Lily, who was born in Troy, NY in 1854, was reported in an old history to have provided the funds for a chapel at st. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lake Luzerne. That turned out to be a questionable assertion, but Svenson found Lily’s obituary in the New York Times and was hooked on her incredible life story which is told in Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909): A Portrait with Husbands (2011, Dog Ear Publishing).
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 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 among the most stately homes in Great Britain.
Lily’s father was a United States naval officer from Lancaster, Kentucky and her mother descended from two leading families of Troy, but Lily was raised primarily in Washington, D. C. She made a fortunate 1879 marriage to Louis C. Hamersley, a New Yorker whose sudden death three years later left Lily with the lifetime use of his fortune. This turned out to be a mixed blessing, as the widely publicized but ultimately unsuccessful effort of her husband’s family to break his will cast Lily in an unflattering 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.
Unfortunately, Marlborough 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 one of the longest, most sexually explicit divorce trials 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, but her life as the Duchess of Marlborough was shorted by his untimely death in 1892.
In 1895 Lily married again, 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 owners in England. 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.
Svenson weaves a compelling story of this remarkable woman correcting a number of misconceptions and offering her full story for the first time.
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