Casting couches? Public Scandals? Illegitimate births? If this sounds like the usual modern-day Hollywood story, think again. This is Dorothea Jordan, a comedic actor from over 200 years ago. If you think show business is tough on women now, take a look at Jordan’s long list of heartaches. And speaking of long lists, Jordan managed to have 13 children—all without a single walk down the aisle. And what was the fate of a single woman with a large brood of children? This story just gets sadder and sadder.
Dorothea Jordan was born on November 22, 1761 in Waterford City, Ireland. She and her siblings were the product of a relationship between their father and his mistress, Grace Phillips. The father’s name was Francis Bland, and all six children took the name Bland. Likely Dorothea was anxious to get rid of the bland name, but how it happened was absolutely cruel.
When Jordan was 13 years old, her father left the family to marry an actress—but he didn’t leave them high and dry. Even though he worked as a lowly stagehand, he still managed to send them some money to help make ends meet. The small sums of money came, however, with a cruel condition: the kids could not use the name Bland ever again.
Jordan got rid of Bland and adopted her mom’s maiden name Phillips. There would be, however, many more name changes to come.
Jordan’s first job was working as an assistant to a hatmaker. While working there she fell in love with a man we only know as Smith. The feeling was reciprocal, and Jordan’s boyfriend eventually got down on his knee and proposed. Jordan was barely a woman at the time and likely thrilled at the proposal. Smith’s father, however, noticed how young Jordan was and coldly canceled the engagement.
Jordan needn’t have worried: There were still many men to come her way.
Records of Jordan’s life after leaving her family are sparse. We do know that she began acting on the stage somewhere between 1777 and 1779. At this time, Jordan received her second proposal. This came from an army lieutenant named Charles Doyne. Doyne was apparently pretty sure it would work out with this exciting young woman. Jordan’s mother, however, felt otherwise.
Jordan’s mother gave Doyne’s proposal a huge thumbs down—which left Jordan distraught. To remedy her heartbreak, she threw herself into her work as an actor. In the early 1780s, she met Richard Daly, who ran the rather eccentric Smock Alley Theater. And what was odd about his theater company? Well, let’s just say that some might think that Daly was way ahead of his time...
When Jordan worked for Richard Daly, she found herself in an unusual situation: She was wearing men’s clothes. Daly was becoming famous for reversing the genders of the actors in the plays he produced—especially the comedies. The reversed-gender plays were a huge hit, and both Jordan and Daly were becoming famous because of them.
But while Jordan may have dressed as a man on stage, in the bedroom, she was all woman.
Richard Daly had a reputation for having affairs with his female actors—and Jordan was no exception. The Jordan/Daly affair soon became public knowledge, but in a strange way. Town and Country magazine decided to print engravings of couples who were famous in the theater business—and decided to include Jordan and Daly. There was only one problem: in addition to Jordan, Daly also had a wife.
Even though Daly was in a pretty serious relationship with Jordan, he had a wife. To make matters even more complicated, Daly's wife worked at the theater with them. This must have proved to be uncomfortable when the magazine outed Jordan and Daly as a couple. But this was just the beginning for Jordan and Daly—another scandal was coming, and it was a doozy.
Shortly after Town and Country outed Jordan and Daly as a couple, another publication shed some rather dark light on their union. The Secret History of the Green Room made a startling allegation: that Daly had actually forced himself on Jordan. The book went on to paint a picture of Daly as the Harvey Weinstein of his generation.
Strangely enough, this information did nothing to dissuade Jordan.
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In 1782, Jordan appeared in Daly’s play The Maids of Oaks. Obviously, Jordan was still working with Daly, even after the allegations in The Secret History of the Green Room had almost destroyed his reputation. Could it be that the allegations against Daly were untrue? Or was there something else keeping Jordan and Daly together?
It turned out that there was something very real keeping Jordan with Daly: She was carrying his baby. This scandalous news was capable of being very damaging to Jordan’s career, so she planned to do whatever she could to keep the whole thing a secret. Her plan worked—but only for a short time. Soon the rumors were beginning to get around, and Jordan had to do something to escape them. But what?
Once the truth of Jordan’s pregnancy started circulating, she decided to make a run for it. She left Ireland and headed to Leeds in England. Here, she joined another theater company called the York Company. For some reason, the theater’s manager required all female performers to use “Mrs” as their title. Jordan knew that she was far from married and decided to make her entire name a fabrication: She took on the name "Dorothea Jordan" for the first time—but it was for a bizarre reason.
