What was the inspiration for The American Heiress?
I was visiting Blenheim Palace and saw the portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress who married the Duke of Marlborough. She was very beautiful, but she also looked spectacularly unhappy. When I read that she was basically blackmailed into marrying the Duke by her social-climbing mother, I thought about what a great setup this would be for a novel. American girls basically propped up the English aristocracy for a generation. In modern terms, Consuelo's dowry was about $100 million.
No wonder a quarter of the British nobility made transatlantic marriages!
I started writing this book at the height of the boom (remember the boom?), when I was fascinated by the parallels between all these new billionaires and the plutocrats of the Gilded Age. How does getting rich that fast affect you? It has to be said, though, that the rich today are small fry compared to the Vanderbilts and their ilk, whose idea of a party favor was a jewel-encrusted Fabergé egg, and who would offer their guests cigarettes rolled from hundred-dollar bills.
Was there anything you found especially surprising while researching The American Heiress?
While certain details in The American Heiress might seem unbelievable, like the solid gold on the corset that Cora Cash wears on her wedding day, her trousseau is a replica of Consuelo Vanderbilt's. At her wedding to the Duke, Consuelo carried orchids that had been grown in the greenhouses of Blenheim and then shipped to New York in a specially refrigerated chamber because Marlborough brides always carried flowers from Blenheim. When I borrowed the detail about Cora's bouquet being brought over from England for my novel, my editor produced her red pencil and said, "This can't possibly be true." But in fact, you would have to have a very vivid imagination indeed to match the real extravagance and excess of the Gilded Age. Just as contemporary starlets are written about in the media today, every detail of Consuelo's wedding was chronicled in Vogue.
How typical was Cora Cash's experience for an American marrying an English nobleman?
Girls like Consuelo Vanderbilt came to England thinking it would be the height of sophistication. "[F]or many... American brides, a title didn't really make up for the horrors of English country life." But for many of these American brides, a title really didn't make up for the horrors of English country life. A dollar princess frequently found herself isolated and miserable in a great pile of a house that, however exquisite, was miles away from anywhere, with no heating apart from open fires andhorror of horrorno bathrooms. One titled American bride wrote home to her mother that she hadn't taken her furs off all winter even when she went to bed. Another heiress gave up going to dinner at people's country houses because she couldn't bear the arctic temperatures in an evening dress. And English society was not exactly welcoming to these rich newcomers: Imagine Kim Kardashian marrying Prince Harry today and you get the general idea of the suspicion and disdain that the Americans encountered.
Those of you who enjoyed the Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey will remember that the Earl of Grantham married an American heiress (also called Cora) whose dowry saved the family estate from ruin. But Downton Abbey is set twenty years after The American Heiress. By that time even the stuffiest English aristocrats had realized that American money had stopped the roof leaking. In Downton Abbey, when Cora, Countess of Grantham, wonders whether a potential suitor for her daughter comes from an old family, her mother-in-law, played by Maggie Smith, retorts, "Older than yours, I imagine." And even the Countess's own daughter, Lady Mary, dismisses her mother by saying,
"You wouldn't understand.
The traces of these American girls are everywhere in Britain today; most people know that Winston Churchill's mother was American, but the great-grandmother of Princess Diana was also an American heiress.
What kind of experience was writing this book for you?
People are always asking me, how do you find time to write a bookwhen you run a company, write for the newspapers, have a family (and three dogs), etc.? My answer to this is noise-cancelling headphones. Once I plug these in, I can write anytime, anywhere. A great deal of this novel was written on trains, planes, and in between meetings.
I absolutely loved writing The American Heiress. To be able to escape into a world full of beautiful frocks and perfectly trained servants was a joy.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What authors have influenced your work?
I love Edith Wharton and Henry James, and anyone familiar with their work will see echoes in The American Heiress. I also admire Daphne du Maurier for the way she handles suspense and Sarah Waters for her utter command of historical period. I really enjoyed Julian Fellowes's books for the way they dissect snobbery, and Hilary Mantel is an extraordinary writer both for her present-day and period novels.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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