Not since the news that Princess Kate Middleton’s mother’s maiden name was “Goldsmith” launched a million Google searches have the masses gotten so excited.
Today the British noble with possible Jewish background is Cora Grantham, lady of the manor on the blockbuster PBS import “Downton Abbey.” We latter-day peasants lust so much for a connection to our betters that we don’t even care if they’re fictional. The hope for such yichus only intensified after the show announced that Shirley Maclaine would play Cora's mother, Martha Levinson, in the next season.
A period drama set in the years before and after World War I, “Downton Abbey” follows the doings of the noble family and their servants on an impossibly gorgeous estate. At the time, most British Jews were still sweating it out in urban immigrant neighborhoods like London’s East End. Yet the show’s press packet describes Cora’s father as “Isidore Levinson, a Cincinnati dry goods millionaire.” Sounds promising!
A Jewish Downton wouldn’t surprise Jessica Elgot, a fan of the show who works as a reporter at The Jewish Chronicle in London. British Jews are apparently well accustomed to this kind of thing.
“On the surface of it, you wouldn’t expect it, but there’s kind of a tradition of this,” Elgot said. “[Prime Minister] David Cameron has some Jewish heritage. It always seems to pop up in places you don’t expect.” Soccer star David Beckham, too, who has been photographed in a kipa. Seems he comes by his kabbalah thread honestly.
Sadly though for the social climbers, all historical evidence indicates it’s highly unlikely that anyone like the U.S.-born Lady Grantham would also have been Jewish. Baron Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, has evaded repeated requests to comment, but a number of scholars feel duty-bound to let Jewish Downton fans down gently.
“I cannot offhand think of any Cincinnati Jew who actually married into European royalty,” said Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna, who would probably be in the best position to know as he wrote a book called “Cincinnati Jews.” “One of the Fleischmann girls of powdered yeast fame married Christian R. Holmes, but that is not the same thing.”
Hardly. Holmes was a mere doctor. Of course, Jewish esteem for the medical profession is well known, but the Victorian-era American heiresses who set their cap for a European nobleman would have sniffed at the professions.
There were many such spirited young ladies, said Carol Wallace Hamlin, co-author of “To Marry an English Lord,” a book about how British lineage and American wealth found each other back in the decades after the Civil War. The nobles needed money, and the young women wanted to be princesses, or as close as they could get.
Fellowes told the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph that Hamlin’s book inspired the show. It also provides the most solid evidence that as daughter of Izzy, the schmatte king of Cincinnati, Cora is probably an anachronism.
Hamlin said she doesn’t think any of the American heiresses she studied were Jewish, or had Jewish ancestry, and she studied 100 of them. She also said that it would have been an easy matter to pass: “As for covering up Jewish heritage, I think that was probably pretty simple in the early 19th century. You change your name, you start going to church.” But then Isidore would have had to become Ian, and he didn’t.
Most speculate that the model for Isidore was Levi Ziegler Leiter, who co-founded the Marshall Field & Company retail empire. His daughter Mary was one of those who married an English lord: George Curzon, 1st Marquess of Kedleston and the Viceroy of India. But according to the definitive history on Mary, written by someone who had access to the family papers, the Leiters were Swiss Mennonites with a penchant for biblical names, Hamlin said.
Of course, many British and German Jews married into upper-class families within their countries. “This wasn’t necessarily considered an act of desperation, though it provoked considerable comment and upper-class anti-Semitism,” said Alan Lessoff, editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. But it’s unlikely that an American Jewish woman could have done the same, he said.
Indeed, Sarna says that as late as World War I, Cincinnati’s intermarriage rate was only 4.5 percent.
In the end, only the Baron can tell his audience whether he kind of goofed on Cora’s backstory, or whether he knows something the scholars don’t. At least for now, in the best aristocratic fashion, he’s maintaining a lofty silence.