There was a meaning behind Jordan’s choice of a new name. When she crossed the Irish Sea, she was escaping from Ireland to England. It reminded her of the Bible story where the Israelites were also crossing a body of water in order to escape. The name of that body of water was the River Jordan, and so she took that as her name.
Jordan had crossed the sea—and then she proceeded to cross a whole bunch of people.
Jordan was winning over audiences in Leeds, but not making many friends backstage. Her problem was the other female performers. The better her acting got, the better the roles she received. The other women were, not surprisingly, jealous of Jordan. They wanted those roles, but they kept going to Jordan. However, for a time, the female actors of the company kept their contempt in check.
They were simply waiting for the perfect moment to reap their revenge.
Remember, Jordan was still pregnant with Daly’s child—and still managing to have a career on stage. She was touring with a play in Hull, England when it was time for the birth of her child. Baby Frances was born on September 1, 1782. Jordan took only four months to recover and was back on stage on December 26 of the same year. Her welcome back on stage, however, was far from warm.
While Jordan was delivering and caring for her newborn child, the other actresses in the company were spreading malicious gossip about Jordan around Hull. While the story was true—Jordan had the child of a married man—the actresses made Jordan look like the villain in the situation. Ironically, the part Jordan was playing on stage at that time was that of a woman who cheats on her husband.
Audiences looked at Jordan as if she and the character were the same person.
The manager of the theater company, Tate Wilkinson, saw what was happening to his leading lady and stepped in. He told the story of Jordan and her baby in a different way. In his version of events, Jordan was the victim of an aggressive man back in Ireland. He said that they shouldn't be scorning her, they should be showing her pity. The audiences in Hull bought the story, and Jordan was a hit all over again.
But while Wilkinson’s actions may have seemed selfless, he had his own reasons to save Jordan's career.
Yes, Wilkinson bailed Jordan out of her predicament, but he had his own reasons for doing it. Jordan was a huge money maker for Wilkinson. She was his top earner on the stage, after all. If her reputation made people not want to see her on stage, it would be a huge loss for Wilkinson and his company. Another reason? Jordan and Wilkinson were having an affair.
Jordan and Wilkinson’s affair had a shelf life, and it was shorter than a carton of milk. Once she was through with Wilkinson, who was the theater company boss, she took up with the company’s male lead. This was the hilariously named George Inchbald. Jordan really thought she had a chance at marrying Inchbald, but he had, like so many of today’s actors, commitment issues.
It wouldn’t be long, however, before she got her revenge.
Inchbald suddenly got over his fear of commitment and headed right back to Jordan. He explained that he now could see himself as Jordan’s husband and constant companion. Yes, Jordan had been desperate to marry Inchbald before, but being rejected hadn’t felt so nice. Jordan turned around and rejected Inchbald. Well, as the saying—and pop song—goes: What goes around comes around.
Jordan didn’t need Inchbald anyway: She had a career that was soaring.
Jordan was likely feeling on top of the world. She was certainly a hit with audiences, although she still hadn’t performed in London. As it turned out, London came to her. When Jordan was on stage in one of her gender reversal comedies, a queen of the London stage came by to check her out. The queen was Sarah Siddons—who, for her great acting skill, had received the nickname “tragedy personified.”
You can only guess how nervous Jordan was to have this great star watching her perform.
Jordan deeply cared what a star like Siddon thought of her acting—it could help her make the move to performing in London, which was what every actor wanted. After the performance, Siddons' response was devastating: She thought Jordan should stick to the minor leagues, as she wasn’t good enough for London. That must have hurt—but Jordan still managed to hang on to some hope.
Shortly after Siddons’ less than encouraging remark, Jordan received an offer. It came from Drury Lane Theater in London and it promised Jordan regular work as an actor and a salary. It could be that Siddons rejection of Jordan as an actor was based on jealousy. But what did that matter now? Jordan packed up her daughter, her sister—and even her mother—and headed to London.
Jordan was certainly able to walk through London with her head held high. Audiences loved her—especially in the comedies. They were soon calling her “the most admired comic actress of her time.” Take that Sarah! She was also skilled at playing in tragedies: including Ophelia in Hamlet and Emilia in Othello. There was, however, one thing that audiences didn’t think she could do.
London audiences usually loved Jordan, but they simply couldn't accept her playing a character with high social status. The reason for this was quite nasty: Audiences had a special and cruel word for her: “child of nature.” This meant that Jordan was the product of an unmarried couple. Because of her background, many believed that she couldn’t pull off playing uppity characters.
