Picture this scene:
A beautiful young woman sits in her boudoir. Married that morning, she anxiously awaits her new husband. In he comes and makes the following statement, “There are some things I must say to you, and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there can be no misunderstanding between us.” “In public I shall be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife… I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment. Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but name. I do not love you, I can never love you …The less we see of one another except in the presence of others the better.” The shocked girl asks him why he married her? With a bitter laugh he replies, “Since you force me to do so I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes.”
Although this sounds like something from a hackneyed romance novel, it’s not. This really happened to Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, and the story of her life with Harry Lehr, the gold digging cad that she was unfortunate enough to marry, is recounted in the rather astonishing autobiography, King Lehr and the Gilded Age, by Lady Decies (formerly Elizabeth Drexel Lehr).
Elizabeth was a child of wealth and grew up happy and comfortable in late 19th century New York City. Harry Lehr was also born into money, but when his father died he was left penniless, embittered and determined to make his way back into the privileged world of the wealthy. His plan was twofold, first he ingratiated himself to society matrons by being ever so engaging, witty and fun. He survived on their largesse and kickbacks from suppliers whose goods he encouraged his benefactors to purchase. Secondly, he kept an eye out for a wealthy and pliable heiress to marry. Poor Elizabeth was gullible enough to fall for his smarmy charms.
What may be surprising to modern readers is that she didn’t divorce Harry the day after the shocking wedding night declaration. Fear of shaming her mother and alienating herself from her society friends kept her bound to Lehr for decades despite the fact that he emotionally abused her and lavishly indulged all his whims with her money.
The narrative follows their unhappy life together as they travel amongst the rich and powerful in the U.S. and Europe during the early years of the 20th century. We get a decidedly jaundiced view of the American “Downton Abbey” crowd, although many of the grandees mentioned will probably be unknown to people nowadays.
Elizabeth’s story is an interesting expose of a lost world and its dubious mores and manners. The book was considered quite shocking when it was originally published in 1938. It’s an engrossing page-turner for people who enjoy social history, women’s lives or scandal among the rich and famous.
NOTE: There’s a famous photo of Lady Decies taken by Weegee. Here you see Elizabeth going to the opera in 1943. The image makes a startling contrast to the beautiful painted portrait of her on the cover of the book.
Check the WRL catalog for “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age