Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kedleston, American Heiresses and Lady Curzon Soup

Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon 1870 – 1906

Lady Mary Curzon, wife of George, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India wasn't born at the magnificent Kedleston House.  She wasn't even English.  She was born Mary Leiter in Chicago in 1870.  She was 6’ tall, very beautiful, very cultivated, very intelligent and a very wealthy young woman.  She rose effortlessly above her parvenu status (where so many less accomplished heiress-arrivistes had failed) and was warmly welcomed into high society.  Grover Cleveland’s wife, Frances Folsom, was one of her best friends.  From all accounts, she was the real deal… a quality that money can’t buy.

Her father, Levi Zeigler Leiter (1834-1904) was one of the founders of the Marshall Fields retail empire who went on to become a titan in the world of Chicago real estate. 

He brought his family from Chicago to Washington DC in 1881 to broaden their cultural horizons as he spent more time away from business, enjoying travel and philanthropy, helming The Chicago Historical Society and Chicago Art Institute boards. His children received tutoring in the fine arts and had a Columbia professor to teach history and science at their Washington D.C. home.  This surely influenced Mary’s life, making her more sophisticated and worldly than she may have been had she remained in Chicago.

Well-known Philadelphia architect Theophilus Chandler built Leiter’s mansion on DuPont Circle.  It was considered one of the finest houses in Washington DC when it was built with 3 stories and 55 rooms.  His wife, the former Mary Theresa Carver, was one of the leading hostesses of the capitol and Mary debuted there in 1888. Sadly, the house was torn down in 1947 –– the Dupont Plaza Hotel stands in its place.

Leiter House
Leiter House
Leiter House

In 1894, after much success in cosmopolitan society, she went to London where the American Ambassador introduced her to George Nathaniel Curzon, heir to the Barony of Scarsdale.

It was love at first sight.

George Nathaniel Curzon was a brilliant, driven man (he felt his character was formed by a diabolical, sadistic governess).  It was said you either loved him or hated him.  Because of a riding accident, he had to wear a back brace most of his life that made him appear stiff and haughty.  A rather unpleasant rhyme about him was created at Balliol and stayed with him most of his life:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person.

My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
He worked hard at Oxford, traveled extensively (even though his father felt it was a waste of time to travel to foreign countries and that people of their class should stay put).  As a result of his travels and languages, he was a force for good in foreign affairs and advanced quickly as he implemented forward-thinking policies.

Mary Leiter was more attracted to his talent and drive than his title (his ancient family tracked back to the Norman conquest but was not fabulously wealthy at this point) and they were married in 1895 in Washington, D.C. a year after meeting.  They had 3 daughters and were said to be incredibly devoted to one another.  George was devastated when she died in 1906, only 36 years old from complications from a miscarriage.  Later in life he said he had no fear of death for he would be able to join his beloved Mary (a fact that must have ticked off his 2nd wife).
Lady Mary in the Durbar Dress, 1903

Renowned architect, Sir Robert Adam (1728-92) built Kedleston House (at enormous expense) in 1765 for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, the first Lord Scarsdale (he tore down the ancient family house and a village to make it).   It was never meant as a family house and was rather meant to be a house to entertain in, a “temple of the arts”, hence the gorgeous giant rooms. As a result, the family apartments aren’t especially grand (Curzon ran out of money so a planned enlargement never happened).  As is often the case, lack of funds kept the gorgeous Adam house intact and undamaged by unworthy renovations.
The oval music room, The Saloon, has the most remarkable acoustics thanks to the round ceiling and the great hall has been used for filming on many occasions, most recently filming on the Duchess with Keira Knightly.  It is a very grand house for its size.
The Saloon

The Marble Hall


The Drawing Room with the startling blue silk wall covering and fabulous carpet

State Bedchamber

The Curzon’s lives underwent a seismic shift when Lord Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India.   In a 1904 NYT article, Lady Curzon was called “the American Queen of India”. It was thought that the position of Viceroy was second only to King Edward himself. 

Curzon felt it was important for appearances that the Viceroy lead an opulent life full of great splendor as was the custom in India at that time and Curzon did not disappoint –– he lived nearly as lavishly as the ruling 200-odd Maharajahs in the country who ran its princely states  (yes, there were complaints about his extravagance back home in England).

Mary Curzon in the Peacock Dress Portrait in the entrance of Kedleston

This desire to impress led to the creation of the incredible Peacock Dress that was made for Lady Curzon of precious jewels and golden thread by the House of Worth, Paris. Word was, when she appeared in the dress at the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII, the crowd was breathless… the dress was designed to sparkle in the newly deployed electric lights at the party. Even today it is remarkable to behold in a glass case at the house.

 She was said to be one of the best-dressed women in the world and was a great supporter of the Indian fabric industry and its craft’s men and women.  She encouraged the renaissance of ancient embroidering traditions that were on the wane when she arrived in the country.  The fabric for Queen Alexandra’s coronation gown was made and embroidered by the same factory that had done the Peacock Dress at the urgings of Lady Curzon. 

But there was more –– she learned Urdu and a women’s hospital in Bangalore still bears her name ––– she was one of the first people to urge conservation of the dwindling rhinoceros population.  She was a remarkable woman.

Back in England, Mary campaigned for her husband, standing radiantly by his side during speeches and was immediately popular.

She was a magnetic hostess wherever she lived and it is for this we remember her creation that came to be named Lady Curzon Soup in her honor.

Dining Room

Wine Cooler the size of a bath for the dining room… for a lot of wine!!

Lady Curzon Soup was the result of a happy accident.  The story goes that in 1905 Lady Curzon was entertaining an important guest who did not drink.  All the rest of her guests for the evening enjoyed their alcohol.  With remarkable diplomatic skill, she reached a happy compromise and had the chef liberally douse creamed turtle soup with sherry.  The story and the bones of the recipe came from Soup Song.
The result is superb and quite easy to make. When I had it in my youth I thought it was the height of fine old-world dining elegance and terribly sophisticated.  Since I haven't had turtle soup for 1000 years  (I am very much against eating turtle… had a pet named Myrtle), I tried to come up with an alternative that had a hint of amphibian about it.
Today, it has become common to make Lady Curzon Soup with mussels and I think that is a delicious way to go.  It is also possible to buy cans of turtle soup should you want to do it that way. I went another way.  Since I am familiar with the taste of frog and even alligator, I decided that a mix of chicken and fish would approximate the flavor.  SO I used chicken stock with a splash of fish stock and blowfish tails (that the fishmonger at the Lobster Place, NYC recommended) as the garnish with great success.  I can say frog’s leg meat would work well or simply use sole or monkfish –– even crab or lobster would be delicious. Honestly, I seem to recall the turtle in the soup had the texture of clams… but I could be wrong… it was a very long time ago. Anyway you make it, it is rich and delicious and elegant.  It does honors to a remarkable woman.

Lady Curzon Soup serves 4-6
 2 egg yolks
1/3 c heavy cream
1 t (or more or less to taste) curry powder
4 c chicken stock (you could substitute 1 cup of chicken with 1 cup of fish stock)
1/3 pound blowfish tails  (or meat from 2 frog’s legs, or 1/3 pound sole or monkfish, or 16 mussels) gently sautéed in a t of butter and kept warm
1/4 cup sherry

Garnish: 6 Tablespoons whipped heavy cream, sprinkling of curry powder
In a bowl, whip together the egg yolks, cream, and curry powder. In a large saucepan, heat the soup, then gradually beat a cup of it into the egg yolk mixture, making a liaison. Remove the soup from the heat and finish the liaison by stirring in the egg mixture. Add the sherry, then reheat at a very low temperature until light and creamy ––do not boil.
To serve, pour into bowls or cups, add the fish and top with thewhipped cream on each one. Run the bowls under a hot broiler for just a few seconds if you have oven-proof bowls or cups or hit it with a blowtorch if you would like to glaze the cream, then serve immediately.


