Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Clara Ward, Michigan's Million Dollar Princess

By Kathleen Rouser
Princess Clara de Caraman-Chimay in 1898, photo taken
by Paul Nadar, {PD}

Back when I was researching the Detroit upper classes circa 1900, for a novella, I came across some information about a young lady who was an American dollar princess. With the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey and the Smithsonian Channel’s series about American million dollar princesses, along with the excitement over the upcoming marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry, many have found the stories of American-born princesses intriguing.

When I did read about Clara Ward, who was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1873, I found the story of a princess which was anything but the stuff of fairytales. Clara Ward was the daughter of Eber Brock Ward, Detroit’s first millionaire, and his second wife. A man who seemed to have a talent for investing, he’d worked in shipping with his uncle, had his hand in lumber, the railroads, and manufactured steel near Detroit. After having seven children with him, his first wife divorced him for serial infidelity. He then married the much younger Catherine Lyon, the niece of a senator. E.B. Ward died in 1875 before Clara was even two. 

Clara in 1898, by Paul Nadar, {PD}

Clara grew up to be a very willful young lady, straining against the confines of morals and society at the time. She was expelled from boarding schools in London and Paris. After being placed at a convent school in Italy, she shocked the nuns there with her outrageous behavior.

While she was in Europe, Clara’s mother made sure to find a proper match for her, trading dollars for class and pedigree. In Niece, France, at the age of seventeen, the young lady was introduced to Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay of Belgium, from the province of Hainaut, near France. He was a cousin to King Leopold II and a member of the Chamber of Deputies in Belgium. Fifteen years her senior and lacking in funds, he found the beautiful Clara and her dowry of three and a half million francs ($2.5 million) an attractive package. In exchange, his bride would become Princess Clara de Caraman-Chimay. The marriage took place in Paris in the spring of 1890. 
Clara with Rigo Janczy, between
1897 and 1905, {PD}

Americans were enthralled with the idea of an American princess, much as they seem to be today. As time went on, their match would make waves on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Clara gave birth to a daughter in 1891 and a son in 1895, but the princess quickly became restless with her life in Belgium. One rumored story says she threw gold coins off of the battlements of her chateau and watched the villagers below fight over them.

Clara apparently carried on with other men, but her husband ignored it all. She was also rumored to have caught the eye of King Leopold II in the Belgian court and had a relationship with him, causing a stir. 

However, in 1896, while the Prince and Princess de Caraman-Chimay dined at a Parisian restaurant, the performance of a Hungarian gypsy violinist, set into motion a scandal that rocked the gossip news of both America and Europe. Clara became infatuated with the roving musician, Rigo Janczy, and he with her. Ten days later the couple eloped. 

Clara on a postcard, performing
"poses plastique," Between 1898
and 1905 {PD}

Prince Joseph divorced Clara in 1897. She gave up custody of her children and agreed to pay for their support. After Janczy obtained a divorce in 1898, he married her. The infamous couple was shunned by upper and lower classes. Clara further scandalized the society of the time by performing what she called her “poses plastiques” in a nude-colored, skintight body stocking at French cabarets such as Folies Bergere and Moulin Rouge. This was considered very shocking at the time. Her second husband sometimes accompanied her performance on his violin. She was often the subject of photographs used on postcards in her stage outfit and wearing more conventional clothing.

The couple traveled far and wide, living as they pleased so that Clara’s family needed to put brakes on funds available to her, restricting her to today’s equivalent of around two million dollars a year. Eventually, Rigo and Clara's love grew stale and she divorced Janczy around 1904 for his infidelity.

Clara soon took up with her third husband, Peppino Riccardio, supposedly a handsome waiter she met on a train. They were together until 1911 when he alleged that Clara cheated on him, which she denied. 

Postcard of Clara Ward Chimay,
possibly 1905 {PD}

Her last husband, Signore Cassalota, managed the railroad station which arranged tours of Mt. Vesuvius. In 1916, Clara died at her villa in Padua, Italy, at the age of 43. Her two children, her third husband, and a cousin received the remains of her wealth. 

Clara Ward Chimay decided to live life the way she wanted and is heralded by some feminists for doing so. In the process, she lost her children and any semblance of a good reputation. She ran from the restraints of what she considered proper society. She bargained her fortune for a title but didn’t find contentment being part of the Belgian royal court. She was estranged from family. Though she lived a lavish lifestyle of great wealth, she left behind no legacy of goodness that I found in my research. She was only remembered for her scandalous behavior. Clara’s obituary in a Detroit paper summed up her life well: “She died a woman without illusions. She had gone the pace. She lived intensely, a slave of her desires; she died an outcast, an old woman of 43 years, just when she should have been in her prime."

Kathleen Rouser is the award-winning author of Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and the novella, The Pocket Watch. She is a longtime member of American Christian Fiction Writers. Kathleen has loved making up stories since she was a little girl and wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She longs to create characters who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of 36 years, and the sassy tail-less cat who found a home in their empty nest. Connect with Kathleen on her website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser.


  1. It sounds like Clara Ward's life was spent trying to find contentment but she never sad!

  2. An interesting post. It is too bad when someone who could have done so much for others just lives for the moment and sacrifices all they have, including their children. Thanks for posting the story.

    1. Glad you found it interesting, Connie R. As I researched the princess's life I debated whether to post it as it's a sad story but it certainly shows the emptiness of living solely for oneself and without a relationship with Christ.

  3. I find Clara's story fascinating but oh, so very sad! She had the opportunity to experience great joys and share her wealth with those less fortunate but she never found a true purpose. Thanks for sharing her story.

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights, Connie. I agree wholeheartedly!

  4. Thank you, Kathleen Rouser, for an even-handed and honest historical bio of a woman who lost her family when she followed her lustful heart.

  5. Thank you for stopping by today, Susan. I'm glad you saw the bio as even-handed and honest. There, but for the grace of God, go I! It's certainly a cautionary story.

  6. Wow, this was really interesting! it's sad to see the trail of pain and hurt Clara left behind her, especially in her children. It would be interesting to know what became of them.

    1. Yes, it is very sad, Vickie. I read that her son died in 1920, so he didn't live long enough to become the next prince. Clara's daughter married a Frenchman, had no children and died at the age of 48 in 1939. It would be interesting to know more detailed information about them for sure.

  7. An interesting post about Clara Ward. What a disappointment she was to many and society. The lures of human nature is demoralizing as seen in Ward's life. Thank you for sharing, Kathleen.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn. Always glad to see you here! You've certainly hit the proverbial nail on the head with your comments.

  8. I didn't get a chance to stop by yesterday. I'm glad I did today, so I could read this fascinating post. What a sad commentary on a beautiful woman with so much to gain in life but instead she lost much more. Her choices certainly prove the theory that money doesn't buy happiness or wisdom. Thanks for sharing this story.

  9. Martha, thank you for stopping by. I couldn't have put it better myself about the result of her choices! I appreciate you comment.