A Debut in the Midst of a Feud

As if a young American heiress didn’t have enough to worry about when making her debut in London society, Virginia Bonynge had to make her splash while her parents were in the midst of a feud with another prominent American family; the Mackays.

Bonynge and Mackay had astonishingly similar backgrounds. Both were Irish immigrants. Both spent their early working lives in the mines around Virginia City, Nevada. Bonynge left the mines to become a stockbroker and Mackay gained his wealth from his mine-contracting business. Both met their wives in Virginia City in the late 1860s. Rodie Daniel, the future Mrs. Bonynge, was struggling to raise her daughter, Virginia, while her husband served a sentence in San Quentin for killing a man in a fight. She and Bonynge fell in love. She divorced her first husband and married Bonynge who raised Virginia as his own daughter. The family moved to San Francisco where Bonynge continued to amass his fortune.

Back in Virginia City, Louise Bryant, a young widow with a small daughter of her own, was taking in sewing and laundry to earn their keep. The local Catholic priest brought her plight to Mackay’s attention, and before long, the two married and also moved to San Francisco, where Mackay became a client of Bonynge’s.

John_William_Mackay

John William Mackay

The bad blood came years later, when Bonynge made some unfavorable public statements about Mackay’s business schemes. This began the cold war between the men that would heat up to a Hatfield-McCoy style feud. By 1886, both families had settled in London. Louise Mackay, a social climber, had already tried to gain social prominence in San Francisco, New York, and Paris but found all her millions still couldn’t open those doors. She decided to try her luck in London society. The Bonynges came to London in the hope of achieving a brilliant match for Virginia.

The first strike came from the Mackays. Presentation at court was vital for acceptance in society, but shortly before her presentation, a London paper revealed that Rodie Bonynge was divorced, which meant she had to stay home while her daughter was presented, a huge embarrassment they attributed to the Mackays. In turn, the Bonynges provided some details of Louise Mackay’s past as a laundress in Virginia City.

The attacks went back and forth for years. Both families hired agents to feed information to the newspapers, who gleefully printed each nasty word. The final strike came when Virginia Bonynge accepted the proposal of Ronald Greville, the eldest son of Lord Greville. Almost immediately, word got out that Virginia was not the daughter of Mr. Bonynge, but of a murderer who served a term of imprisonment in San Quentin. Since Mackay (and Bonynge) were in San Francisco at the time, the story must have come from Louise Mackay.

Though the scandal ended her engagement, many stood by Virginia and the Bonynges including Princess Christian, which allowed them to maintain their social standing. The story spread however, and back in the US, Bonynge sat down with a reporter from the San Francisco Call, where (without naming him) he discussed Mackay’s attempts to libel him. Mackay was outraged and upon spotting Bonynge at a bank where he also had business, strode into the office and punched the man in the face. The men, both in their sixties, fought until bank employees managed to separate them.

Lady deerhurst

Viscountess Deerhurst from The Lady’s Relm, 1904 

Eventually the feud was called off. Both families had attained their standing in society and Virginia received another offer of marriage from Viscount Deerhurst, heir to the Earl of Coventry. After all she had to deal with, one hopes it was a happy marriage.

 

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