• Tue, Jul 23 - 11:00 am ET

Shelved Dolls: Consuelo Vanderbilt – Really Worked Past Her Terrible Mother

consuelo So, last week, we established that you do not have a bad relationship with your mother. You may think you do. You may think that your mother is domineering or too intense or other not so flattering qualities that people label their mothers, but at least your mom didn’t sell you into a loveless 19th century marriage to a Duke so dour he was hilariously known as “Sunny.” She also didn’t make you wear a metal device fastened from your shoulders to your waist to improve your posture. Nor did you get whipped with a riding crop for misbehavior. At least I hope you didn’t. I mean, I don’t know your mom. But I sincerely hope she is a lovely person.

Most mothers are at least slightly better than Alva Vanderbilt. When last we left Shelved Dolls, her beautiful bookish daughter had spent her wedding day (November 6, 1895) prostrate and sobbing, begging her father not to force her to marry Charles Spencer-Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Unsucessfully. Our heroine, Consuelo, was in love with another man, but when they considered eloping, Alva threatened to kill him. Alva also stole all of the lover’s letters, which he kept writing up to the wedding day. The plot of The Notebook probably owes a lot to this, but let’s not get carried away.

In her autobiography, Consuelo wrote, “Friends called but were told I was not at home. Locked behind those high walls—the porter had orders not to let me out unaccompanied—I had no chance of getting any word to my fiance.” Her mother justified the death threat claiming, “You cannot help your children to advantages through sentimental romance but through money, which alone has power.” Alva probably thought she was making good decisions for her daughter; the arrangement and pressure tactics just seem absolutely foreign to anyone with modern notions of love and marriage. Are you interested in her lover, whom she was hoping to marry instead of the Duke of Marlborough? I was! His name was Winthrop Rutherfurd. He was 33 years old (Consuelo was age 18 at the time), a member of the New York elite “The Four Hundred” and Edith Wharton said that he was the prototype for all of the heroes in her first novels. So, basically, he was Newland Archer, the most romantic person humanly possible – way more romantic than whoever Ryan Gosling played in The Notebook.

God, I wish I could find a photo of him.

This also means that Consuelo was somewhat like Ellen Olenska in that she was swept away to Europe for an unhappy marriage with a Duke. After, apparently, a phenomenal and much-reported-on wedding. At the time, the magazine Town Topics poked fun at how much attention had been paid to what Consuelo would be wearing, and wrote:

“It is delightful to know that the clasps of Miss Vanderbilt’s stocking supporters are of gold, and that her corset-covers and chemises are embroidered with rosebuds in relief. If the present methods of reporting the movements and details of the life and clothes of these young people are pursued until the day of the wedding, I look for some revelations that would startle even a Parisian café lounger.”

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  • s_park

    ‘ “In loving memory of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, Mother of the Tenth
    Duke of Marlborough.” Was that intended to show her superiority as a
    mother in comparison to Alva?’

    Maybe she lost her Duchess title when her marriage was annulled, but they still wanted to denote her aristocracy?

  • Chelsea DeLoney

    When I read Alva’s Shelved Dolls feature, I kept thinking “this reminds me of The Bucaneers” ! Thanks for confirming that.

  • MR

    What I read about Wharton, it seems like the Age of Innocence (the Countess) was more her story. That is such a great film. If only Archer had balls. A true romantic would have fought for what he loves. Was Consuelo buried at St. Martin’s Church in Bladon? Jenny Jerome is buried there, and so is Winston and his family, not alone at St. Pauls. Wellington might learn something, since he was worth half of what Winston was relative to Britain’s triumphs. Yeah, I’m always down on Wellington – the man was a counter-democracy force in history.