Sisterhood Blog

Updated: The Jewess of 'Downton Abbey'?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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pbs.org
Lady Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern.

Update:
Shirley Maclaine has just been cast as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother — and the Dowager Countess’ rival.

This is delicious news! Still, I’d have rather have seen Barbra or Goldie Hawn, an actual Jewess, play the part of a Jewish American wanna-be-princess, though I doubt Goldie would be able to overcome her tremendous Americanness.

Can’t you just imagine Babs playing one of her smart-yet-slightly ditzy roles, coming into the castle and spilling something on one of the heirloom estate-sized Oriental carpets, and then breaking into song, glorious song?

I loved Maclaine in the big screen version of Jennifer Weiner’s “In Her Shoes,” a movie that didn’t get the credit it deserved. She played the tough-as-nails grandmother character which, come to think of it, may be what got her this new gig.

And after all, Babs wouldn’t likely have gotten past the first round of negotiations because she in all likelihood would refuse to accede to the requirement, for the sake of historical accuracy, that her famous long fingernails go unlaquered.

Tip of the sheitel: Fiona Sharpe


Could Lady Cora Grantham be — gasp — Jewish? According to this piece on Tablet she may indeed be. A reader spied the fact that on PBS’ website for its hit Masterpiece Theater Classic series “Downton Abbey,” Lady Cora is described as the daughter of “Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.”

Mr. Carson, get the Dowager Countess her smelling salts!

Lady Cora’s bio goes on to say that, “she arrived in England with her mother in 1888 at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert by the end of her first season.”

Those of you who count yourselves among the series’ legion fans, as I do, know from dialogue in past episodes that Lord Grantham married the heiress Cora to avail himself of her fortune, needed to pay the upkeep on the castle he inherited. He would not have been the only European man possessing title and land, but little cash, to do so. According to this New York Times article, many newly monied American girls married men who could make them instant aristocrats. They included Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome, who would, about 8 months after her wedding to Englishman Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, become the mother of Winston Churchill.

So could Lady Cora be Jewish, at least by birth? Historian of American Jewry Jonathan Sarna says, in the Tablet story, that the answer is yes.

It is hard to imagine that Lady Violet, Cora’s mother-in-law, would have accepted her son’s marriage to a Jewess, though the wonderful Dame Maggie Smith does make clear that her character is nothing if not pragmatic, even if she struggles to cope with the introduction of electricity and telephones into the manor house.

At least the actress who plays Lady Cora, Elizabeth McGovern, comes by her Madonna-esque hybrid American-British accent honestly, since she has lived in West London for the past 20 years with her British husband and their daughters. Sometimes her character seems like the dullest pencil in the drawer. But who knows? Perhaps her Jewish lineage will come in handy, if only to upend social norms that she once sought to make her own, likely for the sake of making sure that her daughters marry men with proper status.

To that, the Dowager Countess would likely say something arch about the exoticness and cleverness of the Jews, before sneering at her daughter-in-law, “how perfectly American.”


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