You have heard the story: A Cincinnati heiress marries into a noble but cash-strapped British family.
Fans of the PBS Masterpiece Classic television series Downton Abbey will recognize the marriage at the center of the saga. Cincinnati heiress Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern) married Robert Crawley, the 7th Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), to resolve his family’s financial problems.
But Downton Abbey fans may not know that a story identical to this unfolded in Cincinnati in 1900. A British lord really did marry a Cincinnati heiress to resolve his family’s financial problems. From there, however, reality intervened.
The heiress in question was Helena Zimmerman, born in 1878 to Cincinnati railroad magnate Eugene Zimmerman and his wife, Marietta Evans. Helena’s father, Eugene Zimmerman, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where his father owned a factory. He was orphaned at 13, and came to Ohio to attend Kenyon College. When the Civil War broke out, the factory Eugene inherited from his father was burned down. Now penniless, Eugene enlisted in the Union Navy. He served with distinction, and was promoted often. He left the service as a 20-year-old lieutenant. By investing wisely, Eugene acquired extensive holdings in oil, which he sold to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, gaining a substantial block of stock and a seat on the company’s board. He then plowed his profits into a number of successful railroads. At the time of his daughter’s marriage, he was worth an estimated $10 million. (With inflation, that would be about $280 million today.) The Zimmerman mansion still sits at the southeast corner of Auburn and McMillan.
Helena was Eugene and Marietta’s only child. The couple married in 1876. Helena was born in 1878 and was only four years old when her mother died of peritonitis in 1882. Helena was sent to France for her education and lived there for many years, becoming proficient in fencing and horsemanship. By 1900, she was described as “one of the most beautiful young women” in the summer resort at Narragansett, Rhode Island. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [23 July 1900]:
“She is a handsome blonde and a belle at the Matthewson (Hotel), where she has been staying since July 4. She is an expert swimmer and is seen on the beach daily.”
On a trip to England with her father, Helena met William Angus Drogo “Kim” Montagu, 9th Duke of Manchester. She was 21, he 23. Although descended from one of the most distinguished families in English history, the 9th Duke was nearly bankrupt. His father, the 8th Duke, had in fact declared bankruptcy the year he ascended to the title, despite having married his own American heiress—Consuelo Yznaga of New York. Their son had a fondness for gambling and women.
The Duke and Helena were married quietly in London on November 14, 1900. Cincinnati society was disappointed that the ceremony would not be repeated in the Queen City. In fact, the couple visited Cincinnati only briefly and spent most of their time in the British Isles. They had a house in London, a country estate named Kimbolton and a castle—Tanderagee—in Northern Ireland. Eugene Zimmerman bought another castle, Kylemore in Connemara, for the couple soon after their marriage, but they were forced to sell it. They could not afford the upkeep.
Despite producing four offspring, the Duke and Duchess of Manchester suffered through a marriage marked by his infidelity and their mutual indebtedness. Helena’s father, outside of buying a castle, contributed a fixed allowance for his daughter, and he took great pains to craft his will so that the Duke got nothing. When Eugene died, the Cincinnati Post [4 November 1915] noted that the Duke was out of luck:
“Not a cent of the Duchess of Manchester’s Cincinnati-made money will go to help the Duke out of his $1,000,000 in debts. So said attorney John E. Bruce Thursday, and Bruce knows, because he is one of the trustees of the vast estate left by Eugene Zimmerman, Cincinnati railroad magnate, father of the Duchess. Bruce, as one of the trustees, holds the estate and the Duchess gets only the income.”
Eugene Zimmerman was no fool. The 9th Duke of Manchester has been revealed by history to be the poster child for upper-class Anglo-Saxon entitlement. A recent [20 July 2011] article in England’s Daily Mail newspaper, focusing on the bigamy, drug addiction, and fraud of various Manchester relations, gave special recognition to Helena Zimmerman’s wayward husband:
“Kim (the 9th Duke) fared no better. Serially unfaithful (on one occasion he was found in bed at Kimbolton with four women, among them the bisexual actress Tallulah Bankhead), he spent outrageous amounts of his father-in-law’s fortune, went bankrupt, illegally pawned the family jewels (which were held in trust) and was sent to Wormwood Scrubs (a British prison). ”
In 1931, the marriage ended in divorce. The Duke remarried that same year. His new wife was another American girl, Kathleen Dawes of Connecticut. He died in 1947.
Helena also remarried. In 1937, she wed Arthur George Keith-Falconer, 10th Earl of Kintore. They remained together until his death in 1966. She survived him until 1971, when she died at Keith Hall near Aberdeen, Scotland.
Helena’s son, Alexander George Francis Drogo Montagu, the 10th Duke of Manchester, was forced to sell the family’s historic seat at Kimbolton and Tandragee Castle. By the 1960s, he had also sold most of the family’s remaining properties.
The Zimmerman millions had been largely squandered in pursuit of elusive British happiness.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities