• Tue, Jul 16 2013

Shelved Dolls: Alva Vanderbilt – Someone I Really Don’t Like

alva vanderbilt

I visit Newport a surprising number of times during a year. Never of my own volition, but periodically I find people say, “You know where you’d be happy? Newport!” And I say, “Yes, okay,” because they’re not wrong. My favorite thing about Newport are the cake truffles at a bakery called the Newport Cookie Company. I am dead serious about this/them/the existence of cake truffles.

This one is pumpkin which is obviously a terrible flavor, but all of the delicious chocolate ones were less visually appealing.

This one is pumpkin. That is obviously a terrible flavor, but all of the delicious chocolate ones were less visually appealing.

My second favorite thing is probably the weird little old movie theater? It’s nice. Sometimes they give you free cocktails! Also, the pub across the street has excellent nachos. And biking along the cliffs is really pleasant. Do you like to listen to music on your iPhone as you bike? I do. It makes me feel really heroic.

If you went far down on my list of favorites, you would find that I enjoy touring the historic homes. I think you reader people will assume I love the tours much more than I do, but I’ve seen all of the houses now. None of them are likely to let me move in. Still. I appreciate marble and little bronze statues. Hell, who doesn’t?

You know what I hate? Visiting Marble House – Alva Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage” and being told how much I must love Alva Vanderbilt.

I don’t. She sucks.

When people say that I must love Alva, I realize they understand that I like 1) wealthy people and 2) historical women. They know those two affections and absolutely nothing else about my personality. They think I am someone who would tie her daughter’s hair to the back of a chair to keep her posture perfectly straight before selling her into a loveless marriage.

Seriously, Alva was pretty much a monster.

But it’s fine. Marble House is spectacularly beautiful, and I enjoy being there, and I usually have a belly stuffed with four or five cakeballs, so I just kind of nod during the tour as if to indicate that, yes, she was some lady.

And look, she did have accomplishments! If you like having the right to vote, Alva was  directly responsible for that. She was an adamant suffragette. She hosted fundraisers at Marble House to anyone who wanted to visit provided they made a donation to the cause. She also held rallies in the backyard, where women sat on carpets so they did not have to touch the grass, which is just a very proper ladylike idea.

Incidentally, because I keep mentioning Marble House, this is what it looks like:

marble house

Allowing working women into their homes for a small donation wasn’t customary, and the fact that Alva hosted these events helped break down class boundaries. That was progressive, although whenever I see the “Votes for Women” china that Alva used to serve all the women at the rallies, I can’t help wondering how the scullery maid felt about the cause.

I suspect she’d have traded it for a few less teacups to clean.

But that’s not a criticism. The impact of a woman of Alva’s social station lending her support to the Suffragette cause can’t be overstated. (Alva once even quipped that women should “Pray to God. She will help you.”)

The feature that bothers me about Alva is that, since she lived in a certain age and was wealthy, many of the things that she did that suck are dismissed as being charming or interesting.

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  • Eileen

    I kind of love the story about her and Mrs. Astor, though. Was it a little evil? Probably. But nobody really got hurt, and a cliquey society lady kind of deserves that sort of high school behavior in return.

  • Katie

    They really really need to make a Gossip Girl: Late 19th Century

  • Ellen W.

    Consuelo next week, hooray!

  • Laura

    I’ve visited Marble House in Newport as well. Two things I took away from the tour: 1. Marble House must have been an awful place to live as it was more like a museum than a home; and 2. Alva Vanderbilt was a horrible bitch of a mother to her poor daughter.

    • MR

      Yeah, it’s like the difference between FDR’s mansion and the Vanderbilt mansion at Hyde Park. FDR’s was a home and lived in and the Vanderbilt’s was a museum. Old money if it’s smart lives quietly and below its means.

  • Sarah Anaïs

    I love American aristocracy! So excited for Consuelo next week!

  • Kristen

    I always got the opposite impression from the Marble House tour- I got the sense they try to make Alva out to be some monstrous mother and Consuelo out to be the poor princess in the tower. This article seems to be more of that same narrative. Alva was scrappy, nasty, and tough, which gets a lot more respect from me than the long-suffering and sensitive Duchess of Marlborough. Alva was not very nice, not terribly pretty, and only slightly less oblivious than your average Guilded Age aristocrat, but she was also intelligent, opinionated, and fought like hell against inequality. I find it strange that she gets so much hate.

    • Emma

      I get recognizing her for her commitment to equality and for not fitting into the typical mold for women. But that doesn’t make her a good person, and she doesn’t deserve to be lauded for being unkind to people merely because it’s unexpected behavior from a woman.

    • Kristen

      So, what? If a woman isn’t Disney-Princess nice, it doesn’t matter that she was an exceptionally accomplished woman who is directly responsible for my ability to vote? Why is it acceptable to say that women need to be sweet and kind to be respected, regardless of what they accomplish?

    • Emma

      What’s wrong with being nice? You can respect her for her contributions to women’s suffrage and her willingness to not conform to her expected gender role, but that makes her an important and interesting historical figure, not necessarily a good one. She doesn’t deserve respect for being nasty — and being “not like the other girls” doesn’t make her more deserving.

      I think it’s easy to recognize and respect that she was tough and didn’t care to be pleasant, but she was also a real person whose actions had negative effects on other people. It’s not strange at all that she gets so much hate.

    • Kristen

      There’s nothing wrong with being nice. I’ve just had it up to here with the idea that if a woman isn’t “nice” then she’s not worthy of respect. Because ultimately, who cares if she was nice? Would we be having this conversation about Churchill or JFK?

      Her unwillingness to conform to a gender role makes her TOTALLY AMAZING to a lot of queer women like myself, especially considering what was expected of her given her economic and social status. To people like me, it does make her a “good” role model, not just an interesting historical footnote.

      I think any time that women are restricted by society from being fully realized human beings, which includes being forced to be nice to everyone, or staying in a loveless marriage (let’s not forget that Alva was also responsible for getting Consuelo out of her own stupid marriage) or not being allowed to vote, a woman who fights to break those barriers is a “good” role model.

    • Emma

      I’ve had this conversation plenty of times about Churchill and JFK — but no, we probably wouldn’t, and many people don’t, unfortunately.

      What I mean to say is: there is quite a bit to respect Alva for but her not being nice is not one of those things. I mostly took issue with you saying that her being nasty made you respect her more than her daughter, when a good part of Consuelo’s life was made difficult by Alva. (And yes, I know that Alva did help her, and generally wasn’t so hard on her later in life, although that doesn’t make up for what she did earlier. I do think that this article slants a little too strongly against her.) It’s hard to articulate — on the one hand, I agree that women should not always be pleasant and demure. On the other hand, Alva made life hard for others — and not always just those that oppressed her. Respect for her should come despite that, for the other things she’s done, rather than because of it, or including it as a part of the reason to respect her.

      (Also, I said she was important and interesting. Of course she’s not a footnote.)

    • Emma

      What’s wrong with being nice? You can respect her for her contributions to women’s suffrage and her willingness to not conform to her expected gender role, but that makes her an important and interesting historical figure, not necessarily a good one. She doesn’t deserve respect for being nasty — and being “not like the other girls” doesn’t make her more deserving.

      I think it’s easy to recognize and respect that she was tough and didn’t care to be pleasant, but she was also a real person whose actions had negative effects on other people. It’s not strange at all that she gets so much hate.

  • MR

    Have you ever been on a yacht? It’s like flying the ‘Spruce Goose’ when you know how to fly a really fast small plane.