buying your way into high society -- 2/28/17

Today's selection -- from The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo. From telephone operator to mistress to wealthy widow, Wisconsin's Laura Mae Corrigan failed to break into American high society and resorted to moving to Europe, where she paid cash-strapped duchesses to come to her dinner parties:

"[In 1938], Laura Mae Corri­gan [was] the widow of a midwestern steel industrialist and since his death one of the richest women in America. Her monthly income in the summer of 1940 was $800,000 -- something sig­nificantly more than $12 million a month in today's value. ...

Laura Mae Corrigan

"It hadn't always been the silver spoon for her. Born in 1879 into a working-class family in Waupaca, Wisconsin, Laura Mae Whitrock had worked her way from a waitress to a telephone switchboard operator to the wife of a Chicago doctor and then the mistress of the great iron and steel industrialist James Cor­rigan. After a quick and quiet divorce from her doctor, in 1916 she and Corrigan dismayed his family and much of Cleveland high society by getting married.

"When the Cleveland elite snubbed them, the couple took off for Manhattan. There the gates were closed just as firmly. In his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald told the story of a midwestern upstart trying to buy his way into old­-money East Coast circles and failing tragically. Laura Mae ran up against the same obstacles. When several hundred thousand dollars' worth of lavish parties couldn't buy Mrs. Corrigan en­tree to the upper crust, the couple relocated to Europe. There no one imagined that a rich American had a pedigree anyhow. And, after the financial losses of the First World War and the Great Depression, a generous hand with a vast personal fortune more than made up for the lack of prominent ancestors.

"[In Europe], Laura Mae was a sensation. As America's most fa­mous social-climbing hostess -- the squat and singularly un­attractive party planner Elsa Maxwell -- so succinctly put it, 'A great London Hostess in the twenties was the irrepress­ible Laura Corrigan who established a formidable handicap in the American Cinderella Derby by covering the ground from switchboard operator to rich widow in a record six months.' It was a wild exaggeration. [Her late husband] Jimmy Corrigan died in 1928, not 1916. When it came to cutting witticisms, though, no one cared about precise chronology.

"In Europe, Laura Mae pursued a reliable old-world strategy. She bought her way swiftly into the gilded reaches of society, and before long she was cavorting with dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses. She threw extravagant gala events and carefully started inviting all the right people. She gave expensive gifts and paid cash-strapped duchesses to come to her dinner parties.

Dinner at The Ritz Paris in the 1930s

"It was a tactic that, at the Hotel Ritz, Elsa Maxwell had per­fected. As Janet Flanner, the New Yorker correspondent in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, dryly observed, Elsa Maxwell had a knack for establishing upstart American socialites in European aristocratic society -- if they had enough money. ...

"By the late 1930s, Laura Mae Corrigan, too, had arrived in in the French capital. Her parties were 'generally considered at the time to be the most generous free meal ticket for down­graded entries in Burke's Peerage' on the Continent. Even with all her millions, it was sometimes tough going. As Elsa Max­well put it, the trouble was that Laura Mae 'was not beautiful, she was not educated or particularly clever -- [and] her innocent blunders of speech provided almost as much amusement, be­hind her back, as her parties.' Eventually, though, she cracked the nut that was Parisian society. ...

"[In 1940], however, the United States government, afraid that her monthly millions -- whether through design or accident­ would fall into the hands of the Germans and aid the fascist war effort, had frozen her income and limited her to a budget of five hundred dollars a month [$8,000 in today's dollars] for as long as she stayed in Europe."



Tilar J. Mazzeo


The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2014 by Tilar J. Mazzeo


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