DocChuck said...

Another interesting post. But you may want to remove one of the "s's" in "Heiressses".

helen tilston said...

What a delightful, interesting and fascinating post. Mary Curzon was admirable brave and adventurous. She was also very beautiful and with much style and so multi talented. I always feel honoured to read of women of her ilk who make a difference and seem happy in their role.

I am going back to look over the images again.Great work and thank you.
Curious, I just posted about duPont Registry (
Helen Tilstonxx

La Table De Nana said...

Not only are your posts uniquely interesting..but the ingredients are always a touch unusual for me..and I love that.
The soup looks lovely.
Have a lovely weekend~

Barbara said...

So often one reads that American heiresses married poor titled Englishmen just for the title. Nice that these two appear to have loved each other (the rhyme notwithstanding). Her height was unusual too, was it not? What a shame she died so young.

My grandfather used to raise turtles...we ate turtle meat often when I was younger. They were HUGE!

In Michigan, my father had some property on sandy soil and often brought me eggs, which we buried and watched. When they hatched, we released them back on the sand property. I also remember having one as a pet. We drilled a hole in the corner of his shell (would that have hurt?) and tied a string on it. Honestly, the things I remember. And that turtle bit me on the nose when I kissed it.
Anyway, my mother used to make turtle soup all the time. Lots of sherry in it as I recall. Have no idea where the recipe is.

Unknown said...

Oh I would have liked her :).
THe soup looks beautiful. I don't think the Lady herself could have done a better job (or her chef LOL).
In London there is a Curzon Street in a very expensive area in the city centre. I wonder if it is named after her and her husband?
*kisses* HH

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What a life she had. What a shame it ended so young.

The ingredients you use in your historic recipes are as interesting as the stories about the people! So glad you didn't use any Myrtles in your soup ;)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

That wine cooler does suggest someone who really liked to entertain! I have never tried turtle soup, so I was fascinated by how you put a variety of flavors and ingredients together for this tribute dish.

Lora said...

Fascinating story and the dress, oh the dress...

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

My, oh my.....first of all, the story is fabulous along with the GLAMOUR of her gowns and crowns and status! Then the soup. OK, I cannot stomach frogs' legs, but the rest sounds so perfect for these cold days coming! Deana dearest, again, you make a DOCUMENTARY here for us to enjoy. PLEASE tell me you are involved in either publishing or film making because you have all the skills and now-how. Thank you for coming to support me in my new adventure. Where it will take me, I have no idea. But it is certainly fun watching it unfold. I am doing things I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD DO; today we are going to go pick up the shipping boxes and again, it is surreal!

Enjoy a great weekend creating and making a mark of excellence in your world! Anita

tasteofbeirut said...

Very interesting story of a remarkable woman. The soup is no less delightful with a wonderful warm hue. You make me live vicariously through these people for a few minutes and it is fun.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing woman! She definitely rose to the role beautifully and then excelled (although she had a great start too ;)). That peacock dress is stunning and it was lovely to see it on her as well as behind the glass cabinet!

Faith said...

Such an intriguing post! It has everything -- romance, elegance, and amazing food! I especially loved reading about Mary, she was quite the lady.

The soup is beautiful, and as I think I'd have trouble locating blowfish tails, I was happy you listed alternatives -- I think I might try it with sole!

Ken Albala said...

Who would tear down such a splendid house like that? I mean the Leiter House on Dupont Circle. I used to live a few blocks away and have never even heard of it. The other one aint too shabby either. (LOVE turtle soup by the way!)

Emily said...

Ah, Kedleston is very close to where I'm from in England so I've often been there. Lovely to read your post about it. The music room really is remarkable. I'd never heard of Lady Curzon soup though and simply have to try it soon, probably with sole. Yum!

Vanessa Gordon said...

Chef Lamia