Movies and reality shows tend to show heiresses as scandal-attracting airhead socialites living the high life without a care. But for the historical heiresses below, growing up in luxury did not squelch their thirst for adventure, advocacy, or shattering the glass ceiling.
1. Helen Miller Gould Shepard // Spinster Turned Romantic Heroine
Helen Miller Gould was a generous philanthropist, and the first female vice-president of the American Bible Society. But perhaps the most extraordinary element of Helen's life was her meet-cute with future husband Finley Johnson Shepard. Still single at 44, she had long been written off as an old maid when the couple met at a trainwreck. Yes, a trainwreck.
While traveling to Chicago with some gal pals in 1912, a freight train in front of them crashed, tossing cars onto the track—which Gould's train then collided with. According to the New York Times, “the middle cars buckled upward ... the private car in which Miss Gould was riding was ... wrenched and twisted.” As her story is told today at the Lyndhurst estate that she'd long preserved, Helen refused to flee to safety. Instead, she dove into the rescue effort, along with Mr. Shepard. In the midst of peril, the pair found love, and wed the next year in Helen's auspicious home.
2. Peggy Guggenheim // The Queen of Modern Art
Peggy Guggenheim's passion for life and art was said to be insatiable. When her father went down with the Titanic, the 13-year-old New Yorker became an instant millionaire, and used her wealth to travel, take lovers at will (she was rumored to have thousands), view all forms of art, and make a long list of famous friends from Man Ray to Samuel Beckett and Piet Mondrian to Marcel Duchamp. But Peggy's true legacy became the art she brought into the spotlight.
Whether home in New York or abroad in London, Paris, and Venice, Peggy would create exhibitions and waves everywhere she went. Through her shows, encouragement, and patronage, she launched the careers of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. Her "Art of This Century" gallery celebrated Cubism, Surrealism, and American Abstract Expressionism. In her own acquisitions, she took risks, buying the unsellable pieces ahead of their time or beyond description. Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum is one of the most popular destinations in Venice. And her impact on Modern Art as we know is incalculable.
3. Altina Schinasi // Mother of Harlequin
Artist and activist Altina Schinasi opposed McCarthyism and earned an Oscar nomination in 1960 in the Best Documentary Short Subject category. Yet this American heiress is most often remembered for how she forever changed the way we look at eyewear.
Having heard the Dorothy Parker verse "Men seldom make passes /At girls who wear glasses," Altina sought out to make eyeglasses glamorous. Pulling inspiration from Venetian masquerades, she created the Harlequin frame out of paper, and took the concept to companies like American Optical, Bausch + Lomb, and Ray-Ban, only to be rebuffed with comments like, "Well, when we're ready to sell glasses to lunatics, we'll let you know." Undeterred, Altina found a small company that took a risk, which paid off big. The Harlequin frame became a sensation in the 1930s, and is still quite popular today—though now it's known as the cat eye.
4. Tennessee Claflin // The First Woman Of Wall Street
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Tennessee and her sister Victoria Claflin Woodhull were not born into wealth, but instead served as eager apprentices to their snake oil salesman father. They got into the family business by promoting themselves as faith healers, drawing the attentions of the superstitious Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Though 50 years her senior, the Commodore fell for Tennie, who he called, "my little sparrow." She called him "the old goat," and so blossomed a relationship both personal and professional: He became silent partner to her and Victoria's stock brokerage firm, the first of its kind, run by women.
Their opening in 1870 was a massive draw. Men rushed in to see how "Lady Bankers" did business, while the papers made sure to note that the owners of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. favored short hair and skirts short enough to show their boots! Their business thrived, and allowed for a safe space for women to take control of their own money. Next, the sisters began their own paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, where they stoked the flames of their fame by promoting such taboo topics as sex education for young people, gender equality, and fair work conditions. Tennessee's 1885 marriage to Francis Cook, Viscount of Montserrat, is almost a footnote to her tale, falling far behind her stories of ambition and advocacy.
5. Pannonica de Koenigswarter // The Jazz Baroness
Born in 1913 London at the height of her family's influence, Pannonica Rothschild went on to marry a baron and fight as part of Charles de Gaulle's Free French Army in the Congo during World War II. But what has defined this baroness's legacy is her contribution to bebop through her patronage of jazz legend Thelonius Monk. Enchanted by his 3-minute record "Round Midnight," she traveled to New York City to meet him. Though the pair weren't fated to meet for years, Pannonica made a big impression on the Jazz Scene in her long, white Rolls-Royce, luxuriously lengthy cigarette holder perched in slender fingers, and ocelot coat draped around her shoulders.
When she finally did find Monk, they became fast friends. Some have speculated they were lovers, but no proof of such a romance has ever surfaced. As his patron, she devoted herself to Monk's well-being, even taking the rap for a marijuana possession charge in 1958 and allowing him to move into her home in his later years, when he was plagued by mental health issues. But more than patron, Nica—as she was lovingly nicknamed—was a source of inspiration to scads of musicians. Monk remembered her with his song "Pannonica." And this is one of many named for her, like Sonny Clark's "Nica," Kenny Dorham's "To Nica," Tommy Flanagan's "Thelonica," Gigi Gryce's "Nica's Tempo," and Freddie Red's "Nica Steps Out."
