Leiter: The British Conquest

Leiter Baroness-Mary-Victoria-Curzon

Mary Victoria Leiter.

Megan McKinney

By  Megan McKinney

In June 1890, Mary Theresa Leiter traveled with Mary and her two younger daughters, Nancy and Daisy, to London, where they knew no one and were invited nowhere. They spent the first half of London’s high season sitting in a suite at Claridge’s, reading newspaper accounts of balls and other social doings.


Claridge’s Hotel, London.

Then, in early July, through a letter of introduction to Sir Lyon Playfair, a member of Parliament, Mary was invited to a luncheon where she was introduced to the Prince and Princess of Wales, both of whom she charmed.

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Sir Lyon Playfair.

This led to another invitation, then another and still others. Exactly one week later, on July 17, she was a guest at the finest social event of the season, the Duchess of Westminster’s ball in Grosvenor House, the hereditary London house of the Grosvenor family, who hold the Westminster title.

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Grosvenor House.

The guests assembled at Grosvenor House that evening had all known each other for most of their lives, gathering together at house parties, hunts, galas, royal occasions and balls similar to the duchess’ ball for decades.

(c) National Trust, Kedleston Hall and Eastern Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

With the addition of a diamond necklace, Mary Leiter’s beauty would captivate jaded guests at the duchess’ ball.

Therefore, while it was not in the American Mary Leiter’s character to “make an entrance,” she inadvertently did so that night. Her extraordinary dark looks, emphasized by the white ball gown and diamond necklace she wore, halted conversation for a moment as she entered the room — and then, after the lull, a general buzz began. Most guests had not seen the beautiful stranger before and were wondering aloud about her identity when another hush fell.

The crowd silently parted for the arrival of the Prince and Princess of Wales, who smiled graciously, tipping their heads almost imperceptibly left and right, as they moved through a path that had been cleared for them. The orchestra struck up a Quadrille and His Royal Highness Prince Edward walked toward Mary.

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Edward, Prince of Wales, who was repeatedly drawn to the beautiful Mary Leiter.

He took her hand and she curtsied to him. Together, they turned and began dancing, officially opening the ball. Among those who watched the prince dance with the intriguing stranger that night was George Curzon, the future 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston.

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George Curzon.

George did not approach Mary that evening, but he was profoundly affected by her presence. He later told a friend he “had never loved Mary Leiter more than at the moment I first saw her walk into that great assembly.”

The “moment,” on a July night in 1890, that Mary Leiter walked into George Curzon’s great assembly, to be almost immediately enveloped in the arms of the future King of England, she entered another realm — joining members of the nation’s privileged class whose heredity entitled them to cluster together at such gala evenings and similar invitational occasions. The following weekend, she attended a traditional English house party at a country estate, where George Curzon was also a guest.

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Mary Leiter and George Curzon met at house parties repeatedly during the summer of 1890.

Although the traditional Gosford Park-style Saturday to Monday gathering of 30 or so guests at a country estate was typically hosted in August or September, there were many such events during the summer of 1890, and George and Mary would meet almost weekly. It was then the height of this three-day ritual of English society, a convention that had begun in 1861 and would continue in full force until 1914, when World War I changed the nation forever.

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The English house party as portrayed by the cast of Downton Abbey.

During its glory years, the format followed a pattern, with the shooting of game usually available for male guests, but for both sexes, there was invariably fox hunting, long walks à deux through manicured grounds, gambling — illegal baccarat giving way to bridge at the turn of the century — and, always, the consumption of vast quantities of food, particularly when the Prince and Princess of Wales were guests.

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The Waleses, shown after Edward’s coronation, continued to be frequent house party guests as king and queen.

Another tradition of the house party was a meticulous assignment of bedrooms, each identified with a name card in a small brass frame on the door to facilitate the extramarital assignations that were as much a part of a typical English house party as shooting, hunting, gambling and the intake of rich food.

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Lady Mary Crawley with a house party group out shooting.

