Mary Victoria Leiter, daughter of Levi and Mary Leiter, was born in Chicago on May 27, 1870. Her father was the co-founder of the Field and Leiter dry goods business, which later became Marshall Field & Company. Leiter also made a fortune in Chicago real estate, becoming one of the single largest landowners in the city during its period of phenomenal growth in the late 19th century.
The family home was located at 2114 S. Calumet Avenue (shown above as it appeared in the 1890s) and was designed in 1870 by architect W. W. Boyington, a Calumet neighbor best remembered today for his design of the Chicago water tower. The Leiters left Chicago in 1881 and made their home in Washington, D.C. where they became part of that city’s elite social circle. Their Chicago home was sold to John B. Drake, proprietor of the famed Grand Pacific Hotel, who engaged Cobb and Frost to significantly remodel the home. It was demolished in 1935.
Mary Leiter received an excellent education from private tutors, a French governess, and a Columbia University professor. Her best friend in Washington D.C. was Frances Folsom, who in 1886 married President Grover Cleveland, aged 49. Frances was just 21 years old at the time, the youngest woman ever to serve as First Lady.
The U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James introduced Mary Leiter to London society in 1894, where she met a Conservative Member of Parliament, George Curzon. The couple had three daughters, and the youngest, Alexandra, later married Edward Metcalfe, the best friend, best man, and equerry of Edward VIII.
George Curzon accepted the position of Viceroy of India in 1898 and was elevated to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Curzon of Kedleston. He and his wife, who received the title of Vicereine of India, arrived in Bombay on December 30, 1898 and her beauty and grace soon made her hugely popular throughout India. To this day, no American has ever achieved a higher rank in English royalty.
In 1902, the Curzons organized the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII, and it was touted at the time as the “grandest pageant in history.” Among those in attendance was a former Prairie Avenue neighbor, Addie Hibbard Gregory, who wrote about the event in her book, A Great-Grandmother Remembers. At the state ball, Mary Curzon wore an elaborate Worth gown, known as the peacock dress (shown at the top of this article). The gown was made of gold cloth embroidered with peacock feathers with a blue/green beetle wing in each “eye,” which gave the appearance of emeralds. (The dress is now on display at the Curzon estate, Kedleston Hall).
Lady Curzon became a proponent of the artisans and manufacturers in India and wore Indian fabrics making them fashionable throughout India as well as London, Paris and the capitals of Europe. She placed orders for her friends and strangers alike, and assisted the silk weavers, embroiderers, and other artists to adapt their work to Western tastes and modern fashion. In addition, she helped revive native arts that had been all but forgotten, providing employment to many artisans.
She also had a strong interest in medical reform and led the movement to establish hospitals for women and appointing female doctors. The Lady Curzon Hospital in Bangalore is one of several established during her time in India.
An ardent conservationist, Lady Curzon learned about the Great One-horned Rhinoceros of Kaziranga and traveled to the area during the winter of 1904 to see them. Her interest led to her husband establishing the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest, now the Kaziranga National Park.
Lady Curzon’s suffered serious health issues during her years in India and trips back to England to convalesce were unsuccessful. She and her husband returned to England in August 1905 after he resigned his post, but her health was failing and she died on July 18, 1906 in their home at 1 Carlton House Terrace, Westminster, London at the age of 36.
Lord Curzon had a memorial chapel built in her honor, which was attached to the parish church at Kedleston Hall. The chapel, designed by G. F. Bodley in the decorated Gothic style, was completed in 1913. The sculptor, Sir Bertram Mackennal, created a stunningly beautiful and touching effigy of Lady Curzon which, per her husband’s wishes “expressed as might be possible in marble, the pathos of his wife’s premature death and to make the sculpture emblematic of the deepest emotion.” Lord Curzon’s effigy was later added to lie beside that of his wife, as his remains do in the vault beneath.