Gilded Age Heiresses

3. The Brief Noble Life of a Toothpaste Queen

Most of the Gilded Age Heiresses who crossed the sea in search of a noble title were the daughters of self-made men. One exception was Cora Smith, who married the soap company heir Samuel J Colgate (39 years her senior) and was left at his death a very rich widow – the estate was valued at over $260 million in today’s money.

Cora, when she was still a Colgate

Cora, Countess of Strafford, by Sargent (1899)

She married  Henry William George Byng, the 4th Earl of Stafford, (29 years her senior) at the fashionable Grace Church in New York City in December of 1898. Though he had been close to royalty, having been equerry to the Queen since the 1870s, he had only succeeded his brother to the title earlier in that same year.

Poor Henry, the only image we have is a caricature from Vanity Fair. Sorry your lordship!

The marriage was not to last; in May of 1899, the Earl was the victim of a horrible accident.

A quote from the New York Times, May 17th, 1899:

“The Earl was seen standing upon a platform , awaiting a train from London. When the express approached at a high rate of speed, he suddenly fell forward upon the rails. The decapitated body was taken to the nearest hotel, where it awaits a coroner’s inquest”


Earl Strafford was on his way from his country seat, Wrotham Park, at the time of the accident. Common wisdom of the time was that the Earl suffered from epilepsy, however, first reports from the Potter’s Bar Station  (discredited) had raised the possibility of suicide.

The 67 year old Earl was succeeded by his brother George, as both of his sons from his first marriage had pre-deceased him. Cora had a daughter, Adele from her first marriage, but the Earl and Countess had no children together.

Do you recognize Gosford Park?

Cora became slightly infamous as the only peeress who “placidly wore her coronet quite sideways” during the entire conronation ceremony for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902. Must have been a slow news day at the NY Times!


The coronet of an Earl or Countess with its distinctive strawberry leaves

Cora Smith Colgate married for the third and final time in 1903 to Martyn Kennard (only one year her senior), a move “received with incredulity” by the society pages of New York,  They remained together until her death in 1932.

Fun facts:

-Wrotham Park was the site for the exteriors of Norland Park in the movie Sense and Sensibility (2008)

– Also, it was the stand-in for the fictional Gosford Park, which I recommended you see as part of the Servants

Minicast.  The living room, dining room, and main staircase were all filmed there, as well!

-OK, it wasn’t really toothpaste, not until later. Colgate was most famous at the time for this soap:

Cashmere Bouquet, 1872, super famous soap of champions. And heiresses.

2. The Dollar Princess and the Princess of Wales

Frances Work was the daughter of a New York City dry-goods merchant turned financier, who had amassed a fortune valued at $15 million as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s stockbroker – and married into some more money, as his wife was a pork-processing heiress.

The charming Hon. James Boothby Burke-Roche, second son of an Irish baron, had glamour to spare. Though not the heir to a title or possessed of any sort of fortune, this handsome charmer had spent the past few years in Wyoming, raising cattle, fighting hostile Indians, and generally becoming an example of weatherbeaten, manly fabulousness.

The dashing opportunist himself

One of his companions in the Wild West was Moreton Frewen, another younger son, who had captured the heart (and pocketbook) of Jennie Jerome’s older sister Clara. Following his friend’s example, Burke-Roche paid a visit to Newport in the summer of 1880. By September, he had caught an heiress of his own, and after his new papa-in-law paid his extravagant $50,000 gambling debts (in 1880 money!), the pair were off to England to live the high life on Frank Work’s hard-earned money.

Some came for hunting…then found the sport of fortune hunting more to their taste

Frances and James did not live merrily together, though they did succeed in having four children – two daughters, then twin sons. They were separated only six years after their marriage. Irritated with her husband’s wayward ways, Frances tried unsuccessfully to sue for divorce in 1891. When England’s legal system proved unsympathetic, she came to America and obtained a Delaware divorce, on the grounds of desertion.

Unusually for the time, (but perhaps not in this circumstance) Frances gained custody of her children (In Britain, the father was often granted custody) and returned to New York City.

Frank Work (father of Frances) was quoted as saying:

“As fast as our honorable, hard-working men can earn this money, their daughters take it and throw it across the ocean. And for what? For the purpose of a title and the privilege of paying the debts of so-called noblemen. If I had anything to say about it, I’d make an international marriage a hanging offense.”

And he meant it. Fifteen separate codicils to his will reference Frances’ love life – if she had nothing more to do with her ex-husband, educated her sons only in America, and had nothing more to do with Hungarian horse trainer Aurel Batonyi (now THAT is specific), then she would retain her interest in his estate.

Frank Work owned a famous racing team…(horses “Edward” and “Dick Swiveller”)… it wasn’t the racing he objected to – it was the fortune hunters!

Frances’ second marriage to Batonyi effectively cut her out of her father’s will. However, the fourteenth codicil offered to make her an allowance if she would leave her second husband.

It was this divorce, and its attendant publicity, which ostracized her from society. Though she did eventually divide her father’s estate with her sister, she was cut publicly at the Newport Casino, and was never again received into polite society.

The Burke-Roches’ son E. Maurice Burke-Roche became the 4th Lord Fermoy. (How would it be to lose out on a title by three minutes? Poor younger twin Francis!)

Maurice’s daughter Frances Ruth married the 8th Earl Spencer, and you might recognize their daughter!

Great-granddaughter of Frances Work

Frances’ daughter Cynthia is the great-grandmother of the actor Oliver Platt.

Who knew he was so close to royalty? (But I loved him in The West Wing!)

1. The First American Princess of Monaco

American women making it into noble families was not just happening in England. And the very first American Princess of Monaco predated Princess Grace by 65 years!

In 1889, American born Mary Alice Heine married Albert I, Prince of Monaco.

Her path to being a Princess reads like a romance novel! Born in New Orleans to French parents in 1858.  She was raised in the French Quarter. Her home, on Rue Royale, was three interconnected townhomes with a beautiful courtyard typical of the times and area. During the Civil War the family relocated to France, and it was there that a young Alice married a man several years her senior, Marie Odet Armand Aimable Chapelle, 7th Duc du Richelieu & Fronsac.  This made her the Duchess of Richelieu and Fronsac. The couple had one son, but the Duke died five years into the marriage.

Her second marriage was to Albert I, Prince of Monaco. His father was opposed to the marriage so they waited until after he died to legalize the union. Her dowry is reported to have been six million dollars! This union gave her the official title “ Her Serene Highness, Princess Alice, Princess of Monaco”.  In Monaco she was very involved in the arts. REALLY involved, as her marriage dissolved when she stopped to whisper to a composer whom she was having an affair. The Prince slapped her, right there! In public! At the Opera!

They separated in 1902 although never legally divorced.  Alice lived out her years as a hostess in France dying in 1925 at age 67.

Alice Heine, Princess of Monaco

You can catch glimpses of the home where Alice was born. The Carriage House and Courtyard are now available to rent for parties and funcitons. Here is a link if you want to take a peek!