Huh? A Gilded Age tale of gypsies, royalty, heartbreak and chocolate starts in…Michigan?
Well yes. Sort of. That’s where one Clara Ward was born in 1873. She was the daughter of a Midwestern captain of industry, a man known as the “King of the Lakes,” Eber Brock Ward. His personal fortune was valued at some $6 million ($133 million in today’s dollars) and when he died he left young Clara fully half of it.
She was a famous beauty, known for having a mind of her own. And it was perhaps because she possessed not only money and beauty but brains as well that her mother took her to Europe at the age of 17, hoping to marry her into a royal family.
The plan worked somewhat. Clara shortly met one Marie Joseph Anatole Elie Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, a semi-prince of Belgium. I say “semi” because in those days the Belgian title of “prince” didn’t necessarily entail access to the throne. Caraman-Chimay was a cousin of King Leopold II of Belgium. He was also an Olympic fencer. Those two things plus a franc would have gotten him a cup of coffee. For indeed Caraman-Chimay was a man of much-diminished circumstances and he needed an heiress to get his house back in order.
Literally. His ancestral chateau was falling down. By marrying Clara he gained immediate access to the $300,000 ($7 million or so) he needed to complete repairs, but also a slush fund of another $100,000. He also got a highly desirable young wife in the bargain.
Which was part of Caraman-Chimay’s problem. For it wasn’t long after Clara, Princess de Caraman-Chimay was introduced at court that she became a favorite of the immensely powerful and wealthy King Leopold II of Belgium. Here the Prince was at a serious disadvantage, for not only did he lack money and influence, he lacked anything resembling good looks. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the headstrong Clara and Leopold soon became an “item” as they say.
That didn’t sit well with the Belgian court. Dalliance led to scandal and scandal led to Clara’s de-facto expulsion from the Belgian court. That left her no place to go other than back to the Belgian sticks, her husband’s chateau in the tiny village of Chimay. She didn’t stay there long terribly long. She began taking regular trips to Paris, often without the Prince. And it was there, under circumstances that still remain foggy, that she met the moustache — I mean man — of her dreams.