Sunday, November 4, 2018

DAY 79: Minnie Paget. Because With Friends Like These....

Minnie Stevens Paget was an American woman nobody on either side of the Pond forgot. The daughter of Paran Stevens, a self-made New Yorker who earned a fortune building and running Manhattan's most sophisticated hotels, and Marietta Stevens, a social climber lampooned by Edith Wharton as Mrs. Lemuel Struthers in The Age of Innocence, Minnie was one of Jennie Churchill's oldest frenemies. They met during the winter of 1863 in Delmonico's Family Dancing Classes. Like Jennie, Minnie Stevens wandered the capitols of Europe as a debutante searching for a husband--her parents were too vulgar and her money too "new" to gain access to Caroline Astor's exclusive New York. After languishing on the Marriage Mart, Minnie finally accepted the hand of an untitled second son--British Guards officer Arthur Paget, whose ancestor Henry Paget, the Marquess of Anglesey, famously lost his leg commanding the cavalry at Waterloo. 

Arthur was eventually promoted to general, which made Minnie Lady Arthur Paget, but for several decades after her marriage she languished as a mere Mrs. in British Society. Although rumored to have been left a huge fortune in her father's will--at least ten million, the gossips agreed--the Stevens funds were tied up in litigation, as Minnie's mother Marietta fought for control of the trust Paran Stevens had designed to protect his millions from her profligate spending.

Minnie was known for her acid tongue and backstabbing ways. Her outrageous American manners won the favor of Bertie, Prince of Wales--and she  traded on her access to Sandringham and the Marlborough House Set to spend months at a time living in the homes of friends, a canny method of economizing. A number of historians of this period also suggest that Minnie brokered marriages between impoverished English aristrocrats of her acquaintance and fabulously-dowered American girls looking for a title--her friend Alva Smith Vanderbilt's Consuelo among them--in return for expensive gifts and payments. Consuelo recalled Minnie's hard, assessing gaze in her memoir, The Glitter and the Gold, with something like a literary shiver.

Minnie finally inherited a portion of the Stevens Trust around 1895, ten years after her brother Harry's death from tuberculosis--at which point, she began to Live Large, throwing outrageous parties, ordering sumptuous dresses, and commissioning jewels. The picture above is Minnie in Fancy Dress, as Cleopatra, for the Devonshire House Ball in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897. (The ball was thrown by Jennie's friends, Hart and Lottie, by then the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.) Minnie paid the House of Worth an enormous sum to create her costume--which sold at auction after her death in 1919 for only a few pounds. Sic transit gloria.

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel. 

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