My visit to Floors Castle and American Ingenuity in the Face of Adversity
Born of a father from the North and a mother from the South, I am more than familiar with the terms Yankee and Dixie. I have been called both, as well as half-Dixie. However, in England, Americans are all referred to as “Yanks,” and it is not always as a compliment. Nevertheless, as a child of America, I have come to recognize the inherent qualities that are readily existent in nearly all Americans. Northerners call it “Yankee ingenuity,” but it truly applies to all the children of America. Americans tend to have a tenacity to compete, to win, and to most importantly, to make the best of any and all situations.
A prime example is Mary Goelet, a so called “bride of fortune,” married off at the turn of the century to a well-titled, well-connected, but nevertheless very broke Scottish Aristocrat. Following in the footsteps of her very unhappy distant cousin, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, opinions regarding the match vacillated between exuberance and pity. Consuelo made no secret of unhappiness with her aristocratic, arranged marriage. She loved another, and lived a life of dometic upheavals. High society worried that such a fate awaited the young Mary Goelet. Nevertheless, they needed not to worry.
Mary Goelet, Duchess of Roxborough, restricted in her choices by both class and gender, embraced her new life and did more than make the best of it. Rather than marrying an aristocrat, she viewed it as marrying an opportunity–that is, the opportunity to put her own stamp on a once grand, but now somewhat downtrodden, country home. The home had potential, and with her dowry of $20 million dollars, Mary turned this country home into a castle. Today this country home is known as Floors Castle, and the family is supported, at least in part, by the opening of sections for a fee to the public.
During the time period of Mary Goelet, very little of heard of the Duke. Probably a meek and mild fellow, it seems he deferred almost entirely to his American wife. My tour of Floors Castle was sprinkled with negative comments about Mary Goelet. The tour guides simply referred to her as “The American lady,” who “made unfortunate changes…..nothing we can do about it now.” They explained she turned a dining room into a ball room, turned a bedroom into a sitting room, closed off hallways, eliminated windows, added a new wing. Most wretchedly, they commented, she brought in French tapestries, and frenchified an entire room! Despite all the negativity regarding this “American lady” from the staff, I could not help but see the penumbras of Yankee ingenuity in her work. Mary Goelet did not marry a man-she married a house-and she made that house her castle. She ran the home like a business, growing and selling vegetables in the garden. She opened a wing of the castle and starting charging a fee. The money she brought with her became supplemented by the business practices she likely learned from her prominent, business-minded relatives in America. The Floors Castle we know today is in great part, because of Mary Goelet. Unlike Consuelo Vanderbilt, who ultimately left her husband, Blenheim Palace, and her riches she brought with her to marry another, Mary Goelet held the course of her marriage and set the foundations for an empire. While a bride of fortune, forced into an arranged marriage, she claimed the house and the life as her own-arguably, Yankee ingenuity at its best.
As Americans living in the 21st century, we are lucky to live in a time period, almost entirely free of class constraints, where we can pick our own spouses and forge our own paths. And yet, these freedoms came about because of the evolution of past cultures our forefathers lived in- a culture today that cries the anthem of Winston Churchill, an English politician with an American mother- ‘Young men (and women), never give up. Never give up! Never give up!! Never, never, never-never-never-never!'” Play the cards you have-and if you don’t like the cards you have-reach for another. This is Yankee ingenuity at its best.
As a business leader, one constantly comes across problems. They key is to always search for a solution, and to never give-up. As Americans, this anthem is in our blood. As an American, I was thrilled to see good old Yankee ingenuity within the walls of a Scottish Country home. As a business owner, I will continue striving to apply that Yankee ingenuity into the lifeblood of my business. May we all strive to do so within our lives and businesses, as Mary Goelet did within hers.