One of the most curious instances of the rich American heiress for old European title exchanges was the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough; the wedding itself was covered with breathless interest by the media of the time – which since it took place in 1895, meant coverage by newspapers only. However, the wedding was as lavish, and the interest in every tiny detail as intense as that paid to the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. It took place at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New Yorks’ 5th Avenue, and the crowds of spectators outside the church and for a good way down the avenue was so thick that squads of policemen could barely force enough of an open way between them for the invited guests. The inside of the church was lavishly decorated with flowers – pink and white roses, swags of lilies, ivy and holly, arches of ferns, palm leaves and chrysanthemums. No expense was spared – even more astonishing was the fact that Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke had only been engaged for about six weeks and only known each other for barely a year. She was barely eighteen, reserved and sheltered, the very pretty daughter of a woman with a will of iron and ambition to match. After her marriage, she would blossom into one of the acknowledged beauties of that era: Playwright James Barrie supposedly said he would wait all day in the street just to watch her get into a carriage.
Alva Smith had married for money herself – having pursued, wed and just recently divorced the oldest grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, called ‘The Commodore’, who had founded the family fortunes in shipping and branched out into railways. Her own father’s fortunes were sadly diminished by the Civil War, and Alva resolved to secure her own future and those of her family by marrying rich. She emerges as a domineering, driven and stubborn woman with a fiery temper. Very few people ever said ‘no’ to Alva Vanderbilt, least of all her own family; neither her parents, either of her husbands, or any of her children. Her own mother, a cultured Southern belle spoke French, and traveled widely in Europe with her children in those distant days when it meant a long voyage on a sailing ship. In a fragmentary memoir written late in life, Alva recalled that her mother had made a yearly order of clothes for herself and her daughters from a Paris dressmaker. All the clothes they would need for the next year would arrive one time – a means which was sufficient for that era, but not when Alva was raising her own children. By that time, being rich and in the social set meant a degree of ostentatious competition that is purely mind-boggling to contemplate today. Everything about those at the very top of the social network still astonishes, beginning with the ‘summer cottages’ built at the edge of Newport, Rhode Island. Alva was responsible for one of the most lavish, ‘Marble House’ which seemed like nothing much but a couple of square acres of the Sun King’s Versailles, set down in the New World. The balls and parties that prominent members of this high society threw for each other also defy belief. At one infamously grand banquet, an artificial river filled with live fish ran the length of the dining table – and guests were provided with little silver shovels to search for jeweled party favors in the sand at the bottom of the river. Such a grand dinner ran to course after course of elaborately prepared dishes, and an ordinary day for a society woman might involve changing clothes four or five times over. And Alva Vanderbilt was one of the leading social lionesses by the time her daughter was of marriageable age, despite having divorced William Vanderbilt.
Divorce was almost unthinkable in that milieu – and yet, Alva went ahead with it; she would marry her daughter off to a nobleman, and having achieved that apotheosis, would marry again herself, to Oliver Belmont – another wealthy member of the Gilded Age’s highest social circle. Incredibly, she would have a contented marriage with him – and maintain her high position in that society – until his sudden death from complications of appendicitis. Almost without a moment’s hesitation, Alva would involve herself in the campaign for women’s rights to vote, using her considerable wealth to fund suffrage organizations and publications, to lobby in Washington and among the highest levels. She would fight for women’s property and political rights with the same stubborn intensity that she applied to any of her previous enthusiasms. In fact, she became something of a militant – and after her own death in 1931, had a full suffragette’s funeral, with women pallbearers and choir. Never mind the contradiction, of being for women’s rights, yet having dictated Consuelo’s marriage and overruled any of her daughter’s considerable misgivings.
Consuelo married reluctantly, in obedience to her mother. In spite of that, she serenely adorned the great estate of Blenheim Palace – which her marriage settlement helped repair and renovate – and the highest levels of British political and social circles equally. She was one of the noble wives who carried the canopy over Queen Mary at the coronation of King George V. She would produce two sons, and is thought to have been the originator of the expression ‘an heir and a spare’. The marriage was not happy; she and the Duke were of different and incompatible temperaments and Consuelo had something of her mother’s spine. They separated barely ten years after their lavish wedding day, and divorced in 1921, upon which Consuelo married a wealthy French aviation pioneer named Jacques Balsan. She achieved no small victory in managing to remain on easy and affectionate terms with her ex-husbands’ family, which included his redoubtable cousin, Winston Churchill. Her further life adventures included escaping with her husband from France in 1940, and returning to live in the country she had departed nearly half a century before. Amazingly, she lived until 1964 – and if pictures taken of her are any guide – she was still amazingly beautiful.
(No particular reason for writing all this – I had heard of these women in a vague sort of way, but the entire book about them was rather fascinating.)