Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Dollar Princesses?

  • Posted by: Amanda Norbutus
  • Posted Date: August 5, 2014
  • Filed Under: History

      On March 2, 1901, the New York Times announced that Miss Jennie Berry Bruton of Oak Hill, Georgia made a smart marital match when she wed Prince Enrico Ruspoli of Rome, Italy.[1] During the Gilded Age (roughly from 1870-1914), America was not only the land of opportunity for domestic and foreign laborers seeking high-wage, industrial jobs, but also poor royal immigrants who were willing to trade their noble titles for the dowry of an American heiress. The Dollar Princesses, as they were known at the time, were usually the daughters of millionaire businessmen who ran industries vital to the age of Industrialism, such as iron and steel manufacturing, oil production, and shipbuilding. Many dollar princesses, including Consuelo Vanderbilt (the wife of Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough) and Lady Randolph Churchill (the mother of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill), possessed elite social status as the daughters of millionaires, and often they married princes, dukes, and earls to attain the ultimate form of social respect by becoming European aristocracy.[2] Jennie Berry became Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, but unlike many dollar princesses she married with the intention of gaining international prominence and competing against male socialites as an avid art collector and philanthropist of great personal wealth.            

      During the Gilded Age there were many names for women like Jennie Bruton who were worth millions, but married into the aristocracy: Gilded Age Heiress, Buccaneer, Title Hunters and Dollar Princess.[3] Unmarried, dollar princesses wanted a royal title because in an American society where nobility status never existed, such a title signified social eminence on an international scale.  These women read pamphlets that identified several European men as royal bachelors and sought out self-help guides that educated dollar princesses about the etiquette of the aristocracy.[4] On the other hand, several European nobles, like Don Enrico Ruspoli, inherited a royal title, but they did not have the money American heiresses possessed so they travelled to America to find a spouse. While America was economically prosperous from 1870-1914, Europe saw an economic downturn because it had not fully transitioned from an agriculture-based economy to an industrialized one.[5]

            Jennie Berry may not have been the daughter of a multi-millionaire businessman, but she was a dollar princess. In the first place, all dollar princesses inherited their wealth from a male relative in the Gilded Age. In 1892, Berry became an affluent widow when her husband, Henry Bruton, died from an ulcerative colon at the age of forty-two. At the time of Bruton’s death, Jennie inherited millions from her husband who was a business partner in the Nashville-based, tobacco company, American Snuff Manufacturing.[6] The second characteristic of a “buccaneer” was that she practically “auctioned off” her dowry to the most notable, but impoverished prince she could find, resided in Europe, and then willingly paid for all of their marital expenses in exchange for the title of princess. When Jennie wed the poor prince Enrico in 1901, she moved to Rome and used her own money to purchase all their necessities, including the 85-room, Castle at Nemi where they resided together for eight years until Enrico died of an unknown illness at the age of 31.[7] Even after Enrico’s death Eugenia sought to marry the most prominent nobleman she knew because in 1913 she became engaged to (but never married) 69-year-old spendthrift, Don Filippo Orsini, the eighteenth Duke of Gravina, Italy.[8] Even though the Ruspolis did not have any children of their own, Jennie still took advantage of her privilege by passing down the title of princess to her adopted daughter (in actuality, her niece) Maria Theresa (1923-2004) who later reaffirmed the royal status Jennie gave to her when she married Russian prince, Alexis Droutzkoy (1898-1976) in 1945.[9]

       Unlike many other dollar princesses, Princess Ruspoli was deeply interested in art collecting and philanthropy. Eugenia shrewdly managed her wealth and assets like a businesswoman. Throughout Ruspoli’s life she maintained her finances well by not overspending and going into debt. Eugenia also made financial investments in stocks, real estate, and prized European art that would have yielded millions if she sold them. With five locations to store her artwork (the Castle of Nemi, two American residences, a New York art salon, and Lincoln Warehouse in New York), Princess Ruspoli was able to house many paintings, large and small, that could decorate entire walls.[10] Eugenia’s art collection consisted of a majority of religious paintings produced by mostly Italian and Flemish painters from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Although historians are unsure of how many paintings Eugenia owned, we do know that many of her paintings initially resided in the Castle of Nemi, along with some Italian furniture and sculptures.[11] Besides being an art collector, Princess Ruspoli was also a philanthropist. Like many famous art collectors, Eugenia believed in making art accessible to the public by donating several of her paintings to churches, universities, and museums. She strove to foster some kind of education and appreciation for Baroque and Renaissance art in church parishioners, students, and museum-goers.[12]       

