January 2, 2013
Silver polished? Feathers fluffed? Good—then like me, you are properly primed to receive the opening salvos of “Downton Abbey“’s third season, which begins airing on PBS this Sunday, January 6.
The hugely popular soap opera froths over this year when Shirley MacLaine arrives with the subtlety of a blunderbuss. MacLaine portrays Martha Levinson, the social climbing New York mother of Lady Cora who, as one of the American “Dollar Princesses,” had injected her substantial money into marriage with the Earl of Grantham at the turn of the 20th-century. Alas, by season three, time has passed and that fortune has dwindled to the point where the privileged life of Downton Abbey is threatened.
Enter Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, a character variously described as “rich,” “crass” and “brassy.” Most delicious of all is that she is a worthy sparring partner to Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Violet Grantham.
The stage is set even before the American mother arrives, when the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) says to Lady Cora at dinner, “I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” Handsome young Matthew innocently asks, “But isn’t she American?” To which the Countess says, “Exactly.” (Bada-bing!)
Of her role, MacLaine says: “The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and to a large extent sensitive as to what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands – and to some extent addresses herself to.”
The pairing of these two legendary Oscar-winning actresses allows series writer Julian Fellowes to depict the enormous social change wrenching the class structure of 1920s British life: for Fellowes, Dame Maggie’s Countess represents the entrenchment of “class,” while MacLaine’s Levinson heralds the democracy of “crass.”
As it happens, Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith have known one another for more than 40 years, although they had never before worked together. Both were born in 1934, and both had extensive careers on stage and screen. Maggie Smith made her stage debut in 1952, and early in her career appeared in both musical comedies and drama. Her best known stage roles include her Tony-winning performance in Lettice and Lovage, as well as notable Shakespearean performances as Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Her classic screen performances have included The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Room with a View, Gosford Park, all of the Harry Potter films, and 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. Queen Elizabeth II appointed her a Dame Commander in the 1990 New Year Honours.
Like Smith, MacLaine has had a diverse and colorful career. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, with her younger brother Warren Beatty, and studied dance at the Washington School of Ballet. During the golden age of 1950s stage musicals, she symbolized the prototypical Broadway baby who vaulted to fame while waiting in the wings. She was the understudy for dancing great Carol Haney, the star of the 1954 smash hit The Pajama Game. When Haney was injured, Shirley went on in her place, performed brilliantly, and—just like in every chorus girl’s dreams—“came back a star.”
Her winning gamine personality put her in high demand in Hollywood as well, and she starred in two of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950s movies, The Apartment and Irma la Douce, earning Best Actress Golden Globes for each. At the same time, she headlined a Las Vegas cabaret act and for a while ran with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Renowned as a dancer, she continued to kick up her heels in such films as Can Can and Sweet Charity. Among the Portrait Gallery’s images of MacLaine is a thoughtful 1959 Bob Willoughby photograph of her resting backstage while filming Can Can. The museum also has an exuberant Gordon Munro photograph that captures the high-stepping dancer in her 1984 show, Shirley MacLaine on Broadway. But she turned increasingly to drama, and in 1983 received the Best Actress Oscar for her stirring performance in Terms of Endearment. For her remarkably varied work on screen, the American Film Institute awarded her its Life Achievement Award in 2012.
Along the way, MacLaine has been known for her outspoken views. When she won her Oscar, she exclaimed, “I deserve this!” She has also written several memoirs outlining her beliefs in spiritualism and UFO encounters, and readily admits, “People think I’m nuts.”
She had never paid attention to “Downton Abbey” until she was approached to join the cast, and she may seem an eccentric choice. But after all, it is an eccentric role, and MacLaine’s energized personality helped bring the brassy Martha Levinson character to life. In an interview with The Daily Beast, MacLaine said that what she admired most about the series was that “It was extraordinarily artful and I thought, ‘Whoa, we’re making a painting!’”
MacLaine’s movie career has been rejuvenated as she approaches her 80th birthday. Currently, she is filming the love story Elsa and Fred with Christopher Plummer, and there are four more potential films on tap. She is suitably grateful to “Downton Abbey“, and has said that her favorite scene was one she herself suggested to writer Julian Fellowes—an improbable scene in which she serenades the Dowager Countess by singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” When this scene was explained to Dame Maggie, that world-class scene stealer raised her eyebrows and said, “You know what I’m going to do, dear. I’m going to fall off the chair when you start singing.”
Fasten your seatbelts!
March 14, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. Today, the National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson, inspired by the Cora Crawley character on PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” traces the real-life stories of few American socialites who married into British nobility. She last wrote for us about Clint Eastwood’s visit to the National Museum of American History.
