The Wilsons Versus The World

I found this story in To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace.

Everyone loves a good rags to riches story, but that's a hard feat to accomplish in snooty society. And no place was snootier than New York in the 19th century. You had your very, very old families who came over on the Mayflower, of course, but, overall, precedence was much harder to determine because in 'Merica, don't nobody gots no titles.

How could you tell if someone in America was the equivalent of a British duke, earl or marquis? If two people from New York are of the same social rank, how do you determine precedence if you can't compare the dates that these ranks were conferred by the crown? The point is: the old families were incredibly protective of their positions because there really wasn't any sort of impartial source (aka, a specific rank conferred on a specific date) to help them tell who was 'better' than whom. Therefore, in New York, things were done much more properly than they were in the UK, because the New Yorkers had more to prove and more to lose.

And what New York society people REALLY hated were the vulgar upstarts with new money coming into their territory. This brings me to . . .


R.T. Wilson was the son of a Scottish tanner. He was born in Georgia, spent time as a traveling salesman, and then became a commissary general of the Confederate army during the American Civil War. Definitely not the 'New York Society' type. During the end of the Civil War, Wilson moved to London for a bit, and eventually returning to the USA with a very mysterious $500,000 fortune. No one knows where this money came from. This was the second huge strike against Wilson. NO MYSTERIES ALLOWED IN SOCIETY, and certainly not when it came to how you made your fortune/climbed the ladder, etc. Everyone just assumed that he did something shady with Confederate supplies, which is probably true.

Wilson then had the audacity to keep being successful. THE NERVE. Despite increasing his fortune in (mostly) legitimate ways, the family could not get a fricking break in New York society. That is, until their eldest daughter, May, married Ogden Goelet in 1877 (nice name).

The Goelets were the creme de la creme, daahling. They were from old real estate money with impeccable connections. It was a very, very lucky break for the Wilsons to score Ogden Goelet as a relative at all, but he was a second son from a minor branch of the family, and didn't have that much money, so him marrying below his station wasn't a big deal. The Wilsons figured it was just a foot in the door.

THEN Ogden's uncle, Peter Goelet, died without an heir and left young Odgen 25 million dollars. What started out as a decent, respectable marriage turned into winning the lottery. Nobody could refuse the relatives of the wife of Ogden Goelet now.

Unfortunately, over the years R.T. Wilson lost a great portion of his fortune. What was once a multi-million dollar empire was now reduced down to about a million dollars. Despite their good connections with the Goelets, their place on the ladder was very precarious. They had no position, except through marriage, and now it looked like they didn't even have money anymore.

So when R.T. Wilson's son, Orme, fell in love with Carrie Astor (daughter of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, of THE ASTORS) (seriously, what is up with these names?), Mrs. Astor went, "GTFO Orme." The Wilsons were seriously reaching now. The Astors were the monarchs of society, and Mrs. Astor determined all the protocol and who was who in New York. To marry her daughter to these nobodies was hardly something she was about to let happen.

Carrie Astor begged and begged her mother, so Mrs. Astor came up with a brilliant plan. She said, "Okay. You can get married. If they can match your $500,000 dowry." Carrie was devastated. Everyone knew that they'd never be able to scrape together that much cash.

But then I guess R.T. Wilson made some dark bargain Satan, because he got the cash. I really hope he slapped it on Mrs. Astor's desk and said, "Will there be anything else?" Carrie and Orme got married in 1884 and the Wilsons clung onto good society like damn spider-monkeys.

Four years later, the Wilson's middle daughter, Belle, decided that she could do better than both of her siblings in the marriage department. Why not go for the actual aristocracy? The problem was that Belle was a bit of a plain girl, but her mother fixed that right up. She took her to Europe to visit the famous clothing designer, Charles Frederick Worth. If were sticking to the Devil Wears Prada analogy, he would be the Stanley Tucci character. He transformed frumpy Belle into a gorgeous Victorian babe through the power of dresses.

She met the Honorable Michael Herbert (called Mungo by his friends. Are the names in this story are just fucking with me now?), who was the younger brother of the Earl of Pembroke. Belle swept Mungo off his feet and they married in 1888. Take that, New York. The Wilsons were going LEGIT.

By the time the Wilsons' youngest daughter, Grace, came of age to be married, her prospects were drastically improved by the good marriages of her siblings. She had the benefit of growing up in society, and was pretty, well-dressed and charming. Because she knew how sophisticated she was, she figured that she could probably marry into the Vanderbilts. The Vanderbilts, as you may remember from this post here, were also new money, but they were INSANELY RICH and had likewise climbed the social ladder in New York. Cornelius Vanderbilt III (called Neily, because why not?) was the white whale of husbands.

Ironically, the fact that Grace was the perfect match for Neily was precisely the thing that kept them apart: his parents thought she was too sophisticated for the 22-year old Neily to marry, and marked all her assets up to cunning and deviousness. Neily's sister Gertrude wrote in her diary, "There is nothing the girl would not do . . . She is at least 27 . . . ahs had unbounded experience. Been engaged several times. Tried hard to marry a rich man. Ran after Jack Astor to such an extent that all New York talked about it. Is so diplomatic that even the men are deadly afraid of her. There is nothing she would stop at." (174). Ah, yes. Diplomacy: that terrifying, terrifying thing.

A lot of this is actually true. "Among Grace's ex-fiances, rumored and official, were Cecil Baring, son of Lord Revelstoke (who backed down when her dowry proved insufficient), and William Vanderbilt, Cornelius' deceased older brother" (174). She'd take a Vanderbilt, ANY VANDERBILT.

Then the nasty rumors started. Newspapers started getting anonymous letters declaring that Grace was pregnant. But despite all of the opposition, Grace and Neily got engaged and announced it to the papers. Cornelius Vanderbilt Sr. threatened to disown Neily if he married her. The date of the wedding came and went, but Neily was laid up with inflammatory rheumatism and couldn't get married. A lot of poeple thought he was trying to back out. But he kept asserting violently to his parents that he intended to marry Grace. After a particularly bad argument with his son, Cornelius Sr. had a stroke, which everyone said was brought on by the fight and ended up being blamed on Grace and her voodoo seduction.

A month later, Grace and Neily got married. No Vanderbilts were in attendance and Cornelius Sr. died almost immediately after, having cut his son off with only a mere million dollars to live on. Thankfully, Neily's brother Alfred gave them 6 million more, and Grace took on her role as a leading society matron in New York and in Europe, eventually becoming the mistress (probably) of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The moral of the story: if at first you don't succeed, badger your way into nuptials.

The second moral of the story is: Only marry people with stupid names. It is sure to be a success.

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