      As a dollar princess, Eugenia Ruspoli created a name for herself as an art collector and philanthropist during the male-dominated Gilded Age. When multi-millionaire businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick flaunted their wealth to the world via purchasing residential estates, acquiring countless paintings, and donating artwork to non-profit organizations, Princess Ruspoli did the same.[13] Eugenia ambitiously worked to make financial agreements and create political alliances with individuals who enabled her to increase her social status domestically and abroad. First, Ruspoli’s royal marriage afforded her the opportunity to meet and buy a castle filled with valuable European paintings from the famous Orsini family in 1902.[14] Then Eugenia used her personal wealth to purchase private homes in America and collect other artwork over the span of thirty-two years.[15] And lastly, Princess Ruspoli gave countless paintings and Italian furniture to museums, colleges, and churches she deemed worthy of owning treasured items from her private art collection. Furthermore, Eugenia wanted more than a royal title to enhance her elite status; she desired to compete with the male millionaires of her time who were favorably portrayed as big spenders and philanthropists. Overall, as a woman, Ruspoli proved to the world that millionaire American women could not only be as wealthy, cultured, and philanthropic as men, but also more cunning than these businessmen because they married European royals in order to be forever remembered as aristocrats in America and Europe.


Menika Dirkson

Graduate Student

History Department

Villanova University


[1] “DON ENRICO RUSPOLI WEDS.; Is Married in Washington to Mrs. Bruton of Nashville, Tenn,” The New York Times, (Washington, D.C.), (March 2, 1901), accessed March 13, 2014, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F6071FF73B5D12738DDDAA0894DB405B818CF1D3&action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry326%23%2Fruspoli.

[2] Ruth Brandon, The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Nobility, 1870-1914, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1980.

[3] The History Chicks, “Shownotes-Episode 9: Gilded Age Heiresses”, The History Chicks.com, posted 2 June 2011, accessed March 13, 2014, http://thehistorychicks.com/?tag=gilded-age-heiresses.

[4] Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, To Marry An English Lord, New York City: Workman Publishing Company, 2012.

[5] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In The World; The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

[6] Ancestry.com, Tennessee, City Death Records, 1872-1923 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA, accessed January 23 2014, ancestry.com

[7] Mary Alsop King Waddington, Italian Letter’s of a Diplomat’s Wife, January-May, 1880, February-April, 1904, New York City: C. Scribner’s sons, 1905.

[8] “La Marquise De Fontenoy”, Chicago Daily Tribune, (June 27, 1913), Newspapers.com, accessed March 24, 2014, www.newspapers.com/image/#28633639.

[9] “Deaths Elswhere: Italian Princess Dies in New York,” The Miami News, (Jan. 27 1951), GoogleNews.com, accessed March 13, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2206&dat=19510127&id=F6IyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IewFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4820,6538404.

[10] International Foundation for Art Research, “Nothing But Empty Frames,” Stolen Art Alert 5.4 (May 1984): 1-28. 

[11] George T. Radan and Richard G. Cannuli, OSA, Villanova University Art Collection, Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1986.

[12]Rita H. DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church,” Southern Cross, (Dec. 22, 2011): 5, accessed, Oct 22 03:35 EDT 2013, diosav.org/sites/all/files/…/A%2012-22-2011%20CROSS%205.pdf‎.

[13] Collecting in the Gilded Age: Art Patronage in Pittsburgh, 1890-1910, Pittsburgh: Frick Art & Historical Center, 1997.

[14] “Biography: Eugenia Ruspoli; Italian Countess,” Berry College Memorial Library, August 29 2013, accessed Oct 22 02:16 EDT 2013, http://libguides.berry.edu/content.php?pid=426504&sid=3489581.

[15] DeLorme, “The princess, a painting and a Georgia Church”‎.


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Last Modified: August 5, 2014