell a sober and particular story about the economic decline of the British aristocracy and its hit-and-miss attempts to shore up heavily entailed estates with American dollars, dollars which were not always as forthcoming as everyone assumed; but, at the same time, it wishes to revel in a timeless tale about three beautiful sisters who are witty, wealthy and good and manage to capture the hearts of every prince and nobleman who set enchanted eyes on them. It is perhaps inevitable, given that the book is being marketed in the wake of the still-resonating Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire phenomenon, that the second narrative too often over-writes the first.
October 17, 2004
Biography: Fortune's Daughters
FORTUNE’S DAUGHTERS: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters
by Elisabeth Kehoe
Atlantic £16.99 pp452
“A dark, lithe figure,” wrote an observer of the American beauty Jennie Jerome in 1876, just two years after her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill, “standing somewhat apart and appearing to be of another texture to those around her, radiant, translucent, intense. A diamond star in her hair, her favourite ornament — its lustre dimmed by the flashing glory of her eyes. More of the panther than of the woman in her look, but with a cultivated intelligence unknown to the jungle.” Many decades later, her son Winston recalled this description in his memoirs. “My mother made the same brilliant impression upon my childhood’s eyes,” he wrote. “She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly — but at a distance.”
A negligent mother, even by the abysmally low standards of the day, and an indifferent wife to her three husbands (after Randolph’s death from syphilis in 1895, she married again twice, both times to men 20 years her junior), Jennie nonetheless had the happy facility of dazzling those around her into not noticing her faults. Vain, superficial and selfish, she was also a brilliant conversationalist and a loyal friend who had no difficulty dominating British aristocratic society.
But she did not reach this pinnacle without a fight. Although she was among the first of the transatlantic brides to arrive in England between 1870 and 1914, she was not an heiress. Her father, Leonard, who made and lost three fortunes on the New York Stock Exchange, was well-off at the time of her marriage, but no longer wealthy. Even if he had been, it would have made no difference to Jennie’s future in-laws, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. “A sporting, and I should think vulgar kind of man,” was the duke’s damning opinion. “I hear he drives about six and eight horses in New York (one may take this as a kind of indication of what the man is).” It might have been chastening for the duke to know that the Jerome parents (well connected, but by no means of the first water) were equally opposed to the match. In a situation of almost Proustian social irony, Jennie’s mother Clara believed that a mere second son was not good enough for her daughter, while her father, apparently as oblivious as his wife as to how far his daughter would be marrying above her station, was so indignant to learn of the duke’s disapproval that he withdrew his consent.
The marriage, however, went ahead. Alas, it was not a success, any more than those of her sisters, Clara and Leonie, who also married, more or less disastrously, for love. Leonie wed an Anglo-Irish Grenadier Guardsman, Jack Leslie, while Clara took on the fascinating but fecklessly impecunious Moreton Frewen — known to his friends as “Mortal Ruin”.
Elisabeth Kehoe’s scrupulous and energetic account of the lives of the three sisters is a juicy family saga in which no stone is left unturned. Kehoe’s deft treatment of her material is admirable, but she also has the vices of her virtues. Some of the minutiae of these lives — Jennie’s rectal abscess, catalogues (but no descriptions) of endless shooting parties — could happily have been lost in pursuit of a wider picture .
All three of the sisters’ marriages were considered hopeless mésalliances by the husbands’ families at the time. As Jennie wrote in her memoirs, an American woman “was looked upon as a strange and abnormal creature, with habits and manners something between a Red Indian and a Gaiety Girl. Anything of an outlandish nature might be expected of her.” How was it, then, that all three were so successful socially? Kehoe never really answers this crucial question. The subject cries out for much greater analysis both of the culture clash between the old world and the new, and of the changing social currents in England that made “Society” far more cosmopolitan and fluid than it had ever been — an evolution without which the Jerome sisters might never have found the acceptance that they did. Slippery subjects, perhaps, but full of possibilities, and ones into which I wish that she had delved deeper.
Apart from the fascinating Jennie (the undoubted star of this book), the Jerome sisters come across as essentially rather tiresome, obsessed with society and keeping up appearances. There was, in fact, nothing remotely outlandish about them. Clara was “sweet, but ineffectual”, her only claim to fame being that she was the first woman to ascend the Eiffel Tower, while the chief success of Leonie’s life was her curious ability to animate the more stuffy minor members of the royal family (she was, in her niece Clare’s opinion, “idiotic about Royalties”, an view one can only share). An amitié amoureuse with the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s third son, lasted many years, although by the end even she was bored stiff by him and his ubiquitous tartan dressing-gown.
Fortune's Daughters by Elisabeth Kehoe
Snobbery, sentiment and the fate of Winston's mum
By Rhoda Koenig
29 October 2004
In the late Sixties, after Winston Churchill had died and greater frankness was permitted to all biographers, a serious two-volume life of his mother was published that discussed her many lovers and her husband's syphilis. A great-niece of Lady Randolph Churchill's brought out a chatty memoir, and a grandson edited her letters. Winston apart, the toilers in the family cottage industry have written two dozen books about themselves or one another. So what does Elisabeth Kehoe have to add, in the way of fact or perspective, or even charm, in this biography of Jennie Churchill and her two Jerome sisters?
Not much, and she seems to know it. A rather defensive afterword states that their story "illuminates what it meant to be a female member of the British aristocracy during its decline" and that "Clara, Jennie and Leonie managed rather well". Kehoe's claims that the three Jeromes, daughters of a New York stockbroker, "were witnesses to the glory days of the British Empire" and "maintained lifelong loyalty" to their husbands are hardly compelling. The latter task was simplified, in Clara's and Jennie's cases, by the fact that they and their spouses often occupied separate continents.
If these lives illustrate anything, it is the cruelly manipulative sentimentality of the late- Victorian and Edwardian upper class. The Jeromes sound like duller, more brazen versions of Edith Wharton's heroine in The Custom of the Country.
The spendthrift sisters expected money from their father all his life, even when he was old, ill and no longer rich, as well as from their offspring. Though the children's grandparents had tried to protect them with direct bequests, their parents used bullying and emotional blackmail until they signed these away.
"I have only you and Jack to love me," the widowed Jennie, temporarily without a lover, whimpered to her elder son, whom she had ignored from birth; then she wrote to the boys, serving in the Boer War, that she didn't want them living with her on their return.
Clara's versatile husband, Morton Frewen, failed at cattle ranching, gold mining, land speculation and every other venture he tried. Plagued with bad luck as well as bad judgment (he would have made millions had the key figure in one scheme not decided to return to New York on the Titanic), Morton sounds like the man in the Jewish proverb: "If he sold shrouds, people would stop dying." Worse even than his business record was his character. In one letter he says he is an "extremely proud" man who finds it "frankly disagreeable" to "suggest" his daughter might help him, then, in the next sentence, denounces her for not snagging a husband rich enough to support the family.
Kehoe doesn't try to make this sorry trio sound glamorous, as past biographers would have done. But she gives us no psychological or social insight either, and no wit. She explains that syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, and that it was fashionable at the time to display wealth in the form of jewellery. Randolph Churchill "slowly yet inexorably" goes mad, and Dublin is, believe it or not, "a city of contrasts". But it's nice to know that one suitor had "a castle with its own moat": hiring one is such a bore.