Now, the fifth season of Downton Abbey is upon us, along with another one of those bouts of Anglo fever (or, to be more accurate, Anglo aristocracy fever). Despite what cynics might think, the presence of American actress Elizabeth McGovern in the cast is not really an attempt to increase viewership of the PBS series on this side of the Atlantic (though it doesn’t hurt). As it happens, an American woman marrying into the British upper classes and becoming Lady Cora Crawley was quite the thing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Twenty years ago, PBS focused more on the American side of these affairs when it broadcast its mini-series The Buccaneers, based on Edith Wharton’s last (unfinished) novel about American heiresses conquering England through charm, beauty and scads of money lusted after by male adventurers with expensive estates and personal tastes to maintain. Wharton, through her social circle in Old New York, would have known of many similar cases. One such family was the Jeromes.
Which brings me to this photo I took at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn this past fall. How depressing, you must have thought, Faithful Reader, that a real, live fictional character "began" in a tomb. And what the heck’s that “Jerome” about?
Well, the name “Jerome” will certainly have associations for New Yorkers, though probably only one out of 100, if that, will figure out why. Jerome Avenue in the Bronx? That was named after Leonard Jerome, who made so much money as a stock-market speculator in the mid-19th century that he became known as “The King of Wall Street.”
Leonard had three daughters, nicknamed “The Beautiful,” “The Good” and “The Witty.” He married off Clarita and Leonie (the last two) to members of the British aristocracy. He did the same with Jennie (“The Beautiful”), but hers turned out to be a more interesting, if star-crossed, match. She wed Randolph Churchill (descendant of one of England’s great generals, the Duke of Marlborough), a politician who not only didn't fulfill his early promise but died before he even reached 50, of a mysterious illness rumored to be syphilis. (See my prior post.)
Their offspring was Sir Winston Churchill, the future British Prime Minister. When he spoke of the “special relationship” between Great Britain and the United States, it was more than just diplomatic rhetoric for him—it had the most personal, familial resonance.
Leonard Jerome never lived to see his grandson’s finest hour in World War II. He died at age 73 in 1891, in England, sighing at the end, “I have given you all that I have. Pass it on.”
What this once fabulously wealthy man had really passed on to his daughters were not dollars but debts, incurred by unwary speculation and penchants for philanthropy and thoroughbred horse racing. The one significant item he did have was a diamond necklace bought decades before for his wife. Clarita’s husband, Moreton Frewen, persuaded his mother-in-law to part with this in exchange for one of his investments that, as usual, went belly-up (confirming once again why his nickname was "Mortal Ruin").