The energy igniting between Mary and George that summer was reciprocal; however it was she who was the stronger in her feelings. Both were unusually attractive to the opposite sex and repeatedly encountering potential partners; however Mary sensed that George Curzon was unlike the other titled men who pursued her. He was a man who mirrored her father in combining cultivation with extreme ambition, and she was not going to let him go. George would have been content to wander on to other conquests, but the intensity of Mary’s response propelled those summer weekends into a courtship that stretched over five years and into a protracted secret engagement. While her friends, family and myriad admirers wondered how she could dissipate the precious years of youth, Mary discouraged other suitors.  She respected the Curzon agenda. And she understood everything George did was part of a plan superseding all else in his life, shaped by a determination to hone the particular expertise that would thrust him into greatness.

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England’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury who made the 24-year-old George Curzon his assistant private secretary.

After an exceptional tenure at Eton, Curzon had enrolled at Balliol, the most stimulating college of late 19th century Oxford and a gestation point for future English diplomats and politicians. His dazzling Oxford performance led him into the enviable role of protégé of British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Thus, the resolve and concentrated focus of the extraordinary young man Mary met in June 1890 had set him on an assured route to his lofty goals, but he was also an individual whose most pronounced characteristic was a self-confidence so vigorous that it spawned a popular piece of doggerel:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person.

My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim once a week.

Curzon’s view of himself as a “superior person,” along with an unrestrained ambition, would catapult him to high position, as well as twice be his downfall. Although famously pompous, egocentric and snobbish, he was a genial companion, eminently successful with women and genuinely liked by the men who knew him as both a single-minded competitor and an engaging house party attendee. His charismatic brilliance and a determination to become a major British statesman had elicited predictions from his contemporaries that he would one day be England’s prime minister. After successfully standing for a seat in the House of Commons at 26, Curzon began pursuing another component he was determined to add to his resume: extensive Asian travel, a prerequisite to his resolve to become the nation’s best informed politician on India and its surrounding territories. By the time he met Mary Leiter, his “scheme of Asiatic travel” was well under way.

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Kedleston Hall, seat of the Curzon family.

George Curzon had been raised at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, a property owned by his family for eight centuries and on which more recent ancestors had built a superb stately home designed by legendary architect Robert Adam in 1759. It was one of England’s grand estates and one George expected to inherit on the death of his father, Lord Scarsdale. Equal to his reputation as a scholar and future statesmen was Curzon’s standing as a central figure in “the Souls,” a group of young aristocrats made up of some of late 19th century England’s brightest young men and women.

Within their group were two future prime ministers, Arthur Balfour and Herbert Asquith; the engaging Tennant sisters–including the acidly witty Margot–who married the unwary Asquith; and the fabled cricket-playing Lyttelton brothers. Alfred Lyttelton married Margot’s sister, the ill-fated Laura, who was as universally loved as Margot was feared.

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The Lyttelton brothers, Alfred, left, and Edward, were Souls members.

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Herbert Asquith and his future wife, the tart-tongued Margot Tennant, were central to The Souls and close Curzon friends.

The Souls had strong intellectual and aesthetic leanings, and they considered the sexes to be equal. In a tight Victorian society obsessed with fox hunting, game shooting and the consumption of long meals with large quantities of alcohol, The Souls preferred to gather around the fire, discussing new forms of literature, music and art or exploring philosophic and scientific questions. They engaged in the modern pursuits of riding bicycles, playing tennis and inventing word games, including Clumps, an early version of Twenty Questions, in which the word to be guessed stood for a concept rather than an object or person.

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Another Souls member and part of the Curzon set was future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. His reaction to Margot Tennant’s desire to marry him was, “I rather think of having a career of my own.”

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Above is an Edward Burne-Jones drawing of Laura Tennant, who died a year after her marriage to Alfred Lyttelton, bringing great sorrow to George and all who had known her. Curzon’s intimacy with The Souls and the deep respect he held for their group opinion would have a major impact on his conduct throughout his life.

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: Into the Global Arena

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl