Eliza Scidmore, ‘Downton Abbey’ and a Debutante

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham in "Downton Abbey"

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham in “Downton Abbey”

OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts. I managed to find a connection between the TV series and Eliza Scidmore, the subject of my book.

The line runs through Cora Grantham, the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said Cora represents American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”

The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father, a wealthy merchant from Chicago, made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.

Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives.

Eliza Scidmore knew Mary Leiter when she was a young debutante in Washington.


Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon (magazine illustration)

American Anti-Royalty

In an interview with the New York Times, Fellowes described his vision of Cora Grantham:

“Cora hasn’t come from some elegant Long Island, Daughters of the Revolution thing. Her father made a lot of money, and now she’s here. It gives her a robustness and it explains why increasingly, as the century goes on, she doesn’t feel she has to constantly align herself with aristocratic prejudices and principles.”

Young George Curzon

George Curzon

Mary Leiter turned heads as a young socialite when Eliza Scidmore worked as a newspaper correspondent in Washington. Scidmore covered Mary’s comings and goings for the society pages.

In 1895 Mary married George Curzon, a member of the British Parliament and heir to a barony.

His family home was Kedleston Hall, in Derbyshire. Photos show a very impressive estate. Architecturally, however, it’s different from the multi-towered Highclere Castle used as a stand-in for Downton Abbey.


Keddleston Hall

Kedleston Hall, the Curzon family home in England (Photo by Glen Bowman, of Newcastle)


Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, the setting for “Downton Abbey” (Wikipedia)


Meet-Up in India

When Lord Curzon became the viceroy of India in 1898, Mary Leiter became the “vicereine.” No American woman — or man — had ever held so high a position in the British Empire.

Eliza Scidmore crossed paths socially with Mary while traveling in India. In 1903 Scidmore published a book about her India travels. (It’s the least successful of her books, in my opinion.)

Mary Leiter garnered praise as a great beauty. She had large grey eyes, delicate features, and glossy chestnut-brown hair. Willowy, at nearly 6 feet tall, she had a perfect figure for the exquisite gowns and elaborate jewels that made her one of the best-dressed women of her time. A peacock-inspired gown she wore at one official function became legendary in the fashion world.

Despite her regal life, Mary Curzon — like the adorable Cora Grantham — had a sweet nature and lack of pretentiousness that charmed everyone she met.

Eliza Scidmore was among the smitten. She socialized with the Curzons at Government House, their official residence in Calcutta. (Coincidentally, it had been built along the lines of Kedleston Hall.)

“A radiant smile of welcome made me almost lose my head,” Scidmore wrote gushingly when Mary Leiter greeted her. Mary, she reported, still had “the same sweet smile and eyes.”


Government House in Calcutta

Government House in Calcutta, where Eliza Scidmore was a guest of Lord and Lady Curzon in 1900 (Photo by Samuel Bourne)


Parallel Lives

Among the other parallels between the fictional Cora Grantham and the real-life Lady Curzon:

  • Both allegedly had Jewish ancestry.
  • Both had three daughters, but no male heirs to the family title.
  •  And both had happy marriages.
Granthams of 'Downton Abbey'

Hughe Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert and Cora Grantham (Photo: Carnival Films)

In the “Downton Abbey” plot, Lord Grantham married Cora largely for her money, but fell in love with her afterward.

The Curzons, by all accounts, had a very happy marriage. It ended tragically in 1906 soon after they returned to England. Mary died at the age of 36, following an infection and other complications after a miscarriage.

Lord Curzon remarried. But at his death, he was laid beside Mary, his enduring love, in a memorial chapel at Kedleston Hall. His second wife chose to be buried elsewhere.

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  1. Brian Greenberg on January 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm


    You ROCK!!!


  2. Nicole on January 17, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Fascinating account. Eliza’s candid rendering of her own infatuation with Lady Curzon is utterly charming. It also makes me feels slightly less self conscious about my own infatuation with Downton Abbey. Thought I might kick the habit this year, but no luck yet!

    • Diana on January 17, 2014 at 11:29 pm

      I know what you mean about the “infatuation,” Nicole. I too found it touching. Eliza Scidmore was a pretty amazing woman in her own right–but she found herself nonplussed in the presence of American royalty!

      • Kelley (Scidmore) Farrell on January 22, 2017 at 10:13 pm

        Eliza Scidmore is my great, great, great aunt – I love reading about her. Thank you 🙂

        • Diana on January 24, 2017 at 10:11 pm

          Kelley. So great to hear from you! You’re in Chicago? Hope my website is giving you a lot of new information about Eliza Scidmore you didn’t know. If anyone in your family has any records about Eliza I’d love to know about them. (I’ve talked with Dan Sidmore.)

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