THE AMERICAN fascination with British nobility didn't start with Chuck and Di and Andy and Fergie. More than a century before these four hit the headlines, American heiresses were tripping all over each other for the prestige offered by hatlowed old titles. Five turn-of-the-century American women who managed to snare the highest available prize - a duke are the focus of Marian Fowler's engaging group biography In a Gilded Cage (Random House, 321 pages, $29 cloth).
Fowler has a great deal of fun comparing the excesses of the American new rich with the dignified, stodgy lifestyles of their old-money compatriots. She skilfully portrays a small, tightly knit society where all the players knew each other. Everyone from Winston Churchill and King Edward VII to William Randolph Hearst and Alva Vanderbilt (taking a wicked turn as a pushy mother who would make Joan Crawford blush) makes an appearance.
The heiresses themselves are fully drawn, except for Helena Zimmerman, whose flamboyant ducal husband rather overwhelms her story. Fowler depicts most of these women as innocent victims of insensitive, cold, calculating husbands - an archetype that seems to have emerged long before Princess Diana spilled her bulimic woes to Andrew Morton.
In a Gilded Cage is a delightful, gossipy, and extremely well researched look behind the scenes of several larger-than-life marriages. The rich are different, and we never seem to tire of reading about them. Fowler has managed to tell their stories with a bracing dash of 1990s feminist insight.