Them and Us: The American Invasion of British High Society
America rules British lives. Far more than the Euro-conspiracy. They’ve dominated the Anglosphere, they took us to war in Iraq. And every incoming British Prime Minister gets, along with the nuclear key, and that first shocking briefing from the security services, a lesson on what America will require of him, the broad expectations of the alignment.
We are used to it now. But before the war – World War II – the American challenge was just a scary intimation and the British could still think of themselves as Athens to America’s Rome.
Many felt we had had a raw deal in the past – in the World War I reparations round – and that official America had been tough on us. And the relative sizes and dynamism of the British and American economies were clear enough for all to see; they had outpaced us at the beginning of the twentieth century. But long before any general recognition of the realities, there was another intimation of American power, in what Charles Jennings in Them and Us calls ‘the American invasion of British High Society’.
It started with the Pilgrim Daughters, those late-19th-century American heiresses. They married British aristocrats who needed the money but had a handsome title and a big house to barter. They brought their dowries – staggeringly large at the time – some attitude and useful New World connections. They sustained a fair few grand families when UK land values fell through the floor and helped maintain the impression of the world’s most cohesive, adaptable Ruling Class for longer than anyone might have predicted at the turn of the 19th century.
What exactly did they get for it – since they’re mostly forgotten except by writers of snob books who just love that name Consuelo. They were often married alive into incredibly stuffy households, to men who didn’t love them but who, before the Married Women’s Property Act, had complete access to their money, to spend
on hothouses or mistresses. And their children became completely, snobbily British.
Charles Jennings’ answer is that these women’s families, beset by American New Money’s unmentionable little problem with class, would be able to say ‘my daughter the Duchess’. It was an absolute trump card in a world in which many of the serious money players were still only a couple of generations away from some pretty basic origins in Trade. The original Astor, John Jacob, was an early-19th-century German immigrant fur dealer.
If you wanted to buy into something better, the Brits were eager, co-operative and spoke the language. They were a far safer bet than the over-supplied Euro-aristocracy with its uncertain status and its defensive pride (though there were still plenty of new Principessas and Contessas from Baltimore).
Jennings describes – shades of Ralph Lauren – how in those second and third generations the next big house on, say, Rhode Island would often be built as some sort of British pastiche, more laid back, mossed and ivy-ed than the original Louis-the-hotel monster on Fifth Avenue. With landscaping. That was when the English tailors developed a steamship habit.
The next 20th-century wave of Big Money Americans in Britain were altogether more demanding, particularly after the war. It wasn’t just brides. There were whole families, like the William Waldorf branch of the Astors; there were social-climbing male gadflies like Chips Channon, who married into they Iveah family; and high-profile entertainers and major show-offs such as Douglas Fairbanks and Tallulah Bankhead.
In the Jazz Age, Americans defined smart modernity. In London they seemed to be central to a kind of Alternative Society, centred on rich people who went out all the time – to nightclubs, smart hotels and restaurants – and were photographed doing it. It was a distinctly different round from the old aristocratic one, which was based on people’s own houses, the cross-country trek and the Victorian Season.
But what mattered was that this new world seemed to have Royal endorsement. If Edward VII had loved plutocrats like grocery millionaire Sir Tommy Lipton and his lovely big steam yacht, then it looked as if his pretty blonde grandson, the slave-to-love King Edward VIII, loved Americans. He liked American trips, American parties and, eventually and rather surprisingly, an American woman of no great fortune, breeding or beauty, Wallis Simpson (I can remember a crumbly friend of my grandmother telling me she was perfectly certain the Duchess had learnt enslaving techniques in the brothels of Shanghai in a former life).
Jennings doesn’t attempt any major revisionism here, but he’s even-handed, about Wallis Simpson’s resolve and apparent good sense in a tight corner. And about the Simpsons’ relative hard-upness. The wear on the carpets in their smartish, smallish new Marble Arch flat was only cleverly concealed, not replaced.
This clever book’s set piece is a detailed reconstruction of a dinner at Chips Channon’s newly bought Belgrave Square house on the 11th of June 1936. In a house ‘heavy with the smell of fresh paint’ the action is centred on the dining room, designed by the Parisian decorator Stéphanie Boudin as a homage to the Amalienburg pavilion in the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. It was an exercise in rococo.
Blue and silver walls, masses of shiny glass in the mirrors and chandeliers. Silver gilt everywhere. The table is crowded with ‘a busy grove of Meissen porcelain’. The guests were the new King’s Set, excited at the thought that their time had come.
They included Prince George, the Duke of Kent and his beautiful Greek wife Marina (the Duke was famously bisexual, and had had an affair with Noel Coward); Lady Cunard, the animated, squeaky little American hostess who had married the steamship line; the exotic Jewish baronet, Philip Sassoon; the King himself and Mrs Simpson, plus some politicians and make-weights.
Did it matter that old Society with its tribal reactions and unthinking anti-Semitism saw these people as ‘vacuities at best; at worst as demimondaine seditionists’? Not if they were about to take over.
It’s brilliantly done. Jennings has re-thought, reshaped and realigned a whole set of people and milieux you might have thought were done to death – every single decade, development and player here has had at least one book and biography, from the Pilgrim daughters to Emerald and Nancy via the Channon diaries, and the Windsors themselves have generated a library. But it still works because Jennings can carry a big idea where snob biographers usually can’t, he writes really entertainingly, and has brought in a mass of delicious telling detail.
But the American century is over. The last Sunday Times Rich List shows that while the Big Money in London is overwhelmingly ‘foreign’, it comes from absolutely everywhere, but especially from the new BRIC world. The old Belgravia Americans, by now more British than the Brits, with their lovely manners and subtly Fowlerised stucco houses, must be feeling it hard.
Reviewed by Peter York