ONE OF the illustrations in Ruth Brandon's diverting survey of the liaisons between American girls with lots of "tin" and "various broken-down titled individuals" (so described by New York's arbiter elegantiarum Ward MacAllister) depicts the Count and Countess Boni de Castellane, an emblematic couple, he bending his blond good looks on the camera with the same appealing charm he applied to recruiting mistresses; she ducking the camera's unflattering eye -- for under a rakish hat the face of the countess is one of stupefying plainness. Swarthy, scrawny, taciturn Anna Goul, daughter of a boorish manufacturer of patent mousetraps, had only one thing going for her when she came on the marriage market, her large fortune, and it seemed strange to no one in the 1890s that she should buy a titled husband with it.
A few generations earlier such marriages were all but unheard of. The blunt American ladies Mrs. Frances Trollope met during her U.S. residence in the 1830s were contemptuous of the old world, where class and tradition dictated social alliances. As nature's noblemen, one and all, Americans did as they pleased. "If I was in England," one told her, "I should not think of associating with anything but lords." But they preferred to stay home.
After the Civil War things changed. The wives and daughters of flourishing manufacturers began to burnish the prestige of sheer dollars by "doing" Europe, bringing back trunks of Paris clothes, porcelain tea sets, marble nymphs, paintings of Highland cattle. The husbands footed the bills, but the visible validation of success was women's work. A titled husband became the ultimate trophy, one any rich girl could aspire to; for the class differences Americans so briskly denied, while cultivating them, were invisible to old-world eyes, so keenly discriminating about social nuances closer to home. Boston and Chicago, ship brokers and pork putchers, old and new, all were indistinguishably one to the nobleman in search of a dowry with which to repair his castle and refurbish his lifestyle.
The catch, from the bartered bride's point of view, was that she didn't so much acquire a husband as her and her money, over which, once married, she lost control. No wonder some American fathers were reluctant to see their dashing daughters made chattels. Leonard Jerome was far from pleased when his Jennie proposed to marry the Duke of Marlborough's younger son, Lord Randolph Churchill. "I can but think your English custom of making the wife so utterly dependent upon the husband most unwise," he told Randolph's father. Nevertheless, the transatlantic marriage that produced Winston was -- at the outset anyway -- an uncommon love match.
So, two decades later, was Mary Leiter's to the future viceroy of India. Daughter of a Chicago tycoon and mother of ludicrous vulgarity, Mary charmed wherever she went with her gentle beauty and grace. In England, she fell in love with the brilliant George Curzon, later Marquess of Kedleston, who kept her dangling for years, finally married her, and came to love her deeply. When she died, still young, he was crushed with grief. "I thought that she had shed her American characteristics more completely than I was to find myself able to do," wrote Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough. "Wholly absorbed in her husband's career, she had subordinated her personality to his to a degree I would have considered beyond an American woman's power of self-abnegation."
But love matches were the exception. Consuelo Vanderbilt's own marriage to Randolph Churchill's nephew, the ninth duke, was calamitous. Intimadated by a ruthlessly ambitious mother, Consuelo was dragged to the altar in tears. The Duke was no more eager than she, but the $2.5 million with which the Vanderbilts rewarded him for making their daughter a duchess was to be spent on what he loved best, his decayed estate, Blenheim. The couple's ceremonious silent dinners, like tableaux in hell, were metaphors for a marriage Consuelo fled after a decade of misery.
Though he despied Americans, the Duke married another, Gladys Deacon, whose Greek god's beauty and volatile, vagrant imagination enslved men, from Bernard Berenson to the German crown prince. But as a girl she had capriciously set her heart on the gloomy Marlborough, and waited for him a quarter century. The marriage was a bitter mistake, and she spent the long twilight of her life regretting the obsession in which she had wasted it.
But many Americans ended up calling the tune. Maud Burke from San Francisco became the great London hostess, "Emerald," Lady Cunard, through a cold-hearted marriage to a horsey baronet. In due course, she fled him to London and set up a sparkling salon featuring her lover, Sir Thomas Beecham, the Prince of Wales, and her own disconcerting conversation. Laura Mae Corrigan, an ex-waitress and widow of a Cleveland millionaire, made it to London without benefit of a handle to her name. There was no one too grand to resist her simple good-heartedness and the 18-carat favors from Cartier she handed out at dinner parties. The beautiful, brutal Nancy Astor, married to the anglicized, ennobled Waldorf Astor, who adored her, became the first woman member of parliament, though she contributed little to English political life beyond the Cliveden set and her tactless style: "Shut up!" was her way of handling oppostion. Subtle as a gong, she remained obstinately American, spirited, chic and sexlessly feminine, like the Gibson girl, who had been drawn from her sister.
In France they did things differently. The marriage of Anna Gould to Boni de Castellane was a mismatch nearer farce than tragedy. Anna can be forgiven for resenting the lowly role she had to play in a feudal French family, yet Boni spent her millions with such exuberant delight and flair that it seems ungracious of her to have nothing better to say than, "This is a warehouse," when people raved over the maison particuliere Boni created, stuffed with superb antiques and paintings -- of which Anna's brother remarked in true Gould style, "The whole caboodle isn't worth two cents." Boni worked his magic on Anna's person, transforming the runty bride (by means of depilation, massage, make-up and a hair-dresser," a duchess mewed) into a dainty vision clothed in masterpieces of the haute couture. But immune to magic, Anna had married with eyes open, refusing the Catholic rite that would have foreclosed divorce, and when she discovered Boni's compulsive womanizing, dumped him. She avenged herself by marrying his even grander cousin, the Prince of Sagan.
Later American arrivals in Paris weren't in the market for husbands: they embraced the Lesbianism running persistently through French literary and cultural life. Natalie Barney, a Chicago contemporary of Mary Leiter, set up a flagrantly proselytizing Sapphic salon, frequented by Mata Hari, Colette, and her prize convert, the courtesan Liane de Pougy. And there was Gertrude Stein. But the best of them was the gifted Winnaretta Singer, one of the innumerable offspring of the sewing maching king, a determined Lesbian and a lavishly generous patroness of modern music. To secure her salon's status she consented to marriage with Prince Edmond de Polignac, an aging homosexual musician. The match-maker was the malicious Robert de Montesquiou. To his chagrin, this marriage of convenience became one of true minds. Years after the prince died, Winnie wrote, "There is not a day that dawns in which I don't say, like Bronte, 'How can I face the empty world again!'"
The Dollar Princesses is an airy and amusing spinoff from Ruth Brandon's intelligent, elegant biography of Winnie's egregious father, Isaac Merrit Singer. If there are no strong common denominators among these expatriates, it appears that those who adjusted best to their marriages had done much of their growing up abroad; and it was very like true, as Edith Wharton, who ought to know, observed, that "Americans who forced their way into good society in Europe were said to be those who were shut out from it at home . . . . And when they returned as Lady This, the Duchess of That, the Countess of the Other -- who would dare exclude them?" But as a rule, adjusting to a world where one has not a birthright costs a good deal in terms of a genuine response to life. Maybe better nature's noblewoman than Countess of the Other.