6. Lady Hazel Lavery // The Embodiment of Mother Ireland
Described as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest," this industrialist's daughter would grow up to become such a major part of Irish history that she'd be portrayed on the nation's money. After she wed Irish painter John Lavery, Hazel befriended revolutionary Michael Collins, and became so involved in Ireland's politics that the negotiations of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 were held within her palatial home.
Though Hazel took Collins's 1922 assassination quite hard, she continued to fight for what she felt was best for her adopted homeland. In 1928, her husband was commissioned to paint a portrait for a new series of banknotes. When choosing who he felt might best embody the virtues of Ireland, Lavery chose his favorite model: his American wife. She appeared on Irish banknotes for almost 50 years.
7. Louise Boyd // The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic
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Born on the sunny coast of California, this heiress to the Bodie Gold Bonanza of 1877 made her name exploring the glaciers of the Arctic. Not long after a trip to Norway's North Cape gave her a taste for the chilly region, Louise arranged her first expedition in the summer of 1926, returning with thousands of feet of film and hundreds of photographs. Two years later, she set forth once more to join the rescue effort of lost pilot Umberto Nobile. Though unsuccessful in his recovery (Nobile was eventually rescued by the Swedes, but it’s a long story), her four-month effort earned Louise a medal of honor from the King of Norway.
Later scientific expeditions led to an area of Greenland being named in her honor (Louise Boyd Land). Her acquired knowledge of the Arctic's glaciers, fiords, and magnetic/radio phenomena drew the attention of the U.S. Department of the Army, who contacted her during World War II. At 68, Louise embarked on her last great Arctic adventure, becoming the first woman to fly across the North Pole. After that, she retired from expeditions, but continued to promote others as a board member of American Geographical Society.
For more tales of female explorers, click here.
8. Nancy Astor // Groundbreaking Parliament member
Her father was an American railroad tycoon. Her husband was from one of the richest families in America. And to this heiress, great wealth came with great responsibility. Sometimes her charity was haphazard, like the time she plucked up a "lady tramp" from the side of the road and gave her a cottage to live in for the rest of her days. But by 1919, Nancy made it more than her mission to care for those in need—she made it her political platform in her adopted home of Plymouth Sutton.
Running for the seat formerly occupied by her husband, Nancy appealed to women who'd only recently been granted the right to vote, saying, "I think that women had better put a woman in the House of Commons. Much as I love you, Gentlemen, you have made a terrible muddle of the world without us." At 40, she became first woman representative in the United Kingdom's House of Commons, where she served for nearly 25 years. However, her legacy is a mixed one: She was praised for her promotion of women's issues, but scorned for her support of the Nazis before World War II began.
9. Gracia Mendes-Nasi // Sephardic Savior
One of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe, Gracia (a.k.a. Beatriz de Luna) used her great wealth to protect her fellow Jews from persecution. Her husband's death in January 1538 bestowed upon the 26-year-old a grand fortune. But when the pope began to push for a Portuguese Inquisition in the vein of the bloody Spanish one, Gracia fled with her surviving family, leaving much of her money behind. She'd long been a converso, masquerading outwardly as Catholic while secretly carrying on the religious traditions of her Jewish ancestors.
After years of fleeing persecution, Gracia was imprisoned in Venice, her wealth confiscated. Two years of negotiations earned her release. Establishing a new home in Constantinople, she and her daughter shed their Catholic façade and lived openly as Jews. A savvy businesswoman, Gracia grew her wealth, then used it to help conversos and Jews throughout the world. She bribed corrupt anti-Semitic officials for releases. She built synagogues, yeshivas, and libraries, funded Hebrew book printings, and gave money to countless conversos so they might rebuild their lives in friendlier lands. Today, her reputation is so great that the Sephardic community embraces her as "Our Angel."
10. Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot // Grand Dame of Champagne
Having narrowly survived the French Revolution's assault on the bourgeoisie, two neighboring textile merchants decided to merge their businesses through the marriage of their children. And so, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin became Mrs. (or Madame) Francois Clicquot. Though their marriage was arranged, the two shared a passion for business and bubbly. Together they took over the Clicquots' small wine operation, learning the ins and outs of it together. But when Francois died abruptly from typhoid six years into their marriage, it was up to Barbe-Nicole to keep it going when her father-in-law lost faith.
Barbe-Nicole lived by the words she'd later write to her grandchild: "The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”
She staked her inheritance on saving the business, and concocted a timesaving fermentation process called "riddling," which is still employed by modern champagne makers today. It wasn't easy, but this businesswoman believed that her atypically sweet champagne would be a hit with the Russians. Nearing bankruptcy, she smuggled her goods to Russia's border, and waited out the end of the conflict. The war ended in the nick of time. Tsar Alexander I proclaimed Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was the only champagne he'd drink. As he went, so did the world. Thus, Barbe-Nicole built an empire that continues to thrive today.
