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?”
February 14, 2012
This post is part of our on-going series in which ATM invites the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson from the National Portrait Gallery weighs in on celebrity stars and history. She last wrote for us about food at the Portrait Gallery.
Usually, the Grammy Awards ceremony is a thunder-and-light show that celebrates the year’s best performers in recorded music. This year, the death of Whitney Houston on the eve of that much-anticipated honors ceremony cast a giant pall over the event. The sudden death of such a blazing star delivered an electric jolt to our collective fantasies of the celebrity as a creature beyond-the-pale and larger than life. It is always disconcerting to find that they are, like us, all too human.
Our relationship to celebrities is complicated. We love them, and we love to trash them. We copy their “look”—hair, clothes, body type—and relish the endless gossip the media churns out for our delectation. In our heart-of-hearts, we like to think of celebrities as being just like us—except thinner, more glamorous, and from a universe sprinkled with stardust. Because I study media and celebrity culture, I’ve been lucky enough over the years to cross paths with some of these iconic creatures. I met with Katharine Hepburn in the late 1980s and early 90s to discuss obtaining a painting that Everett Raymond Kinstler did of her in 1982 for the National Portrait Gallery. American History Museum curator Dwight Blocker Bowers and I interviewed Ginger Rogers and gleaned priceless tidbits and back story for our exhibition on musicals, “Red, Hot and Blue.” Gregory Peck came to see that exhibition, and Dwight and I somehow managed not to faint as we toured that great American actor through the show.
On February 1, I was wowed all over again when Clint Eastwood appeared at the American History Museum to help celebrate the opening of the newly-named Warner Bros. Theater. Eastwood entered the museum gliding through a bank of dazzling lights and across a specially-installed red carpet. Goodness, he is tall, I thought. And thin. He glows! For several minutes he paused and smiled in front of a wall of historic Warner Bros. artifacts as news photographers and iPhone owners blazed away. It was “magic time.”
This magic happened because Warner Bros. has a profound understanding of its own history. Warner CEO Barry Meyer told the reception crowd that his studio—founded in 1923 by brothers Albert, Sam Harry, and Jack Warner—has fostered a “rich legacy of entertaining audiences for almost 90 years.” Today, it stands at the forefront of film and television production and worldwide distribution of movies, cartoons, DVDs, comic books, and brand licensing.
In its new collaboration with the Smithsonian, Warner Bros. Entertainment has provided funding to renovate the American History museum’s 46-year-old auditorium into a state-of-the-art facility with HD and 3-D film and digital capability, along with a fabulous new sternum-rattling Dolby surround sound system. Dwight Bowers, the museum’s project director for the Warner Bros. Theater initiative, called this partnership a superb way “to increase public awareness of film as a vital part of the American Experience” both through festivals showcasing classic feature films, and with displays of remarkable treasures from the Warner Bros. archive.
Outside the theater, museum walls are lined with cases displaying eye-popping artifacts drawn from Warner’s history: costumes that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman wore in “Casablanca,” the houndstooth suit Lauren Bacall wore in “The Big Sleep,” and Jack Warner’s personal address book, opened to the ‘D’ section to reveal phone numbers for Bette Davis, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney. This remarkable partnership between the museum and Warner Bros. is being inaugurated with a films featuring Clint Eastwood Westerns, such classic early sound films as “The Jazz Singer,” and movies that focus on the Civil War, including “Gone with the Wind” and “Glory.”
At the opening reception, Eastwood received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of the six decades he has spent capturing American life and culture on film. The American History Museum’s interim director Marc Pachter spoke eloquently about how films are integral to our daily lives: “Our notions about history, heroes, explorations, fears, and dreams are formed and transformed by the way we make movies and the way we watch them.”
The museum’s Warner Bros. initiative strongly affirms the role of film in nurturing the shared culture that lies at the core of the American experience. The wonderful irony is that a medium built on fleeting images and simulated reality has been able to capture so fully the stories and moments that chronicle who we are. Because of that, Pachter believes that movies are as significant as any artifact in the museum’s collections: “The best films, and of course, the best actors, remain timeless in our hearts and our imagination.”
Stars only die in real life. On film, they’re ours forever.
September 23, 2011
This post is part of our on-going series in which ATM invites the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson from the National Portrait Gallery weighs in on cinema as art. She last wrote for us about David McCullough visiting the Smithsonian.
