For Marie Claire, Leo Mangham traces how a rag-to-riches story and a simple accounting of wealth was transformed by American money, showing how the British aristocracy has lost out to American show horses
The richest families in the world are used to being heads of household on the planet. In the 19th century the grand old ladies who lived on these estates were used to having all the best horses, everything the best servants, and of course a good hostess. The Americans, on the other hand, were used to having nothing.
In 1851 John C Morton, an unlikely thief, hatched a plan to fund the growing family fortune. He stole 13 horses from the small town of Waddesdon Manor, bought the Duchess of Windsor a lovely horse, and then spent five years running the track for the Queen and the Duke of Windsor.
It was then that Morton realised he had a big horse and that he should capitalise on the enormous popularity of the royals. He struck a partnership with Mayer Whitney, a property developer from New York, and they set about building the model town of Palm Beach in the Bahamas.
Can you possibly think that not just horses but a build-your-own-castle model really makes financial sense? Still, in the golden age of the 20th century it didn’t seem too outrageous.
So much for the chaps in the land. The women were doing their bit, too. My father used to love going to the all-female weekends for American women in Balmoral. His own princess, Margarete Klostergund, went to a very exclusive weekend for four women called Ballinasloe, once a notorious gambling den which was badly affected by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Sadly, it wasn’t so bad today.
It is a sweet story and it’s easier to go with the flow of our values of the day. The dynastic line is still carried on by the Gunnison family (which holds Buckingham Palace and Mummy dukedom) and by the Richest Family in Europe, who have a bank on Corfu and a tennis court at Benfleet.
The millenial boom of the 1980s appears to have given the American owners more profits to go around, and because of the export market American investment has obviously played a key role in the creation of our financial system. In 1980, there were a few banks in the US and Britain (the Old Mutual Bank at Whitehall and Highbury were in Britain and there was Metropolitan Bank in New York), but just as there were 3,000 to 5,000 in England and France in the 18th century, so there are 100,000 now in the US.
Some of these things have stayed the same, and the Americans seem to take pride in their British infrastructure. New York is very fond of celebrating the Rothschilds, who are British Bankers, having been born in England. The Rothschilds are tied to Britain and the Rothschilds’ narrative has always been that their success is due to the person and the investment of William and James, who moved to England in 1660. That’s not quite the same thing as, say, the Rothschilds being British, but it helps make the analogy more respectable.
One thing they have brought to British life is a sense of equality, which I think is a great touch. Even in the time of Frost and Frosty and the Tony Garnett movies, it was rare to see an Englishwoman in the macho world of power-broking, but now there are always thousands of women doing that.
One thing that has changed is the content of the weeklies. In the 1920s, the poor shits were happy to write to Jacob, who in turn made a huge fuss of trying to throw them a birthday party at Highclere. We used to look at those flicks and think, god, there are a million beautiful things there, which might be an affair. Now even the Nigels, rather heavily in debt, make a big deal about sharing a portrait.
What we have come to enjoy, and also secretly need, is a sharper, sharper eye on the images to be seen in the New York Telegraph, the New York Post, the New York Sun and the New York Times.
Every time I am talking about this, someone who would rather cry me out of existence comes up with the name of a young lady who has hosted a party at Buckingham Palace. With the revelations about our royals over the past 12 months, it’s easy to see why. As The Mangham story says, why bother if they are perfectly happy with what they’ve got.