Downton Abbey’s Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, who is believed to have been modeled on Mary Leiter.
By Megan McKinney
The Rewards of Relentless Ambition
Chicago dry goods tycoon Levi Zeigler Leiter and his wife, Mary Theresa, were a high-flying pair whose relentless ambition spawned a privileged dynasty. Both Leiters repeatedly reached for seemingly unattainable goals — and usually realized them, while passing on a determination in pursuing elusive objectives to their extended family. Although the same could be said of many dynasties, few have achieved the heights to which this family aspired.
During an era when wealthy American families were content to acquire a single English title, the Leiters managed three. While scaling the summit of the British aristocracy, one family member reigned over India and another cornered the world wheat market — yet the Leiter legend was just beginning. Ambition, audacity and a passion for achieving what appeared to be the impossible were obsessions — not merely of members of this American dynasty — but also of those they married. And always they operated on a world stage.
Leiter son-in-law, George Curzon, the determined 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston.
The run began with the patriarch, Levi Leiter, one of Chicago’s great 19th century buccaneers. Starting with virtually nothing, he parlayed the dry goods riches made in partnerships with Potter Palmer and Marshall Field into a second fortune in real estate, while also striking riches in the Old West.
In 1881, after Levi sold his half interest in one of the world’s great department stores, his wife moved the family to the more glamorous arena of Washington D.C. to achieve her implausible objective of marrying their three daughters to members of the English aristocracy — one of whom is widely believed to be the model for Downton Abbey’s Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham.
While the Leiter son pursued daring — but only sometimes successful —schemes, Mary Theresa more than succeeded in her plan when, one by one, her daughters married Englishmen of noble families, with her eldest — as Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India — positioned, second only to the Queen, as the highest ranking woman in the British empire.
Mary Leiter Curzon, Baroness Curzon of Kedleston, Vicereine of India.
Throughout their heyday, both in America and England, members of the family were always central to a leading group of the period — the smart set currently creating the era’s style and forming its history. Even James Bond’s Felix Leiter was named for a family member, and today’s fashion icon Daphne Guinness is a lateral descendant.
Jack Lord as Felix Leiter.
A series of Classic Chicago articles stretching over the next several weeks will trace the sweep of this process, following dynasty members as they move from the dynamic development of a new city on America’s Northwestern frontier through the Gilded Age venues of Washington, New York, London and Paris to the muted splendor of late Victorian England country life and pomp of the turn-of-the-century British Raj.
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mary’s sister Daisy Leiter, who became Countess of Suffolk and Berkshire.
Their activities are depicted within the context of the styles, manners and mores of their epoch — the last half of the19th century, into the Edwardian era, and beyond, as they confront the challenges presented by their rapidly changing world.
Dynasty founder Levi Leiter was one of the most brilliant of Chicago’s early entrepreneurs — a complex, cultivated man who led in ushering his city into its golden era. Much has been written about the lives of Marshall Field and Potter Palmer, who rivaled Leiter in amassing prime Chicago real estate, and were his partners in a series of dry goods firms. Yet the spectacular careers of the three men were a trio of parallels, with Leiter’s role as a leading Chicago citizen often surpassing the other two. But, oddly, there has been no definitive account of the life of Levi Leiter, despite continuing fascination with the family he founded, which increased with the appeal of Downton Abbey and resulting curiosity about Cora Crawley’s American origins.
The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Chicago 1854
Robert F. Carl