by Sally E. Svenson
Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill, was one. Consuelo Vanderbilt, wife of Winston’s cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, was another. But it is not widely known that there were three American women who married into the illustrious Churchill family of England in the last third of the nineteenth century. Lily Price of Troy, New York, was the third. Sister-in-law to Jennie and stepmother to Consuelo, she was, for a brief four years, the reigning Duchess of Marlborough and chatelaine of Blenheim, the Churchill family seat in Oxfordshire, and the most imposing stately home in Great Britain. Despite the brevity of her tenure, she left a distinctive legacy at Blenheim, endowing the palace with two of its most beloved features: a handsome lakeside boathouse and a magnificent organ that surpasses many a cathedral instrument in its size and tone.
Lily’s father was a United States naval officer from Lancaster, Kentucky. Her mother descended from two leading families of Troy, a bustling urban center on the east bank of the Hudson River some 150 miles north of New York City. Raised primarily in Washington, D. C., the statuesque beauty made a fortunate 1879 marriage to Louis C. Hamersley, a well-heeled New Yorker whose sudden death three years later left Lily with the lifetime use of his fortune. This was a mixed blessing, as the widely publicized but ultimately unsuccessful effort of her husband’s family to break his will cast Lily in a far from flattering light that undermined her social position in New York. An offer of marriage from the eighth Duke of Marlborough provided her with a chance to start afresh on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The title of “duke” represents the highest category in the British peerage below royalty, and Marlborough ranked tenth in precedence among English dukes and was thus a very big fish in the nation’s rank-driven puddle. Unfortunately, he was a man with a clouded history. Divorced by his first wife in an era when divorces were rarely heard of, and featured as the most celebrated of several co-respondents in what became the longest, most sexually explicit divorce trial to date in British history, he was branded by society as “the wicked duke” and shunned by the aristocracy. Lily married him anyway, and provided him with the funds he needed and couldn’t seem to raise elsewhere. Her life as the Duchess of Marlborough was interesting but short. In 1892 her husband died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of forty-eight, when he was immediately supplanted at Blenheim by his son, the ninth Duke of Marlborough.
Lily, although she had only shallow roots in England, stayed on. She purchased an important but neglected home, turned it into a showplace, and became close to her nephew Winston Churchill. In 1895 she married again. Her choice this time was an ebullient, socially impeccable Irish-Anglo lord, William de la Poer Beresford, recently returned from government service in India, who was said to glow “with some of the popularity of modern film stars.” Thanks to Lily’s resources and his partnerships with two wealthy Americans, he was able to collect a stable of racehorses and became one of the most vibrant and successful racing men on the English turf. Lily took on new roles: first-time motherhood at the age of forty-two and a reputation as a “well-known racingwoman.” But less than five years later, she was once again a widow. She devoted the rest of her life to her son, her estate and its dependants, and the Surrey town outside of London in which she resided. The London Telegraph eulogized her at her death in 1909 as “an American lady who had won for herself a secure place in the affections of the British people. . . . Of handsome and dignified presence, she was always a remarkable figure in society. Kind-natured, hospitable, and generous, she had crowds of friends.”
I stumbled upon Lily several years ago. Finding little biographical material about her, I couldn’t wait to delve into her history. “Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854—1909): A Portrait with Husbands” is the result. It traces the life of this spirited woman who surmounted a conventional upbringing to orchestrate a life very different from that expected for her. Eric Homberger, professor and author of “Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age,” was kind enough to observe after reading the biography that Lily’s “three marriages, her confident ease in moving into impossibly complicated and exalted social realms, and her decades of dealing with legal complexities related to wills, estates, and trusts make her story read like a newly discovered Edith Wharton novel.” The book is available in paperback at Amazon and other on-line booksellers.
To read the entire article, and view all the photos, please view the Art of the Times winter – spring 2012 issue as a PDF above.