Being a wild child wasn’t doing Jordan any favors in her career. But what about in the romance department?
Jordan hadn't spent much time in London before she got mixed up with law enforcement—but not for breaking the law. She was actually dating Sir Richard Ford, a magistrate and lawyer. Ford promised to marry Jordan, and that was all she needed to hear. She moved with him on the spot. But was Dorothea Jordan really ready to settle down?
Before Jordan and Ford had a chance to marry, they had a child. It was in August 1787 that Dorothea Maria Ford was born. Jordan was playing a dangerous game. She had already received negative publicity for being the product of unmarried parents—now she was doing exactly what her parents had done (for the second time). Then, in 1788, a year after her second child was born, Jordan found herself pregnant again.
Jordan was again pregnant and still not married. This next child with boyfriend Ford was a boy. There was, however, a horrible tragedy: The child did not survive the delivery. The next year, a still unmarried Jordan had another girl, who survived. Jordan now had a daughter from a previous relationship and two more children. What was missing? A wedding ring.
She and Ford were getting very comfortable, but you had to wonder why he wasn’t proposing.
Jordan had now had two children with Ford, and he still hadn’t proposed. Maybe Jordan assumed they were just too busy making babies to get around to going down to city hall. There was, however, a secret that Jordan didn’t know. It turned out that Ford’s father didn’t approve of her. Was it her “child of nature” status? Was Ford’s father afraid of Jordan's reputation?
Once Jordan realized she wasn’t getting a proposal from Ford, she packed her bags and moved out. She never knew how Ford’s father really felt about her, but we do. You just have to take a look at the woman he did feel was up to the family’s standards for a wife. Ford turned around and married Marrianne Booth, the daughter and heiress to millionaire art collector Benjamin Booth.
It seemed that Jordan’s reputation had been her undoing yet again.
Jordan was now single with three children by her side. That was an issue. In her heart, Jordan was an artist, and therefore not so big on fulfilling her domestic duties. Jordan saw the solution to her problems in her sister. Hester had come with her to London, and now was her chance to pay her sister back. Jordan unloaded all three of her children on Hester and put them up in a house.
Not exactly "motherly"—but Jordan wasn't completely heartless.
While Jordan wasn’t good at raising her children, at least she could pay for it. Jordan took all of the money she’d saved while acting and gave it to her sister to raise the kids. In addition to the lump sum, Jordan also gave her sister a payment every year as an allowance. What’s harder to understand is the money she gave to Ford—the father of the children who had refused to marry her.
It seemed that Jordan just wanted a clean break—and that’s what she got.
With her kids in her sister’s care, Jordan was soon back performing at Drury Lane Theater—and causing quite the storm. She was popular for her comedic timing, but also for just being her own witty and intelligent self. Men lined up for a chance to be in her presence. Jordan didn’t seem interested in being tied down with just one man, maybe because she was through with all the heartache.
Someone, however, came along to change all that.
While performing at Drury Lane Theater, Jordan met a man named William and flirtations soon began. It’s not clear how long it took Jordan to realize who exactly she was flirting with. It was none other than Prince William, the Duke of Clarence. William was the third son of the king at that time: King George III. So William was royalty, but he was unlikely to ever sit on the throne—which suited Jordan just fine.
Jordan’s flirtations with Prince William soon progressed to something more. She soon found herself moving out of her place and into one with him. The couple didn’t marry, but in 1790 they shacked up together at Clarence Lodge. Because she didn’t get a ring—or a wedding for that matter—Jordan accepted a yearly allowance.
William’s father, the king, was okay with his son’s arrangement—but he did have one request.
William’s father, the King of England, didn’t mind his son living in sin with Dorothea Jordan, but he thought he was paying her too much. In fact, he wanted to cut her allowance in half. However, it became hard for the king to argue for this reduction in allowance when Jordan started having babies. The first one came in January 1794. But what do you do with a child whose father was a prince and whose mother wasn’t even close to being royalty?
There was one thing that Jordan’s child with Prince William couldn’t do: use a royal name. The first child—and those coming after—had to take the name FitzClarence. Since William was the Duke of Clarence, his illegitimate children would receive the name FitzClarence to signify that they were not legitimate heirs to the throne.
But wait a minute. If Jordan couldn’t produce heirs to the throne, what was William doing with her in the first place?
As it turns out, William chose to spend his days with Jordan for an astonishing reason: He was truly in love with her. He said she was a “very good creature, very domestic and careful with her children.” If Jordan had been from a royal line, William surely would have married her. Sadly, this could never be. While their relationship seemed doomed, it didn’t stop them from having more babies.