11. Frances Glessner Lee // Dollhouse Homicide Detective
The Chicago-born heiress, who is said to be the inspiration for Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, only began pursuing the career for which she's known in her 60s. While other women of her station were hosting galas for society's elite, Frances hosted elaborate dinner parties for medical examiners and homicide detectives, who were encouraged to share every grisly detail of a case. Through these, Frances became a student of forensics and investigation. Understanding how crucial physical elements of a case can be to solving it, this home-schooled amateur sleuth created the diorama series “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” through the 1940s and '50s, which were presented at week-long conferences for cops.
Built to scale with an intense eye to detail, every dollhouse presented a scene complete with corpse, blood spatter, and potential clues. Each was based on a real crime scene, built in miniature so detectives could observe and educate themselves on deductive reasoning and assessing a scene. Her studies revolutionized the way American investigators operate, and are still used to teach forensic investigation today.
12. Katharine McCormick // Mother of The Pill
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An outspoken advocate for women's rights as well as a biologist, this American heiress managed to dovetail these interests in her later days to win one of feminism's most important victories. Once this suffragette had seen women earn the right to vote, she focused on bringing birth control to America. Her early efforts in the 1920s involved seemingly breezy trips to and from Europe, which were actually smuggling operations to get much-needed diaphragms stateside. But as the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Katharine believed the real key to effective change for women needed to be in pill form.
She actively sought researchers who would dare tackle this topic despite the societal taboos. It wasn't until 1950 that science could even truly conceive of such a thing, and that’s when Katharine found her partner, biologist Gregory Pincus, who'd had success controlling the hormone levels of test rabbits. Funded by Katharine, Pincus moved on to human testing under the guise of "fertility treatments" in 1954. By 1960, the Food and Drug Administration had approved the pill, and so began a new wave of feminism thanks to one of its fierce foremothers.
13. Caterina Sforza // Tigress of Forli
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Perhaps the most infamous woman of Renaissance Italy, Caterina earned her nickname when her husband (Girolamo Riario, the Lord of Forli) was killed by rebels in 1488. After smooth talking her way through these foes into the safety of an ally's fortress, she took to the top of its barricades and hurled obscenities at the rebels she'd tricked. Incensed, they threatened to murder her children, held hostage. The Tigress responded by pulling up her skirts, exposing her genitals and callously proclaiming, "Kill them. I can make more."
While this (remarkably) did not lead to the death of her children, it did mark her rise as a notorious warlord. But for all the murders, torture, and destruction she wrought, Caterina's most outrageous crime was when she allegedly tried to kill Pope Alexander VI (a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia). In 1499, she sent the pontiff a curious package of letters, swaddled in a scarlet cloth. How this was meant to kill the pope is a matter of debate. Some suggest that Caterina's interest in alchemy inspired her to employ a poison that should have been absorbed through the skin. But others suggest that the Tigris had attempted early germ warfare by wrapping the letters in the clothes of a bubonic plague victim. More shocking might be that this warlord met no violent end. Though briefly imprisoned, she was released after the pope's natural death, and spent the rest of her days dabbling in alchemy.
14. Katharine Drexel // Actual Saint
While many wealthy women (and men) have given money to charity, few have gone as far as this 19th century heiress to a J.P. Morgan financier's fortune. By age 33, Katharine had become a nun, and as Sister Katharine she used her great wealth to build schools for the underserved populations of Native Americans and African Americans she had met in her cross-country travels. She founded and funded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Known today as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, this group has opened 145 missions, 49 elementary schools, and 12 high schools.
For her faith, missionary work, and donating an estimated $20 million to charity before her passing at the age of 96, she was canonized as Saint Katharine Drexel in 2000. Her feast day is March 3rd.
15. Krystyna Skarbek // "The Very First Bond Girl"
Also known as Christine Granville, this Polish heiress's heroics in World War II inspired author Ian Fleming's Casino Royale character Vesper Lynd. Though raised in luxury, Krystyna knew how to get down and dirty when it came to battling Nazi forces. While being interrogated by the Gestapo, she bit her tongue so hard she was able to cough up blood and feign tuberculosis, winning a release. Another time, she scared off a troop of would-be German captors by raising her arms—in seeming surrender—to reveal a pair of live grenades.
When WWII broke out, she volunteered herself to the British government as a spy, even offering a plan to disrupt Nazi influence in Hungary through pamphlets, using skis as transport. The British Special Operations Executive said yes, leading to her fateful meeting with Andrzej Kowerski, who'd become her partner professionally and romantically. Their missions sent them again and again into enemy territory, and her successes earned her the honor of being called Churchill's favorite spy. This wily woman's reputation has understandably become legendary. British ambassador Sir Owen O'Malley once declared, "(Krystyna is) the bravest person I ever knew. She could do anything with dynamite—except eat it."