The Duchess of Manchester's Tiara
Alina Garcia-Lapuerta

The Duchess of Manchester's Tiara

In March 1876 the Duke of Manchester received a telegram from his ne’er-do-well son in New York. The heir announced his betrothal to a young beauty of no aristocratic lineage, and worse, no substantial dowry. His Grace was appalled at the “little American savage” and with the unexpected love match that would soon spark feverish international coverage.

The fiancée was Consuelo Yznaga, the daughter of a singular Cuban-American family that united Cuban sugar estates, Southern cotton plantations and Wall Street commerce. In an era of social turmoil, hers was a unique upbringing. A fall in her family’s fortunes meant that she could not bring American dollars to salvage a destitute noble family, but she brought a different sort of dowry: vitality, wit, intelligence, musicality, and beauty. Enlisting all of these qualities she charmed not only the sceptical Manchesters, but also the rest of British society; she delighted the Prince of Wales with her banjo, and she set his friends dancing with a creole waltz. For over thirty years Consuelo enjoyed “the friendship of Royalty, the intimate confidence of statesmen, diplomatists, and men of letters.” Consuelo’s immense social success paved the way for the veritable stream of Americans that followed her.

A series of personal tragedies marred Consuelo’s social ascendancy, and tested the depth of her character. The fairy-tale marriage publically disintegrated, financial disasters ensued and by 1901 Consuelo was the widowed mother of a troubled and near-bankrupt young heir. She had witnessed the loss of her precious twin daughters and the ravages of a feared disease. She endured thanks to her own “intrepid soul,” as well as an inherited sense of familial devotion, which brought some stability to the troubled Manchesters.

Finally, financial security arrived upon the unexpected death of her beloved brother Fernando, who bequeathed her a fortune. Consuelo then commissioned a remarkable Cartier diamond tiara, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Renowned families from both sides of the Atlantic continued to traverse her life: the Vanderbilts, Churchills, and the British royal family. Edith Wharton immortalised her as Conchita Clossen in The Buccaneers.

By the time The Times of London reported Consuelo’s death in 1909, the press viewed her as one of America’s “Dollar Princesses,” praised for bringing “that rare combination of high intelligence, a sunny nature, and an uncommon personal charm, which has since made so complete a conquest of English society,” and which was bound to have a “profound physiological influence” on the English upper classes. Consuelo’s personal triumph had found a fitting public acknowledgment – even if the true story was infinitely more complex.

 

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  • Author: Alina Garcia-Lapuerta
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Alina Garcia-Lapuerta

Alina García-Lapuerta was born in Cuba, but grew up from an early age in the United States. Her academic background centred on International and Latin American studies, and she received a B.S. in International Economics magna cum laude from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She later obtained a Masters in International Relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she was a Harris fellow. After a career in banking in New York, Miami and Boston, García-Lapuerta moved to London with her family and later began research ...
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