OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.
Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said that Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the often-impoverished British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”
The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.
Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. And Eliza Scidmore’s world intersected with that of Mary Leiter.
In an interview with the New York Times, Fellowes described his vision of Cora Grantham:
“Cora hasn’t come from some elegant Long Island, Daughters of the Revolution thing. Her father made a lot of money, and now she’s here. It gives her a robustness and it explains why increasingly, as the century goes on, she doesn’t feel she has to constantly align herself with aristocratic prejudices and principles.”
Levi Leiter moved his family to Washington in the early 1880s because of his wife’s social ambitions. Washington was a very stylish city at the time, with an extravagant winter social season that attracted many of the country’s newly wealthy families. The Leiters rented the huge castle-like home at Dupont Circle built by James Blaine (still standing today).
Eliza Scidmore was working as a newspaper correspondent in Washington when Mary became a popular young socialite. Eliza covered Mary’s comings and goings for the society pages.
Their paths crossed again later in India, not long before Eliza wrote Winter India, published in 1903.
Mary’s British husband, George Curzon, was a member of Parliament and heir to a barony when they married in 1895. His family home was Kedleston Hall, in Derbyshire — quite impressive, though architecturally different from the multi-towered Highclere Castle used as a stand-in for the Grantham estate in “Downton Abbey.”
When Lord Curzon was made the viceroy of India in 1898, Mary became the “vicereine,” the highest position an American — man or woman —had ever held in the British Empire.
In one of her travel diaries Eliza describes several social encounters with the Curzons in India. A few days after Christmas in 1900 she attended a reception they hosted at Government House, their official residence in Calcutta. (Which, coincidentally, had been built years earlier along the lines of Kedleston Hall.)
Mary was widely admired as a great beauty. She had large grey eyes, delicate features, and glossy chestnut-brown hair. Willowy, at nearly 6 feet tall, she also had the perfect figure for the exquisite gowns and elaborate jewels that made her one of the best-dressed women of her time. A stunning peacock-inspired gown she wore at one official function in India became legendary in the fashion world.
Despite her regal life, Mary Curzon — like the adorable Cora Grantham — had a sweet nature and lack of pretentiousness that charmed everyone she met.
Eliza was among the smitten. “A radiant smile of welcome made me almost lose my head,” she wrote gushingly of the moment when Lady Curzon greeted her at the holiday reception. After a lengthy accounting of her hostess’s jewels — long ropes of pearls, diamond necklace and tiara, Christmas sapphires from her father in America — Eliza noted that Mary had “the same sweet smile and eyes.”
Among the other parallels between the fictional Cora Grantham and the real-life Lady Curzon:
• Both allegedly had Jewish ancestry.
• Both had three daughters, but no male heirs to the family title.
• And both had happy marriages.
In the “Downton Abbey” plot, Lord Grantham married Cora largely for her money, but fell in love with her afterward. The Curzons, by all accounts, had an extraordinarily happy marriage. It ended tragically in 1906 when, soon after they returned to England, Mary died at the age of 36 following an infection and other complications after a miscarriage. Lord Curzon remarried. But at his death, he was laid beside Mary, his enduring love, in a memorial chapel at Kedleston Hall. His second wife chose to be buried elsewhere.