"Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909):
A Portrait with Husbands"
by Sally E. Svenson
Sally Svenson's interest in Lily Price, who was born in Troy, in 1854, began when Svenson was working on her book, "Adirondack Churches: A History of Design and Building." Researching St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Lake Luzerne, Svenson came across a reference and a photograph of Price, who turned out to be both a duchess and the aunt of Winston Churchill.
"Lily, Duchess of Marlborough: A Portrait with Husbands" is Svenson's exhaustively researched and well organized biography of a wealthy woman who was part of high society on both sides of the Atlantic in the last quarter of the 19th century.
The "Husbands" of the title refer to the three prominent men Lily married between 1879 and 1900. The first husband was Louis Hamersley, a wealthy man 14 years older than 25-year-old Lily. The Hamersley family had been rich for generations, and Louis continued to increase the fortune by investing in New York City real estate. By the time he dies, just four years after marrying Lily, his estate is worth about $3.2 million (around $70 million in today's dollars).
Hamersley had created a new will a few months before he died, leaving everything to his younger bride. The large estate and the recent will causes members of Hamersley's extended family to contest the document, and it took another decade before it is settled in Lily's favor. Lily uses some of the inheritance to purchase property in Lake Luzerne - hence the reference Svenson discovered.
Before the estate is settled, however, Lily marries the British noble who makes her a duchess. This is George Charles Spencer-Churchill, the eighth Duke of Marlborough. Divorced and notorious for having been named as a lover in another divorce trial in England, the Duke is happy to visit America. He meets Lily in the mid 1880s, and they are married quietly in the New York City mayor's office in 1888.
Like Lily's first husband, the Duke passes away four years after the wedding. Lily lives those years mostly in England, at the Duke's family palace, Blenheim. It is here she sometimes cares for the young man who will lead England during World War II, the Duke's nephew Winston Churchill.
Lily's last marriage is to Lord William Leslie de La Poer Beresford, a 47 year old who had spent much of his career in India. They wed in 1895, three years after the Duke passed away, but this marriage is also short-lived: This long-named husband dies in 1900.
Lily herself dies in England in 1909.
Perhaps the best part of Svenson's biography is not what we learn of the main characters, but rather the rich presentation of the world they inhabit. The author's scouring of contemporary newspapers unearthed a society very different and very similar to our own.
Today celebrities are hounded by paparazzi, and glossy magazines and websites describe the latest activities of people who are famous for being famous. In 1886, however, there were verbal paparazzi, soing much the same -?society newspaper reporters, breathlessly telling readers, "The most beautiful woman in New York fashionable society is the Widow Hamersley. All other belles common mentioned as beauties are merely pretty."
When the Duke and the Duchess arrive in New York, reporters meet them and write down their banal observations about the crossing.
Svenson, who lives in Tupper Lake, has gathered an impressive amount of material to tell the story of an upstate New York woman who. The result is a biography that tells more than just the lives of the principals, but also the context of their lives.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.