There seems to be biography picture or bio-pic mini-series trend on television and film in the last few years. Mr. Selfridge and Jenny Lee’s biography via Call the Midwife. There is a constant stream of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, J. Edgar and others on the big screen. Then there are the historical British favorites like Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, or even the sordid saga of the Borgias. I am all in favor to perpetuate this thread of interest. In fact, I believe there should be more biographies on women of the Victorian Era and the Gilded Age. I think it would be a study in contrast of high fashion, stifling decorum, and extreme personalities. However, if I were to play Casting Director for these then-famous faces, I am at a lost. I need your assistance, Dear Reader. It is most difficult. Tresses can be colored and styled accordingly and in some cases prosthetics and “movie magic” can make a Modern actress a near twin of a Lady of a bygone era. Here are the Roles I am suggesting for there titillating lives that would translate well for public viewing; cast away!*
Caroline Shermerhorn Astor
“The” Mrs. Astor was from an old New York shipping family. She set the precedence that all of New York society followed. Her highly selected circle was known as the Astor Set. She set the standards in New York and often those who were snubbed by her, amused the Prince of Wales, who took a liking to her cast-offs. Mrs. Caroline Astor would rule Society for decades upon decades. Until the showdown that became known as the Great Vanderbilt Ball. Mrs. Astor’s clout faltered a wee bit afterwards, but she was stolid and stringent to the very end.–Do not ask how I found this actress, Wonder Russell. With a bit of aging make-up she could play Caroline? If you think I am daft, who do you suggest?
Maud Burke Cunard
Daughter of E.F. Burke of San Francisco. However, Maud’s father figure (and putative source of her dowry) was California real-estate magnate Horace Carpentier. She was jilted by Prince Poniatowski and in need of a husband, as a cover for her warm friendship with playright George Moore, Maud married the man at hand. Sir Bache Dunard, 3rd Baronet (of the steamship line) married Maud on April 16th, 1895. He was a hunting squire; Maud, a bright-lights, big-city girl who filled his drawing rooms with bohemians. She changed her name to Emerald (she hated the fact that there was no final “e” in her real name; Maud) and ran a London salon. She was a great champion of Wallis Simpson’s cause and reportedly wailed, when Edward VIII abdicated, “How could he do this to me?!”–This actress, Ava Vanderstarren has a bit of the roundish face and the wide set eyes similar to Maud/Emerald.
Jeannie Chamberlain Naylor-Leyland
Daughter of William Selah Chamberlain of Cleveland. The original Self-Made Girl and a great beauty, Jeannie entraced the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Princess Alexandra reportedly referred to her as “Miss Chamberpotts.” It was rumored she was his mistress after her marriage to Captain Herbert Naylor-Leyland, later 1st Baronet, whom she married on September 5th 1889. She entertained lavishly at Hyde Park House in London and was the model for the popular novel Miss Bayle’s Romance. Kings Edward VII and George V were godfathers to her sons.–This one has me stumped, for I cannot find a close-up photograph or painting that depicts Jeannie’s countenance straight on. This one, is entirely up to you, Dear Readers. I am eager to see your suggestions.
Adele Grant Devereux de Vere Capell
Daughter of David Beach Grant of New York. Adele, having once been engaged to the Earl of Cairns (who left for Genoa to buy her a boatload of camellias but ended up marrying someone else–how on Earth does that happen???), married the widower George Devereux de Vere Capell, 7th Earl of Essex in a huge, splashy London wedding for which Sir Arthur Sullivan played the organ on December 14th, 1893. They led a fashionable life as members of the smart racing set, despite which Adele was rumored to run a laundry business in the London suburbs. Lord Essex died in 1916.–This particular portrait of Adele reminds me of a young Helena Bonham Carter. At least from this angle, but I am not sure of who else could take the role.
