Silver spoons and sob stories

What makes an heiress?


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Was Helen of Troy the original heiress? The daughter of that fattest of fat cats, Zeus, “the world’s desire”, she is the golden girl who is courted and carried off, a cause of epic conflict, and a bit of a fruitloop with a taste for dodgy men. Once she calms down, her sister offs her husband in his bath, lobbing his bones to the dogs, before getting axed by her son. Rich girls — effing maniacs every one.

Alas, Laura Thompson doesn’t include the Spartan in her new tome. Thompson wrote that rather good book on greyhound racing, and it is tempting to see her latest publication in a similar vein. Namely, a study of glossy, emaciated, highly-strung specimens set to charge about for the collective sport.

Heiress history’s great turning point is the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882

In the age of Succession’s rapier Shiv, our view of heiresses has become slightly more nuanced than the “Heiress Bingo” to which Thompson alludes. For her particular playbook, think: needy/neurotic/nutterish; dead or absent mother; becoming unmaternal herself; distant, unloving father; yearning to be loved “for herself” while attracted to sweet-talking wastrels; beguiled by Eurotrash titles to compensate for arriviste angst; plagued by sycophants; fond of animals; keen on trinkets; funny about food; opts for drink and/or drugs over experiencing emotions; dies youngish, cue everyone eye-rolling: #richbitchprobs.

Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson (Apollo, £25)

As Thompson notes, “to say that money does not bring happiness may be a consolation deployed liberally by storytellers. It may also be a truism. Quite often, however, it is the simple truth …” She theorises that, sans physical needs, life for the heiress becomes about emotional wants. “Her life is without shade, therefore it is without the blessed relief from shade.” Or as the pet lion-loving Alice de Janzé put it, “Oh God, not another fucking beautiful day.”

Thompson’s history kicks off in 1665 with Ebury heiress Mary Davies, owner of all the plum sites on the Monopoly board, who gave the Grosvenors their riches. It ends with “Queen of the Poor”, philanthropist and Dickens’s pal, Angela Burdett-Coutts, the (rare) good egg whose story provides the epilogue.

Presumably on the basis that the dead don’t sue, we have no Paris Hilton, and only one (late-inserted?) reference to Ghislaine Maxwell. Christina Onassis gets a mere few pars alluding to her “Sophoclean drama”. Even Barbara Hutton, the million dollar (Woolworths) baby of the book’s title, staggers in, and swiftly out, before you can say: “pick ‘n’ mix”. 

It is not Thompson’s fault if her subjects rather merge — collapse? — into one another. Heiress history’s great turning point is the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. Before then, “money meant power, but femaleness meant its absence”, the moment one got hitched, at least. In its wake, a woman no longer automatically surrendered all to the man she married, meaning “the nature of their vulnerabilities shifted”.

Thompson’s accounts of eighteenth century heiress kidnap, fin de siècle “buccaneers”, loaded Parisian lesbians, and London hostesses are culturally revealing, her contemporary analogies fun. However, one doesn’t always enjoy the author’s more moralising interventions. The “florid little passage” she concocts to tell Daisy Fellowes’s life as a purple sob story is not strikingly different to those proffered elsewhere.

One surely comes for stuffocation, Homeric inventories of extravagances acquired. The reader looking to live vicariously through lunatic excess may find this aspect a tad thin on the ground: a fleet of cars here, a Marie Antoinette tiara there. “Come on,” one wants to cry. “Lights, camera, action!”

It is satisfying, then, to be presented with an “anti-heiress”, Nancy Cunard, daughter/nemesis of the coruscating hostess Emerald (whose dying word was said to be “Champagne!”). Poet and activist, Nance was sculpted by Brâncuși, snapped by Man Ray (left), and painted by Kokoschka. She provided the inspiration for femme fatale Iris Storm in Michael Arlen’s hit, The Green Hat, and Lucy Tantamount in Huxley’s Point Counter Point, played tennis with Hemingway, slept with Neruda, and was muckers with Joyce.

Later, she became an unlikely African rights campaigner, editor of the pamphlet “Black Man and White Ladyship”, which both lamented racism and took a pop at her mother. Thompson recalls an occasion on which “Nancy emerged from an Italian café, raging drunk with a cigarette up each nostril, throwing tomatoes at stray dogs.” “Yes,” thinks the reader, nodding sagely, “this is how matters should be for the filthy rich. This endorses my place in the world and the dismal banality therein.”

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