Lady Mary Curzon

How a girl from Washington became Queen of India

Lady Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India - etching
Lady Mary Curzon, 1903. She captivated fashionable society, in America, Britain, and India.

Mary Leiter was born during America’s gilded age; her father rose from modest beginnings to become one of Chicago’s wealthiest merchants. Her ambitious mother thought the east coast a preferable place for her three daughters to be introduced to society and so the family moved to Washington. Mary’s clever mind, warmth and beauty won her many admirers, even among Mrs. Astor’s famed “New York 400”. First Lady, Frances Cleveland, was Mary’s closest friend.

Mary crossed the Atlantic in 1890, along with her family, and met George Curzon, an intense, scholarly British aristocrat. Any interest she had in American suitors evaporated. George’s protracted expeditions to the Far East led to a long courtship and secret engagement. They finally married in 1895 and Mary bid farewell to America and sailed to her new life in England, as Lady Mary Curzon. George was appointed Viceroy of India three years later, the leader of Britain’s most important colony. Thus, Mary became its Vicereine, the highest-ranking woman in the British empire, other than Queen Victoria herself.

Mary’s story is woven together with historical fiction, in the novel, Lovebirds & Tin Gods.

Mary as inspiration for Downton Abbey’s Cora Crawley

Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey, has said the character Cora Crawley, was inspired by several American women who married British aristocrats. However, the similarities between Cora and Mary Curzon are particularly striking. Both were born in the American Midwest: Mary in Chicago in 1870 and the fictional Cora in Cincinnati two years earlier. Their fathers, both Jewish, became multi-millionaires in the gilded age. Levi Leiter started Field and Leiter Dry Goods, later to become Marshall Fields; Cora’s fictional father was also a dry-goods merchant. Cora and Mary each had socially ambitious mothers who introduced their daughters to London society. And both young women fell in love with a titled aristocrat who was “long on lineage and short on cash” as the saying goes. Like Cora Crawley, Mary Curzon had three daughters and neither had the son they wished for.

More about Lovebirds & Tin Gods, a novel featuring Mary.