Jordan and William got down to business and produced three children in three years: George, Henry, and Sophia. By this time, Clarence Lodge was beginning to look like a full house, and Jordan took a break from making babies as they looked for a larger home. The King offered Jordan and William Bushy House, a huge estate on the outskirts of London. The couple and their kids happily moved into the enormous home—and then got busy filling it.
Between 1798 and 1807, Jordan gave birth to seven more children: four girls and three boys. That brought her total with William to ten children and her grand total as a mother to an astonishing 13. You’d think that Jordan had no time outside of bearing and raising her kids. She did, however, manage to somehow keep acting on the stage.
In 1811, just four years after giving birth to her last child, Jordan got the feeling that something was wrong with her relationship with William. She was pretty sure why her boyfriend was acting strange: He was thinking too much about money. It turned out that being Prince William didn’t actually pay all that well. Jordan assumed her days at Bushy House were going to end soon, and she was right.
In 1811, William asked Jordan to leave Bushy House. But what about the kids? Cruelly, William only let her keep her daughters and kept the boys for himself. He did offer her a yearly stipend of close to $400,000 in today’s money at least. William, with his sons by his side, went out to find himself a wife with a decent dowry—and one who would be a suitable queen one day. Jordan had been with William for 20 happy years.
Like so many arrangements in Jordan’s life, her yearly stipend came with a condition.
William said that Jordan could keep her daughters and her allowance on one condition: She stopped acting on stage. It seemed like a particularly cruel request, but Jordan kept to it as best she could. By this time Jordan’s first child—the one with the theater company director—was an adult. That led to a whole new host of problems. Francis had married a man with a gift for getting into debt. When things got unbearable, Francis and her husband turned to Jordan for help.
Jordan certainly wanted to help her first daughter and her husband get out of debt, but her allowance from William wasn’t quite enough. Jordan decided to get back on the stage and make some money for her daughter. Had she forgotten about her promise to her ex? Or maybe she just hoped he’d forgotten about it. Well, he hadn’t, and it turned into a disaster.
When William found out that Jordan was back on stage, he did exactly what he said he would do. The first thing was to take Jordan’s daughters away from her. The second thing was her allowance. But William wasn’t all bad: He only took the part of the allowance that was meant for the kids. Jordan was 53 years old and had suddenly gone from being a mother of 13 to having just one grown daughter.
All she really had left was her career.
At this point, the theater-going public associated the Jordan name with scandal. She couldn’t get a job from a theater company and fell on some very hard times. So, she made one final and rather desperate plea. Jordan wrote letters to newspapers and theaters. In these letters, she came clean about her affairs, her shoddy business dealings, and begged to become part of the theater scene once more. All she could do was wait for their response.
Jordan’s pleas for forgiveness fell on deaf ears. In 1815, she sold her home and moved to France. In order to get rid of the scent of scandal surrounding her, she changed her name once again. She had several aliases: Mrs Johnson, Madame James, and Mrs James. She lived in Boulogne, Versailles, and finally went to Saint-Cloud, near Paris. At this point, you might expect her to live a quiet life until her end—but Dorothea Jordan simply didn't do "quiet."
Jordan had already lost everything—her money and her children—all to help her eldest daughter and her husband. And what thanks did she get? Francis and her husband had been running up another huge debt, but this time they did it in Jordan’s name not their own. Jordan was now in a financial nightmare. And that’s when her health started to deteriorate.
Jordan was broke and living in France. She had a long list of physical ailments which included swollen ankles, pains in her side, trouble breathing, attacks of vomiting, and a general lack of energy. She was at her wit's end and needed help. Sadly, there was no knight in shining armor. She wrote in a letter about how she felt. What caused her the most pain might surprise you.
Jordan had 13 children, but it’s hard to get a good feeling of what kind of a mother she actually was. When she was nearing the end of her life, she wrote that of all her physical and mental distress there was one thing that bothered her the most: “The hope I used to live on from time to time, of seeing my children." On July 5, 1816, she passed from a ruptured blood vessel. She was poor and very much alone.
It turned out that William never quite got over Jordan. When he finally became king—15 years after Jordan’s passing—he had an artist create a statue of his longtime lover. You can imagine that his wife wasn’t too keen on that. The statue somehow ended up at Buckingham Palace, but it didn’t have much of a chance of surviving. During WWII, palace officials destroyed it to make room for an air raid shelter. They did, however, keep and preserve her head, at least.
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