Before she was Fanny Ronalds, she was Mary Frances Carter. And as a young girl in the 1850s, Mary – Fanny to her friends(and enemies) in Boston's high society – had a problem. Her family lacked the funds to support her in the manner to which she hoped to become accustomed.
So, Fanny developed a habit of finding a young man to escort her on a walk to C.F. Hovey and Co., a popular department store, where she would select some items to purchase. Upon reaching the cashier, she would ‘discover’ that she had left her money behind.
The pliable young Boston swain would generously pay for the purchase, with the promise that Fanny’s father would repay him. There would be no repayment. Fanny would keep her purchases. All the boy had left to show for his generosity was the memory of a goodnight kiss.
As her reputation grew, even the more slowwitted offspring of Boston’s Brahmin set would begin giving Fanny a wide berth. That just meant she needed to begin chasing bigger fish.
Before she was done, Fanny’s record of conquests would make her bamboozling of the Boston boys look like child’s play.
Fanny’s childhood in Boston was mainly notable for her beauty, charm and a natural soprano voice. As word of her talents spread, Fanny decided to seek out greener pastures. She found them in New York, in the person of Pierre Lorillard Ronalds.
Pierre was eccentric. Born in 1826, he was 13 years older than Fanny when the two met and were married in 1859. She was just 20. Fanny and Pierre had a family together and lived in New York for eight years.
Pierre’s mother was from the Lorillard family that owned the Lorillard Tobacco Co. Pierre had little need to work. He became a collector – of art, suits of armor, horses, and more. He was proud of his Scottish heritage and eventually he would build a castle to house his collections atop a hill in Newtown, Ct.
The Ronalds Castle was to be his new family seat, and he spared no expense. The stone walls were two feet thick. The front was 110 feet long and it had two wings, each 108 feet in length. The castle was lavish in every way, with countless rooms for guests, servants and the Ronalds family. Pierre had a gymnasium built in the castle, along with a wine cellar, indoor swimming pool, bowling alley and billiard room plus banquet halls.
The house required 15 bathrooms, and they contained trap doors that covered sunken bathing pools. Water at the hilltop castle was supplied by a windmill. The building contained a system of speaking tubes and remote bells to summon servants. Outbuildings included stables, an ice house, cow barns, carriage houses and housing for farm hands. A tennis court and gardens completed the property. It all sat atop a hill with commanding views of Newtown.
At one point the entire castle was virtually destroyed by fire (during which Pierre’s wine cellar was looted). He rebuilt. And when Pierre finally moved in, he shocked the town of Newtown. Instead of meeting Fanny, his wife, townspeople were introduced to Elizabeth Blake, Pierre’s young secretary and mistress. Elizabeth would be the lady of the house. The presence in the house of Elizabeth’s aunt as a chaperone did little to quell the gossip. But it’s doubtful Fanny cared. She had long ago moved on from Pierre.
After marrying, Fanny took little time in mesmerizing two of Manhattan’s wealthiest men with her beauty – Leonard Jerome, a wealthy stock speculator, and August Belmont, a financier. If it bothered her that both men were already married, she concealed it well. The two men, much older than Fanny, competed to satisfy her every wish.
At the end of the Civil War, Fanny shocked New York Society by her behavior at a costume ball she hosted. The city had been held spellbound by newspaper exposes of brothels run by a former minister, John Allen. Many of the women at Allen’s establishment had been lured away from well-to-do New England families and were virtual slaves. Allen’s trademark costume for the women was a pair of red boots with brass bells attached.
For Fanny’s costume party, she chose to go dressed as “music,” wearing an elaborate head piece that was illuminated by gas-fired flames. But on her feet she wore red boots with bells, which became the talk of the city. True to her nature, Fanny managed to profit on the venture. She double-billed both Belmont and Jerome to pay for the party.
Jerome built a 600-seat theater in his Manhattan mansion and Fanny performed there often. August and Leonard both filled Fanny’s rooms with flowers, and for a time she managed to juggle both men. Fanny was a frequent guest in Newport and would travel there aboard Jerome’s yacht, often with his family.
In fact, Fanny became something of a second mother to Jerome’s daughter Jennie (the future mother of Winston Churchill). Jerome’s wife Clarissa at one point told Fanny she wasn’t upset by the affair with her husband, because she realized how irresistible he was.
By 1867 Clarissa had grown tired of her irresistible husband Leonard and decided to move to Paris. Fanny opted to join her. For a time the women were celebrities and welcome additions to court of Napoleon, III. With his empire waning, however, Clarissa and Fanny moved across the channel to England in 1871. Here, Fanny would finally settle – at 7 Cadogan Place in London.
For a time she was one of the many mistresses of Prince (and future king) Edward VII, known as Bertie. But her most prominent affair of the day was with Arthur Sullivan of the famed theatrical team, Gilbert & Sullivan.
Sullivan and Fanny would host Sunday soirees at her London home, where he would play piano and she would sing. They were royalty in London society. Fanny’s chief influence in Sullivan’s life was to help patch up the stormy relationship he had with his partner, W.S. Gilbert. Sullivan would leave Fanny $250,000 when he died in 1900 – one third of his estate.
When Fanny’s husband Pierre died in 1905, Fanny was finally free, but apparently had lost her taste for acquiring wealthy men. Pierre had threatened divorce, but had never carried through. He willed his castle to his mistress, but not the funds to maintain it. The building had a run as a health sanitarium and a school before it was finally torn down in 1947.
Pierre’s eight Manhattan buildings, and the income derived from them, were left to Fanny and the children. In 1916, in death, Fanny finally declared her true love. She had directed that in her coffin she wanted placed the manuscript to Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord. The haunting melody was Sullivan’s masterpiece, written at the bedside of his dying brother Fred.
Despite her scandalous behavior by uptight Boston standards, Fanny’s charms never quite failed her.
Samuel Eliot Morison noted in his memoir, One Boy’s Boston, “My mother recalls one of the Otis ladies called on Fanny in London and was invited to one of her song recitals. When she related this on her return, one of her friends remonstrated, “How could you call on that awful woman?” To which Miss. Otis gallantly replied, “I shall never believe a word against Fanny’s reputation – she has such a lovely singing voice!” – surely a non-sequitur if there ever was one.