Chicago’s British Aristocracy
By Megan McKinney
In 1906, George Curzon was not only without the wife he had loved with such tenderness and who had wholeheartedly supported him throughout his difficult Indian reign, but he had also lost the career for which he had so diligently prepared. Although he had achieved his chief ambition before his 40th birthday, it was not the only goal for which he had prepared and might still capture.
Throughout his young life, George, and everyone who knew him, believed that one day he would be prime minister. Now, in early middle age, his fellow members of the Souls were gaining on him. Arthur Balfour had held the office from 1902 to 1905, and Herbert Asquith was well along the path to his own prime ministerial term from 1908 to 1916. And there were also outside forces at play; the Liberals were coming into power, and Curzon had lost favor with his Conservative party.
However, facilitating a resumption of the Curzon political career was a seat in the House of Lords; George had been made an Irish peer in 1908 and elevated to earl in 1911, then Marquess in 1922. On the other hand, aware that a substantial political career continued to remain elusive, he turned also to personal pursuits.
George had loved Mary deeply and mourned her publicly, yet he was a man who appreciated — and needed — the companionship of a spectacular female. When he met the novelist Elinor Glyn at a 1908 house party, he encountered a woman who fulfilled his vision of feminine perfection: a lush green-eyed redhead, with pale skin and a full, provocative body. Although the youthful appearing 43-year-old Elinor was faithful to a husband who ignored her, she had an aura of availability that had attracted many men before Curzon; added to this was the scandalous novel, Three Weeks, she had published shortly before their meeting.
The book’s plot centered on an enigmatic mature woman, focusing on the passion the heroine shared with a younger man, and her seduction of the young lover on a tiger skin. It was Mrs. Glyn’s only sexually suggestive book, but it shocked proper Edwardian society. However, their outrage did not keep its members from attending a theatrical version of Three Weeks, which was produced for charity at London’s Adelphi Theatre and starred the voluptuous Mrs. Glyn. A key scene featured Elinor lying on the tiger skin in a state of dishabille with her long flaming hair streaming over the jungle creature’s stripes. Curzon, aroused by the beast and beauty image, hurried home to unpack the skin of one of the tigers he had shot in Gwalior, which he sent to the novelist, initiating a new relationship.
Elinor, who privately considered herself a “belle tigresse,” was enchanted with a gift that equaled the erotic edge of her novelistic imagination. Furthermore, the famous viceroy was the epitome of her ideal of English manhood — a brilliant, fine looking aristocrat bearing an interesting history. With her attraction to him matching his to her, each had encountered a fantasy embodiment of the opposite sex. The pair soon embarked on a series of clandestine meetings throughout which Elinor kept her virtue — for a time.
La belle tigresse.
After Curzon offered Elinor’s husband a “loan” of 2,200 pounds — which Mr. Glyn accepted and Elinor considered a betrayal of their marriage vows — the relationship quickly ripened. Before long, George and Elinor, along with his three daughters and her two, had become an extramarital unit that met for long idyllic weekends in one or another of the houses Curzon was beginning to collect — each set of girls regarding the other as cousins. Elinor was soon deeply in love, and George might have reciprocated; however, he was receiving emphatic disapproval from the female Souls and others in his social set, who did not consider a novelist of questionable repute the appropriate companion for a man who continued to hold ambitions for high political office. By summer 1915, George was beginning to have his own misgivings.
The moment was exact for the arrival of Grace Duggan, a recognized beauty who managed to combine the appealing qualities of both Mary and Elinor; she was a voluptuous, pale-complexioned redhead and a rich American — a wealthy Alabama girl who had married a moneyed Argentine in failing health. But perhaps the most persuasive of all Grace’s attributes was that, although not known for erudition, she received the approval of the Souls. Grace and George met at a luncheon party in June 1915; by July, they were lovers; in November, the Argentine husband was dead — and with that Elinor Glyn had become redundant. In February 1917, George and Grace married.
Another temptation for the otherwise upright Curzon was sumptuous residential real estate. The London residence he had shared with Mary was the elegant No. 1 Carlton House Terrace, which he was to keep, but he also yearned for a luxurious property outside of London — and began acquiring more than one. After taking a long lease on Hackwood, an 18th century stately home in 1907, he bought a 15th century relic, Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, four years later.
