Clara Ward was born on 17 June 1873 in Michigan, USA. Her parents were Catherine Lyon and her husband, Captain Eber Brock Ward. Her father was known to be Michigan’s first millionaire and he made a fortune in shipbuilding, lumber and iron and steelworks.
Clara’s father died suddenly before she reached the age of two, and although he had been married previously and had seven children in that marriage, most of the fortune went to Eber’s second wife Catherine Lyon and her two children Clara and her brother Eber Jr.
With a $6 million fortune in tow (this would be $125 million today!) Catherine Lyon moved to New York with Clara and her brother Eber Jr but then moved again to Toronto when she married a Canadian lawyer.
Little is known of Clara’s childhood other than she was moved from school to school by her mother. Clara was sent to numerous finishing schools in London but she kept getting thrown out of them all. She went off to a school in Paris but only stayed there for three weeks before running away and finally she was sent to an Italian convent school because her behaviour was too shocking and extreme for the nuns. We cannot be sure how true these tales are, but it is true that Clara went from one school to another and was often expelled due to her rebellious behaviour.
A girl of Clara’s rank was always destined to seek a good marriage, and her wealth meant that she was a highly desired bride despite her oddities and troublesome nature. Her mother flaunted her to available bachelors, and she was even described in newspapers as an heiress who was as “beautiful as she is wealthy”.
In 1889 or the start of 1890, it was revealed that a man named Prince Joseph de Caraman-Chimay was due to visit the USA. Joseph was a member of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies, and his father was the Belgian foreign affairs minister. On top of this, Joseph was a Prince; his family had held the title of Prince of Caraman-Chimay for centuries. The title was a French courtesy title and did not mean that Joseph would ever become king of anywhere, but it did allow him to use the title and rank of Prince.
Clara and Joseph were quickly married by May 1890 – she was 16, and he was 31, Joseph was double Clara’s age, had little money and was not very good looking but his title was worth it for Clara. Upon marriage, Clara became the Princess of Caraman-Chimay. Prince Joseph was not taken advantage of by Clara; however, as she also had something he needed, which was money. Clara paid for repairs to Chimay castle and paid off her new husband’s debts, so the arrangement suited them both well.
Americans were obsessed with the new Princess, and Clara was always in American and European newspapers. Some people loved her, some hated her, and there were many who did not know what to make of her at all. The couple spent their time travelling around the family estates or at the Belgian court and had a son and daughter together during the first few years of marriage.
Before long, however, Clara grew tired of her new life. Even being a princess was not enough to tame her rebellious side, and the princess was often bored and isolated. It is said that village life did not stimulate Clara, who would spend time being silly and doing things such as throwing handfuls of coins over the castle walls to watch the villagers fight over them. The young and beautiful Clara was also often tangled up in affairs, but her husband was not often bothered about them. When Clara was accused of becoming involved with King Leopold II of Belgium, however, this caused a huge scandal, and the couple had to leave the court and move to Paris.
In Paris, Clara came into her own. She was dubbed the most riotous American east of the Atlantic. Pictures and postcards of her were found everywhere, and stories of her antics filled the gossip columns. Clara loved the fashion, music, dancing and champagne in Paris and was much happier there.
In November 1896, Clara had clearly had enough of her dead-end relationship with her husband and longed to escape his formal, aristocratic lifestyle. One night when out with the Prince in a bar, Clara heard a fiddler playing and fell for him immediately. The man was Rigó Jancsi – a Hungarian gypsy violinist, he was 23 years old, and a poor man who was short and not particularly handsome but Clara loved him or at least loved his free-living lifestyle. After meeting a few times in secret, the pair ran away together in December that year. Clara’s relationship with Prince Joseph was now over.