What is it about the “moving image” that stops us in our tracks? If someone posts a video on your Facebook wall, aren’t you more likely to click through than you are to other links? Why do we watch movies on our cell phones? Why is there a pedestrian mall in Times Square, where zillions of people sit in beach chairs and gaze at images beamed back in surround sound? In museums, visitors always crowd the moving image galleries. Why does video so stimulate the mind?
In the early 20th century, when film was silent and actors anonymous, people streamed into theaters to watch projections flicker across the silver screen. After the advent of “talkies,” Hollywood studios created a parallel universe of “larger-than-life” stars. Women bleached their hair platinum blonde in homage to Jean Harlow in Red Dust, and men drank martinis as if they were William Powell in The Thin Man. We wanted to wear what stars wore on screen: in the midst of the Depression, the sewing company Butterick sold 500,000 patterns of the puffed-sleeve dress Joan Crawford wore in the 1932 Letty Lynton, even suggesting less expensive materials for home sewers to substitute for the film star’s silk. The rapture seems limitless.
I’m fascinated by how movies define culture. Pre-movie America is chronicled in various media, but nothing moves—all that we have to examine from that era is static, like delicate butterflies pinned in a display case. And in fact, we have a hard time imagining those freeze-framed individuals moving, breathing, talking, walking, singing, even just going about their daily routines. When I take visitors through the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “America’s Presidents,” I remind them that we don’t really know what our Founding Fathers even looked like, except as depicted by different artists; and we can only guess at what they sounded like.
I thought about film’s power to reveal recently as I prepared to introduce a screening of The Maltese Falcon at the Portrait Gallery. This 1941 movie marked John Huston’s debut as a director and Humphrey Bogart’s transition from typecast gangster to star. It is unmistakably Depression-era in its noirish shadows; like Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same name, the movie’s narrative clips along like a newsreel; private eye Sam Spade (Bogart), the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) are drawn boldly and speak in rapid-fire dialogue that reinforces the film’s staccato beat. The story’s captured moment leaves little time for nuance or subtlety; the narrative ruthlessly and relentlessly moves.
This staccato beat is a theme I emphasize when I take people through the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the 1920s through the 1940s—years that saw the rise of modern America. Between 1890 and the 1920s, 23 million immigrants had arrived on America’s shores; most were from Southern or Eastern Europe. Few spoke English. In that period, the face of the country changed. At the same time, the pastoral landscape of Emerson and Thoreau morphed into cityscapes: the 1920 Census showed that, for the first time, America was more urban than rural. New York emerged as a vast center of consumer culture, a billboard-and-neon furnace stoking—in one of my favorite phrases—“a staggering machine of desire.” It was a city that gave its pulse to Gershwin’s rhythms, Martha Graham’s choreography, and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled fiction.
“Moving pictures” were a perfect metaphor for America’s rapidly changing staccato culture. Emerging in the dynamism of New York street life, movies won instant success as pop-up entertainment when entrepreneurs like Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and William Fox set up storefront theaters in the immigrant tenements of the Lower East Side. Language was no obstacle, so silent movies had a ready-made audience.
The ability of movies to transport us has remained one of this medium’s chief attractions. The irony is that while film is a remarkable cultural document that freezes time, it also removes us from the mundane.
Allison Jessing, a program coordinator who organizes film series here at the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told me that “film can be just as subversive, powerful and emotionally resonant as painting, sculpture, or any other traditional art form.” She believes that Smithsonian theaters should be considered galleries in their own right, “showcasing masterpieces the same way that we exhibit artworks that sit on a pedestal or hang on a wall.” One of the ways Jessing is doing this is by borrowing the “pop-up entertainment” technique from movies’ early entrepreneurs. To that end, the museums have purchased an inflatable 16-foot pop-up wide screen for projecting films in the Kogod Courtyard, and Allison will use the big screen for a larger-than-life series she’s calling “Courtyard Cinema Classics.”
On November 15, the first in the series will be presented—the 1949 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a time-travel musical starring Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming. I am delighted to be introducing this film, which is based (very roughly) on Mark Twain’s 1889 novel of the same name; I may wear my boa.
Showcasing movies in museums proves once again that Sam Spade was right: they’re the stuff that dreams are made of.
A cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Henderson specializes in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham. She is currently at work on a new dance exhibition entitled “One! Singular Sensations in American Dance,” scheduled to open in September 2013.