​The Gilded Age's real-life "Dollar Princesses"


Mary Leiter, the Chicago-born heiress to a dry-goods fortune, married George Curzon, heir to the title of Barony of Scarsdale, up-and-coming Member of Parliament, and future Viceroy of India.

CBS News

The gilded girls of America's so-called Gilded Age sometimes looked across the sea for something American men can't offer: a title. Their search is being remembered these days on our TV screens. Here's Jan Crawford:

It's one of "Downton Abbey"'s central plotlines: Cora Lady Grantham (played by actress Elizabeth McGovern) was once Cora Levinson, heiress to an American fortune. She marries Lord Grantham, a British aristocrat, and saves his crumbling estate, claiming the title of Countess for herself.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: "Twenty-four years ago, you married Cora against my wishes for her money! Give it away now -- what was the point of your peculiar marriage in the first place?"

The point, of course, is obvious: Money and status.

In the show their romance plays out like a fairy tale -- and that story line isn't all that far-fetched.

Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in "Downton Abbey." PBS

Lady Cora is an example of what came to be known as the "Dollar Princesses" of the Gilded Age: A time in the late 19th century when young American heiresses -- rich with new money and rejected by established high society -- turned their sights to Europe, seeking status through marriage and lofty European titles.

"The heiresses, I'm sure, found the appeal of wearing a tiara or being presented at court an amazing fulfillment of a dream -- if not theirs, their mothers' perhaps," said Jeff Groff, a curator at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It's the former home of America's own brand of royalty, the du Pont family.

A just-ended exhibit of "Downton Abbey" costumes drew record crowds, highlighting America's fascination with all things British, both now and then.

Groff said what was so interesting about the many real-life Coras during the Gilded Age was that, "So many of the great American fortunes were in manufacturing, railroads, finance, trade -- things the British aristocracy would normally turn up their nose up in the air about."

While America was finding new fortunes, Europe was facing hard times -- and a once-thriving British upper-class was feeling the impact.