Since Cinderella it has been the oldest happy ending in the world: Poor girl marries rich guy. But is it really such a happy ending? That’s one of the questions Charlotte Hays exams in her dishy new book The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women and the Men They Married. And though the rap may be that such women are ditzy gold diggers, Hays has considerable respect for those who make what are considered to be “fabulous marriages.” According to her, these brides are shrewd, calculating, focused ,and as relentless as any tycoon trying to land and close the deal of his life.
Of course one needs some basic equipment to be a successful Fortune Hunter. Most have considerable man-pleasing skills of the most traditional type, best demonstrated in the kitchen — yes, several of them are great cooks and coddlers — and in the bedroom. But though beauty counts, high spirits, and daring can make up for it. Mercedes Bass, for example, who caught the eye of Texas billionaire Sid Bass, is far from gorgeous. She managed to get him to notice her by throwing a dinner roll in his direction.
Most of these gals worked darn hard for their money. Some married and married and married until they got it right. Or at least got the gold-plated bank account they always wanted. After all, marrying a man with big money has always been the appropriate mate for smart girls. And though Mr. Darcy’s five-thousand pounds a year did not particularly appeal to the noble Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen knew it would certainly make him a hero to her female readers and the right match for her heroine.
The hard workers of The Fortune Hunters include Carol McDonald Portago Carey-Hughes Pistell Petrie, a blonde, still pretty as a 70-something New York socialite, who after trying and trying finally ended up the wife and then widow of Milton Petrie, a diminutive cigar-chewing, gin-rummy-playing, ragtrade millionaire. Another is the perennially girlish Marylou Schoeder Hosford Whitney, who married the rich but unappealing Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt, a man “who got a bang out of being picked up in public places by his wife.” At the end of their marriage Marylou nursed the bi-polar Sonny through ten years of Alzheimer’s. She inherited $100 million. The Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lover and also wrote a book about women who married millionaires, once declared that she, personally, would rather scrub floors.
There is also Gayfryd Steinberg, a gorgeous brunette, who started out as a hostess in a restaurant in New Orleans. She married a wealthy businessman who got in trouble with the IRS. She divorced him and, the next day, married insurance billionaire Saul Steinberg. In the 1980s Gayfryd became a famous New York hostess, giving parties that make even today’s hedge fund-er’s socializing look small-scale. She gave a wedding reception for her stepdaughter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the bill for flowers alone was reported to be one million dollars. She also gave a multi-million dollar birthday party for her husband — “a chubby corporate raider who in formal attire looked rather like a frog going to a ball,” as Hays records it.
At that party scantily-clad actors recreated the Old Master paintings that hung in the living room of the Steinberg’s sumptuous apartment, then the most expensive in New York. But Steinberg’s fortune fell apart. He suffered a stroke. Their Old Masters and the 34-room apartment was sold. Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman and his wife now live there. But Gayfryd, surprising everyone, stayed with Saul and remains devoted to him.
Hays also includes several women whose marriages could not be considered good news for either bride or groom: Princess Diana, as well as Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. And she also chronicles two other women — both redheads, Arianna Huffington and Georgette Mossbacher — whose marriages to rich men were stepping stones, not to even more lucrative relationships, but to interesting careers of their own.
So are Arianna and Georgette the wave of the future? Is the day of the relentless female Fortune Hunter fading? A new report notes that educated young women in big cities are earning more than young men and are probably focused on building their own fortunes. Yet I don’t doubt that mothers are still advising their daughters that it is just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man, and updated Darcys remain the heroes of almost every new chicklit book that’s being published these days. And with a billionaire across the table and a dinner roll at hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if most shrewd, calculating, focused young women might still give it a toss.