The Gilded Age Heiress Who Refused to Marry Royalty
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American “dollar princesses” stormed the European marriage market. They were the wealthy daughters of American millionaires, often looking for prestigious titles — convenient, since the owners of said prestigious titles were often looking for cash infusions courtesy of a rich wife.
Consuelo Vanderbilt is the most famous example, but others included Jennie Jerome, Nancy Leeds, Mary Leiter, and (fictionally, at least) Cora Levinson on Downton Abbey.
But there was one American heiress who refused to play that game.
Born in the USA
Born on February 12, 1884, Mathilde Townsend was an only child who stood to inherit millions from her grandfather’s railroad fortune. William Scott had amassed between $7 and $15 million as an investor, banker, and businessman before getting elected to Congress.
When he died, he disappointed all of Pittsburgh by leaving that fortune to his family — no gifts to the city, no endowments for a college, no buildings, no park benches, no nothing. Pissed-off townsfolk said it was because his fortune was much smaller than rumored.
But despite her family’s fortune, Mathilde’s mom, Mary Scott, was no dollar princess.
She married Richard Townsend, the son of a Philadelphia dentist. They settled in in Washington, D.C., where Mary had acted as her father’s hostess during his Congressional term. As a result, Mathilde grew up among Washington’s elite, becoming besties with Alice Roosevelt.
Growing up, Mathilde loved animals. She established a fund to provide medals for people who helped prevent animal cruelty. She set up another fund for people who couldn’t afford vet services. At ten years old, she and a friend wrote a book of short stories which her family published and distributed for them.
In 1901, the Townsends moved into a palatial new Beaux Arts mansion on 2121 Massachusetts Avenue NW, which is still there today.
But the family wouldn’t enjoy it together for long.
On November 6, 1902, teenage Mathilde and her dad went for a cross-country horse ride. But when Richard’s saddle band broke, he fell off the horse and hit his head. Mary called a brain specialist from Johns Hopkins University, but it was no use. Richard died on Thanksgiving Day, November 27.
His death forced Mary to close her home for the winter, despite the slough of events she’d planned to introduce 18-year-old Mathilde to society.
All the Single Ladies
As a wealthy widow, Mary grew even more socially powerful. Perfectly at home among European nobility, she routinely invited the German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, to the Townsend mansion so he could flirt with her friend Cissy Paterson, whose family owned the Chicago Tribune.
Why not aim for someone even more important for Mathilde?
At the turn of the twentieth century, Mathilde’s name appeared in print beside many a titled suitor. It wasn’t hard to see why. She was tall and thin, with thick blonde hair and violet-blue eyes. Of course, her mom’s rumored multi-million inheritance didn’t hurt, either.
At first, society gossip linked her to Constantine Brun, the Danish ambassador to Washington, D.C. But then Mary and Mathilde decamped to Paris — possibly to squelch those engagement rumors.
While in Paris, Señor Juan Riaño y Gayangos and his American wife, Alice Ward, invited them to a party at the Spanish embassy. There, they met the Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, the 17th Duke of Alba, a great-nephew of Empress Eugénie of France.
Alba fell for Mathilde.
He scored the Townsends an invitation to Madrid for the upcoming royal wedding. When King Alfonso XIII of Spain married Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg in 1906, Mathilde was officially presented at their court. While in Spain, she also met expat artist John Singer Sargent, who painted this gorgeous portrait of her:
Gossip columns assumed Mathilde and Alba’s engagement was a done deal.
Until 1907, that is, when the romance hit a snag. According to a report in the New York Times, Alba needed at least $200,000 a year to maintain his lifestyle and his “greatly incumbered estates.” ¹
But the interest on Mathilde’s mom’s inheritance only paid $250,000 a year. If Mathilde married Alba, she and her mom would only have $50,000 a year between them. Despite the potential 80% income reduction, Mary was all for it, eager for her daughter to secure a title.
But Mathilde said no for one simple reason — she had vowed to marry an American. Despite her mother’s pleas, she refused to go back to Europe while Alba was still single.
But Alba wasn’t Mathilde’s only suitor with a royal pedigree.
In 1906, it was rumored that she was engaged to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy and great-grandson of Betsy Patterson, the Baltimore belle who’d married Napoleon’s brother.
According to multiple newspaper reports, both Alba and Bonaparte had been chasing Mathilde for years.
You have to wonder if the stress got to her.
That’s what the New York Times implied in 1908, when they said she spent eight hours a day racing her new car to burn the nervous energy generated by the society season. A chauffeur drove her out to the speedway in Baltimore, then she took over and floored it as fast as “the law allows” for a whopping eight hours at a time. ²
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
With no true love on the horizon, Mathilde did what most Edwardian society maidens did — she went to parties, rode horses, sailed in Bar Harbor, dabbled in charity work, and had her portrait painted.
But one by one, Mathilde’s girlfriends all got married.
Like Bridget Jones, she must have endured her fair share of smug married couples. In 1910, she turned 25 — not old, but no longer young by the standards of the time. It was time to settle down, whether she liked it or not.
