American Heiress of the Day: May Goelet

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Born in 1878, Mary “May” Goelet was the richest heiress of her day. Miss Goelet was a member of the old New York society Goelets. Pronounced go-let, the Goelets were descendants of French Huguenots who had fled France for religious freedom in the Americas. Once there, the Goelets proceeded to amass a large fortune as traders and merchants. They also bought up large tracts of Manhattan real estate and earned money by constructing housing and renting out the apartments to others. 
 
May’s mother. also called Mary, was a Wilson with family money that was said to originate from underhanded trading with the south during the Civil War. Her father settled $75,000 on each of his three daughters. This was no small sum back then but it was hardly enough to put her in first rank of moneyed heiresses. May’s personal family fortune remained rather modest until her father’s brother died and left the family about twenty-five million dollars. That was a sum so large  is was nearly unimaginable back then when average wages were a fraction of what they are today. 
 
May Goelet’s father skillfully increased the amount even further. By the time he died, after she had come of age, she was said to be worth over twenty million. May and her family promptly decamped to Europe where May was feted by half the eligible men of her day. She had a lot of fun dancing at balls with men attempting to decide which one she wanted to marry. She was said have been engaged to half the royalty in Europe and half a dozen English peers at various times. The spendthrift 9th Duke of Manchester told his creditors he was engaged to her in order to held fend off his creditors. He would later marry Helena Zimmerman, a contemporary of hers and nearly as rich. Even the Prince of Wales took an interest in her, introducing her to English peers he thought she might like. 
 
After careful consideration, May married Henry John Innes-Ker, 8th Duke of Roxburghe when she was twenty-five. The duke was the holder of the premier Scottish dukedom and owner of multiple castles in the British isles. The primary seat of the Roxburghes is Floors Castle, one of the largest castles in the world and still occupied today. Her husband was a first cousin of Winston Churchill. May brought her enormous fortune to help renovate the castle. She struggled to have a child, finally having a son ten years after her marriage. 
 
Goelet retreated to her Scottish home, spending her time fly fishing and attending parties in London. She and the duke were said to have one of the happiest of transatlantic marriages. They were devoted to each other and remained married nearly thirty years. 

Mansion of the Day: Ochre Court

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Newport, Rhode Island was the center of American high society in the last half of the 18th century. During summer months, dozens of America’s richest men and their families flocked to this pretty island off the coast of Rhode Island. American millionaires built enormous mansions that were only used for several weeks a year. The mansions were intended largely to show off wealth. Society matron would gather here to meet other society matrons, demonstrate their vast riches and bring out their daughters to meet eligible suitors.

One of the most prominent of such families were the Goelets. Pronounced Gull-let, they had roots in Huguenots who fled the French religious wars of the sixteenth centuries. They settled in New York where members of the family found great success in commerce and the arts.

Ochre Court is their Newport home. The vast mansion built in 1892 for over four million dollars. The turreted and gabled house is the second largest in Newport. it was commissioned by Ogden Goelet and designed by famed architect Richard Hunt Morris to look like a French castle. The mansion is constructed of ocher colored stone topped with a grey roof. A grand entrance lined with trees drew visitors inside. Rooms were outfitted with large ceiling paintings, thick carpeting and dozens of individual fireplaces. The entire manse required a staff of over twenty-five to run each summer.

In the 1940’s a Goelet descendant donated the house and the grounds to an order of Catholic nuns. Today, the building serves an administrative building for Salve Regina College is on National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can tour the grounds and see the mansion as it nearly was over a hundred years ago.

Odgen Goelet’s daughter Mary inherited over twenty million dollars. She married Henry Innes-Ker, the Eighth Duke of Roxburghe. The Scottish duke was a first cousin of Winston Churchill. 

Of Royal Dukes and Non-Royal Dukes

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The English duke is the highest title one can have in the British aristocracy. He outranks marquesses, earls, barons and baronets. At any given moment there are typically less than fifty of them in Britain. Many titles extend back centuries and come with landed estates and a great deal of money. A duke’s eldest son takes a subsidiary title. A duke’s other sons take the title of Lord and their first name. A duke’s daughter is given the title of Lady followed by her first name. 

English dukes may be divided into two categories: royal and non-royal. Royal dukes are also princes. An English queen or king may designate his child a duke whenever he likes. Traditionally many kings and queens have given their children titles upon marriage. Prince William was given the title of Duke of Cambridge when he married Catherine Middleton. She is now known as the Duchess of Cambridge. The title used may be a new one or it may be an old that has fallen out of use because of lack of male heirs. At present the only one of the queen’s sons who is not a duke is her youngest son Edward. He will assume his father’s Duke of Edinburgh title once his father dies. Royal dukes are addressed as your royal highness.

Several American heiresses married non-royal dukes. Consuelo Vanderbilt married a Duke of Marlborough and so did Lilian Hammersley. May Goelet married the Duke of Roxurghe. Helena Zimmerman married the Duke of Manchester. 

Non-royal dukes are the second highest rank England after royalty. The duke and his wife are both properly addressed as “Your Grace.” A non-royal duke is still considered a commoner by royalty. However, British royals have occasionally married dukes in the past. Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Margaret, married Charles Brandon the first Duke of Suffolk. Today, the English royals are free to marry whomever they please without giving up their place in the succession provided that person is not a Catholic.