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.

Alva Smith was born in 1853 in Mobile, Alabama. There’s a description when you go through Marble House that says that as a young girl Alva used to be punished because she went around punching boys. Pretty agressively, apparently.

This story always gets a big laugh, because she was a girl and it was the Victorian age, although it skims over the fact that no one should go around punching people. Also skimmed over are the facts that she slapped her piano teacher in the face and pushed tacks into her governess’s dresses. If some super rich Victorian boy did that, we would  think he sucked. Alva justified her actions by saying her parents did not understand her inherent tomboy nature.

I don’t know, Alva, kind of sounds like a nightmare for your parents.

I’d maybe dismiss these actions as “being something terrible that children do” if much of Alva’s life didn’t seem to involve beating other people into submission for her own social climbing benefit.

You could say those pressure tactics began with her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1875. It’s speculated that Alva married him in part because, though she was independently well-to-do, she was not admitted to the upper echelon of New York society.The Vanderbilt family’s wealth was estimated to be $100 million so he was readily admitted wherever he wanted to go. Later, when Alva spoke of William, she claimed that she did not marry him because she was a social climbing gold digger, but because her family was facing financial trouble and she wanted to make sure they were secure.

That is not the same as saying, “I loved him, oh, how I loved him.”

The tactic worked, at least partially. For instance, Mrs. Astor thought Alva was vulgar and refused to acknowledge her. She acquiesced after Alva married William, though she still refused to admit Alva to her annual ball, which was reserved for friends upon whom she paid social calls. Supposedly Alva retaliated by holding a massive 1000 person masquerade ball, and at the last moment un-inviting Mrs. Astor’s youngest daughter, Caroline. She claimed that Caroline could not attend because she just realized that she and Mrs. Astor had never met socially. Mrs. Astor was forced to pay a social call on Alva, Caroline went to the ball, and the Vanderbilts were invited to Mrs. Astor’s parties forever after. (I bet Mrs. Astor gritted her teeth every time.)

Alva’s daughter, Consuelo, was to be one of the wealthiest heiresses in America in an age where being a rich woman greatly determined your marriage prospects. Alva had certain ideas about who those men should be. NPR reports:

She was very unkeen on Consuelo marrying a man from an old American family who would then use his wife’s fortune to subsidize a life of philandering and other pleasures. It’s clear that from very early on, Alva decided that Consuelo would marry into the European aristocracy, and the British aristocracy in particular. She named her daughter after an old friend, Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester — the only duchess she knew at that stage. She made sure Consuelo could speak, read and write French and German by the time she was eight. She ensured that Consuelo was well traveled and highly educated.

That sounds great, right?

They do not mention that Consuelo remembered that she was never allowed to select any of her own belongings as a child – her room, for instance, was decorated to look as though she lived in an English castle. Which is to say, it was maroon and terrifying. Whenever she objected, Alva replied, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.”

From the age of eight, Alva had Consuelo wear a metal brace that ran from the lower back to the nape of her neck so that she would have perfect posture. Apparently it worked, and Consuelo was known for sitting up erect. But she was eight years old and that sounds worse than a corset.

Consuelo was, by all accounts, an extremely warm, kind, clever person. She was also very pretty!


When Consuelo was age 18 (in 1895) she supposedly fell in love with someone from a nearby family and wanted to marry him. Vanderbilt children weren’t really allowed to socialize with anyone of a lower class, so we can feel certain that he was probably reasonably well off and suitable. Unfortunately, Alva had already decided that Consuelo would marry Charles, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, a man so dour he was nicknamed “Sunny.” While Consuelo was bright and as forward thinking as someone who had been chained into a back brace could be (her friends called her a “bluestocking” and she loved books and I think she sounds lovely), the Duke was known to be obsessed only with his own magnificent lineage.

I think Alva would have been perfectly happy married to him, especially as this was around the time she was divorcing William Vanderbilt. Alas, she could not but her daughter could.

Just how common were arranged marriages in the Gilded Age? Well, not that common, really. NPR claims:

Consuelo certainly wasn’t ahead of her time in feeling she was entitled to a love match, but even society love matches of that period were subject to family approval and made within a very tiny caste of the very rich and grand — their young weren’t allowed to meet anyone else. But even when marriages were subtly arranged, the young couple was generally given a chance to say ‘no.’

Consuelo, however, wasn’t permitted this degree of freedom by Alva, who was determined that she knew best. And such a calculating and determined view of what was best, in the face of her daughter’s profound reservations was unusual, a throwback to an earlier age of dynastic alliances. I’m not even sure Alva would even have objected to this description. As far as she was concerned, Consuelo was part of the new American royalty of wealth, and love matches were a middle-class sort of business. Later, Alva embraced feminism and was inclined to view the very notion of romantic love as a plot against all women.

Alva began stealing all of the letters from her daughter’s lover, but Consuelo still begged, desperately, not to marry the Duke until her wedding day. Supposedly she was 20 minutes late to her own wedding because she had been lying prostrate in front of her father, begging him not to make her marry Charles. However, William – though he had divorced Alva, and was supposedly so disinclined to remain married to her that he hired a woman to pretend to be his mistress to give Alva cause for divorce – claimed that Consuelo’s mother knew best.

If it makes you feel better, Consuelo’s corset was fastened with gold hooks, and her garters were held up with diamonds. It did not make Consuelo feel better, doubtless, but I’m sure she looked great.

Afterwards, Alva went on to see the victory of the suffragette cause. She also remarried, to a man named Oliver Belmont, quipping “First marry for money, then marry for love.”

Oliver was very, very wealthy, and one of her ex-husband’s oldest friends.

So, a more appropriate saying might have been, “Just marry for money every time.”

That’s probably a bit cynical of me, though.

They spent years yachting (which is more upscale than sailing!) around the world and building mansions in New York and Long Island. One home called Beacon Towers is thought to have been the inspiration for Gatsby’s mansion in The Great Gatsby. Oliver died in 1908 and Alva moved to Europe, dying in Paris in 1933 following a stroke. Over her coffin was draped a banner which read “Failure is impossible,” the words of Susan B. Anthony. While it – coupled with the all-female pallbearers – reminded many people of her dedication to the feminist cause, it also has some bearing on how she lived the rest of her life. Perhaps it’s good to remember that failing in some situations – especially when other people are involved – is all right. 

And as for Consuelo? Well, she hung out with Winston Churchill, and became friends with Queen Victoria, and ultimately divorced her terrible husband and ended up very happily married. But we’ll talk about all of that in next week’s Shelved Doll.

Additional reading:

NPR, “Consuelo and Alva: The Early Story of Celebrity”

The Glitter and The Gold: The American Duchess in Her Own Words, by Consuelo Vanderbilt

Alva Vanderbilt: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights, by Syliva Hoffert