He then leased Montacute House in Somerset in 1914, and bought the 14th century Bodiam Castle in East Sussex in 1916
1916 was also the year Curzon’s father, Lord Scarsdale, died, making George owner of his superb ancestral home, Kedleston. Added to these properties were the country estates belonging to Grace, a villa at Reigate in Surrey, which she owned, and Trent Park, a leasehold in Middlesex.
Marquess and Marchioness Curzon.
Curzon’s passion for acquiring and doing up English castles and stately homes contributed to a deterioration of his relationships with the three Curzon daughters, who were heiresses to their mother’s portion of the estate left by their grandfather. Income from the Leiter Trust, which would continue to keep Mary’s sisters, Daisy and Nan, and her brother, Joe, living in luxury on estates in England, Santa Barbara, California, and Washington, D.C., throughout their lives, was considerable — so significant in fact to eventually produce litigation between the Leiter siblings that would rip the family apart.
Mary’s share of the trust annually yielded approximately a million and a half pounds in today’s terms — almost a half million pounds for each of George’s daughters, whereas Curzon’s own proceeds from the marriage agreement was somewhat less than half that produced for each girl. At the insistence of the estate’s trustees, the girls were made wards of the court and their father official guardian. While George was responsible for managing the girls’ money, it was under the supervision of a judge before whom he was required to appear each year for permission to draw upon their incomes “for housing, upkeep, education and general maintenance of the Curzonian style of living.” Curzon rationalized that his acquisition of multiple properties meant that each of his daughters would have a significant house; however, as the girls matured, their taste in grand real estate did not coincide with their father’s.
Lady Irene Curzon.
Since childhood, the eldest, Lady Irene, had built her life around horses, and she would continue to make fox hunting a priority throughout most of her life. Her idea of a perfect country site was Melton Mowbray, the Leicestershire town from which radiated the finest hunting territory in England. When she and the middle Curzon daughter, Lady Cynthia, or Cimmie, reached majority, they began agitating for houses of their own, where they could live and entertain friends according to their more youthful tastes. When Cimmie married the young politician Oswald Mosley in 1920, she withdrew her demands temporarily before again insisting that income be paid directly to her, creating a permanent breach with her father.
Lady Cynthia Curzon by John Singer Sargent.
The repercussions were more serious for Irene, now a virtual orphan in an era when the situation of an unmarried woman without family was at best unusual. It was only Curzon’s youngest daughter, Lady Alexandra, or Baba, who stayed close to her father and provided support for his lavish tastes. However, the time was growing near when she — trailing Cimmie by only five years — would also have questions about having an allowance doled out from income that was rightfully entirely hers.
Lady Alexandra “Baba” Curzon.
Meanwhile, Curzon’s political career had finally begun to blossom. When the Welsh David Lloyd George was made prime minister in late 1916, Curzon was named to the five-man War Cabinet, where he participated in the major decisions of the latter part of the First World War. He then ran the Foreign Office through much of 1919 and, at the end of the year, succeeded Lord Balfour as foreign secretary, a position he kept during the remainder of Lloyd George’s tenure and throughout the short term of the terminally ill Arthur Bonar Law, who stepped down in May 1922. With Bonar Law’s unexpected resignation, George Curzon appeared to be at last nearing his goal.
Prime Minister Arthur Bonar Law.
The former viceroy was the universal favorite to be named by George V to succeed Bonar Law, edging out Chancellor of the Exchequer and house leader Stanley Baldwin. It was within this optimistic atmosphere that George and Grace were spending a quiet Whitsun weekend at their Somerset estate when, on Monday evening, a village policeman pedaled his bicycle up the great drive with a telegram. The message was from the king’s private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, announcing that he would call on Curzon at No. 1 Carlton House Terrace the following day.
No. 1 Carlton House Terrace on the right.
The assumption, shared by the press, Curzon and other politically astute observers, was that the long wait was over and the king would be sending for the foreign secretary on Tuesday to form a new government as its prime minister. When the Curzons received Stamfordham within the tapestries and tiger heads of their London drawing room the following day, it was to learn that George V had instead sent for Stanley Baldwin.
It was an abrupt and bitter end to Curzon’s hopes; within two years, he was dead at 66.
The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: The Curzon Daughters
Robert F. Carl