Lilian Price Hammersley Spencer-Churchill
***CORRECTION (4/2/15) It has come to my attention the portrait to the left is of Mary Francecs Grant, who later became Mrs. Hugh Hammersley. The Real Lily stood up, as per a reader note. This is a link to the photograph of the one and only Lily Prince Hammersley Spencer-Churchill*** Daughter of Comm. Cicero Price of Troy, New York. Lilian, beautiful widow of wealthy New York merchant Louis Hammersley, always wore white and was famous for covering her opera box with orchids. Her marriage to George Charles Spencer-Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough, divorced by his first wife over a flagrant love affair, married on June 29, 1888. Their match was widely regarded as a cynical trade of money for title. Marlborough’s philandering continued; he had another flagrant affair with Lady Colin Campbell. The Hammersley money re-roofed Blenheim, built an organ in the Long Library and supplied a laboratory for Marlborough’s science experiments. Marlborough died in 1892, and in 1895 Lily married Lord William de la Poer Beresford, third son of the 4th Marquess of Waterford.–I can envision a dark haired version of Sarah Jessica Parker playing the role of the 8th Duchess, with her distinctively long face and perfectly petite frame made for high fashion.
Jennie Jerome Churchill
Daughter of Leonard Jerome of New York. A pioneering Anglo-American match: Jennie, a true beauty, and the brilliant, aristocratic Lord Randolph Churchill, 2nd son of 7th Duke of Marlborough (so sister-in-law to Lily mentioned above) on April 15th, 1874. A riveting speaker in Parliament, Randolph rose to Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He was widely expected to become prime minister but resigned from government suddenly; he suffered from syphilis, which drove him mad and eventually killed him in 1895. Jennie was rumored to have had affairs with, among others, the Prince of Wales and the Austrian Count Kinski. She wrote plays, founded the Anglo-Saxon Review and promoted the political career of her son Winston. In 1900, she married George Cornwallis-West, who was Winston’s age; divorcing him in 1913, she married again, Montagu Porch, younger still in 1918.–The key to look for in this casting is the eyes. Who has those eyes? I am at a completely lost. Than again Jennie Jerome’s eyes could be achieved with a few false lashes. Of course, Jennie has that distinct classical profile, and again I am not sure whom to recommend. Maybe Kate Mara??? Obvious, you have to squint to imagine Jennie hairstyle on her.
Nancy Langhorne Shaw Astor
Daughter of Chriswell Dabney Langhorne of Virginia. The Langhornes, though prosperous (Chriswell was worth about $1 million at his death), were not hugely rich; Nancy, one of three lovely sisters, had divorced the alcoholic Shaw. The 1st Viscount Astor of the rich American Astor clan had migrated to England, where young William was covered with glory at both Eton and Oxford. Nancy met William Waldorf Astor, later the 2nd Viscount, on a steamer, en route to the season’s foxhunting. Astor pere gave them Cliveden (now a luxury hotel) and presented her with a tiara set with the fifty-three-plus-carat Sancy diamond. They married on May 3rd, 1906. Astor became an M.P. in 1910; when his father died. He had to go into the House of Lords. Nancy won his seat and became the first woman ever to sit in Parliament. Renowned for her sharp tongue, she was a rabid Christian Scientist and staunch teetotaler. She was painted and sketched several times by John Singer Sargent.–I am sure there are other actress that could play Nancy, but I sort of like this woman I stumbled upon: Kayla Vanderbilt.
Consuelo Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill
Considered one of the saddest upbringings in the Gilded Age. Consuelo was the daughter of William K. Vanderbilt of New York and Newport and was named for her mother, Alva’s dearest friend, Consuleo Yznaga. William K. was a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, founder of the great fortune. Consuelo was brought up in great splendor in the States and abroad. The proud Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough was the stepson of Lily Hammersley and nephew of Jennie Jerome. He was saddled with the immense Blenheim and very little income; both his father and his grandfather were spendthrifts. Minnie Stevens Paget, also a good friend of Consuelo’s mother, set up the first meeting between the Duke and Consuelo, whose objections to the match were overruled. The Marlboroughs entertained lavishly at Blenheim, where the Prince of Wales was a frequent guest, and played a highly visible part in Edward VII coronation. They separated in 1906 and were divorced in 1920. The Duke married his mistress the following year and later Consuelo married French airman Jacques Balsan.–Consuelo was known for her curiously long swan’s neck and I do not know of an actress with that defining feature. However, there is something about Olivia Grant, who played Lady Midwinter in Lark Rise to Candleford that I can see portraying the 9th Duchess. Certainly, contacts and a dye job is in order for the role. However, the real key for this biography would be “the child-Consuelo,” where her pawn-like existence is quite sad.
*All mini-biographies are taken almost directly from How to Marry an English Lord: Tales of wealth and marriage, sex and snobbery by Gail MacColl and Carol McDonald Wallace