Only one man knew the truth about Mathilde’s feelings for each of her suitors. Archibald “Archie” Butt was one of her best friends, an aide to President Roosevelt who moved in the same elite social circles.
Archie was also in love with her.
He sat beside her at dinner parties, danced with her at balls, and watched with bated breath as one suitor after another tried to win her hand. He breathed a sigh of relief as she shot them down.
Then, on April 8, 1910, he saw Mathilde at a dinner party. She told Archie she was never going to marry the Duke of Alba. “I like old Jimmy, but she [Mom] would find him an expensive luxury,” Mathilde said.³
Instead of Alba, she said she would marry her latest suitor, Peter Goelet Gerry.
Mathilde tried to explain: “Archie, I have got to marry some day, and Peter seems to be the most suitable man I have ever met…He will have his things, and I will have mine, and we will travel and motor and ride. Mother would not have me marry any American, and I so hate foreigners that I cannot think of one as a husband save with repulsion.” ⁴
The smile fell from Archie’s face.
The next morning, he wrote, “I went through the night like one in a dream and woke this morning as if someone had died in the night.” ⁵
When news of the engagement broke, Mathilde’s mom cried on Archie’s shoulder.
Archie secretly hoped she’d get sick of Peter and leave him. “…she is the only woman who has ever dominated my mind and heart,” he wrote. “I cannot bring myself to believe that she loves him.” ⁶
Apparently, he also couldn’t bring himself to tell Mathilde how he felt about her.
On May 26, 1910, Mathilde married Peter Goelet Gerry. She’d announced the engagement in late April, weeks before the wedding. The ceremony was held in the Townsend mansion, in front of guests that included President and Mrs. Taft. Mathilde wore a $15,000 dress from Paris. Ordered at the last minute by transatlantic cable, it was sewn and shipped in 48 hours.
Someone, it seems, was in a hurry to say “I do.”
As if given more time, she might have changed her mind.
Alice Roosevelt taunted Archie, joking with their friends about Peter winning the contest for Mathilde’s hand.
Archie wrote, “I think deep down in my soul I felt that she would never marry me. She has the greatest capacity for friendship I have almost ever known in woman and the least capacity for love.” ⁷
Cue Celine Dion in 5, 4, 3…
When Archie ran into Mathilde after the wedding, he wrote that she was “looking lovelier than ever.” ⁸ Her new husband apparently thought the same thing. Peter wrote, “A more beautiful woman doesn’t exist in America.” ⁹
But Mathilde’s happiness sent Archie into a spiral of misery.
He threw himself into his job, but it was an election year. Working for a campaigning president was grueling. By 1912, Archie needed a vacation. He headed to Europe for some much-needed R&R.
On the way out, a reporter asked him about a rumor that he was engaged: “This bachelorhood is a miserable existence,” Archie said. “I…will refuse no reasonable offer to enter the matrimonial field… if this leap year gets away before I get a wife I shall feel very much discouraged.” ¹⁰
Later, after a six-week rest, Archie boarded the ship that would bring him home: the spiffy new HMS Titanic.
By all accounts, when the ship struck an iceberg, Archie never tried to escape. Some survivors said they saw him standing next to John Jacob Astor on the deck as the ship went down.
In the picture below, taken on April 17, 1912, newsboys are selling papers with the headline: “Mission of Two United States Cruisers Fails: No News of Maj. Butt or Clarence Moore.”
That was five days after the sinking.
Archie’s body was never recovered.
There’s another thread to Archie and Mathilde’s story that may interest you — the question of his sexuality.
When he sailed on the Titanic, he was with his longtime companion and housemate, Francis D. Millet. Were they a couple? It’s likely. Archie’s feelings for Mathilde may have been a type of societally acceptable role play, which might explain why he didn’t try to stop her from marrying Peter.
Mathilde’s story doesn’t end with Archie’s death. But without his sensible advice and watchful eye, her life definitely took a turn for the scandalous. But that’s a post for another day…
¹ “Fiancee’s Finances Displease de Alba.” New York Times, November 2, 1907.
² “Cure for ‘Society’ Nerves.” New York Times, March 1, 1907.
³ Butt, Letters, Vol I., 325.
⁷ Butt, Letters, Vol I., 324.
⁸ Butt, Letters, Vol II., 446.
⁹ Welles, Welles, 85.
¹⁰ Encyclopedia-Titanica, “Major Butt’s Suit.”
Butt, Archibald Willingham. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Vol I. Washington, D.C.: Kennikat Press, 1971.
Butt, Archibald Willingham. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Vol II. Washington, D.C.: Kennikat Press, 1971.
Encyclopedia-Titanica.org. “Major Butt’s Suit a Wonder.” Accessed 8/19/20. https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/major-butts-suit-wonder.html
Hansen, Stephen A. A History of Dupont Circle. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014.
Welles, Benjamin. Sumner Welles: FDR’s Global Strategist. New York: Macmillan, 2017.
Chattanooga Daily Times
The Tribune (Scranton, PA)
Parts of this post originally appeared on my website in “The Yusupov Black Pearl Necklace.”
Header image background: Townsend Mansion parlor by Frances Benjamin Johnston, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.