In a recent New York Times interview, marking the end of “Downton Abbey’s” second season, series creator Julian Fellowes discusses the Gilded Age “dollar princesses” who were the models for the character of Cora Crawley, the rich American who marries the Earl of Grantham.
“I’ve read all these things,” Fellowes told the Times, “like Cora is supposed to be Mary Leiter. She isn’t really – she’s one of that genus, of which Mary Leiter is a famous example.”
I broke into a wide smile as I realized that Fellowes had given me a slim, but very real academic connection to this wonderfully addictive sudsfest. Just before joining the staff at the Portrait Gallery in 1975, I was hired by Nigel Nicolson to research a biography he was writing of a young Chicago woman who became Vicereine of India at the turn of the 20th century—Mary Leiter Curzon.
Heir to the Marshall Field retail business her father co-founded, Mary Leiter moved with her family to Washington, D.C. in the 1880s. She was an immediate social sensation, a beautiful “swanlike” figure who quickly became close friends with the young first lady Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover Cleveland. Leiter’s social success followed her to London, where she met Lord George Curzon. Married in 1895, she and Curzon moved to Bombay three years later when he was appointed Viceroy of India. Mary’s elevation to Vicereine remains the highest position an American woman has ever held in the British Empire.
The centerpiece event of the Curzons’ tenure was the 1902 Delhi Durbar, organized to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. Mary wore an astonishing dress designed by the House of Worth known as “the peacock dress.” The gown was an extravagance of gold cloth embroidered with peacock feathers, and Mary wore it with a huge diamond necklace and a pearl-tipped tiara. One could only imagine the eye-popping reaction of Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Dame Maggie Smith), to such an over-the-top confection floating down Downton’s halls.
Mary Leiter Curzon was one of perhaps 350 wealthy young American women, Fellowes estimates, who married into the cash-poor British aristocracy between 1880 and 1920. Winston Churchill’s mother was an early example. The daughter of a New York financier, Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill in 1874. She has been called the forerunner of the wealthy American women who came to England in the late 19th century to marry titles—a species novelist Edith Wharton immortalized in The Buccaneers. Jennie was remarkably lovely, and her portrait was in high demand because of her status as one of the era’s leading “PB’s,” or “professional beauties.” According to Consuelo Vanderbilt, “Her grey eyes sparkled with the joy of living and when, as was often the case, her anecdotes were risqué it was with her eyes as well as her words that one could read the implications.”
The vivacious Jennie had numerous affairs that included even the Prince of Wales, and embraced the idea that living well was the best revenge: “We owe something to extravagance,” she pronounced, “for thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand.”
Another of the famous “dollar princesses” was Nancy Langhorne, a renowned Virginia-born beauty. While her sister Irene married Charles Dana Gibson and became a prototype for the Gibson Girl, Nancy moved to England, where she was sought after socially for her wit as well as her money. In 1879, she married William Waldorf Astor, who had also been born in the United States, but had moved to London as a child and been brought up in the manner (and manor) of the English aristocracy. After their marriage, the Astors moved into Cliveden, a country house much like Downton Abbey, and which, during the Great War, served like Downton as a hospital for convalescing soldiers.
Lady Astor’s real distinction was to be elected to Parliament in 1919. Her husband served in the House of Commons, but became a member of the House of Lords when he succeeded to his father’s peerage as Viscount Astor. Nancy Astor then ran and won his former seat in the Commons, becoming the second woman to be elected to Parliament but the first to actually take her seat.
These American-British marriages were all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, and an entire industry emerged to help facilitate matchmaking. A quarterly publication called The Titled American listed the successfully anointed ladies, as well as the names of eligible titled bachelors: “The Marquess of Winchester,” one citation read, “is 32 years of age, and a captain of the Coldstream Guards.” It was a resource much like Washington’s social register, The Green Book, or contemporary online resources like Match.com.
Novelist Wharton, a member of New York’s Old Guard, relished writing about the nouveau riche as a “group of bourgeois colonials” who had made a great deal of money very quickly in industry. Denied access to social position by the established upper crust, they crossed the Atlantic and acquired titles that transformed them, she wrote, into “a sort of social aristocracy.”
In acquiring prestige by title, the “dollar princesses” are estimated to have contributed perhaps $25 billion to the British economy in today’s currency. These wealthy American women are also credited with helping to preserve such stately English homes as Highclere, the actual country house featured in “Downton Abbey.”
The accommodation between old status and new money is well-reflected in this exchange between Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern), the Earl of Grantham’s American wife, and Violet, the Dowager Countess:
Cora: “Are we to be friends then?”
Violet: “We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”
Ok, for fun—two other favorite Dowager Countess quotes:
—“I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about.”
—“What is a weekend?”