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.”

So, she had a great wardrobe. But the Duke was a jerk. He spent his time talking about his fine lineage and disparaging his less well-off relatives like Winston Churchill. He was probably also sad because he had to give up the woman he loved in England to marry Consuelo and collect her $2.5 million dowry. Couldn’t these people just marry the ones they loved? However, the dowry did go toward restoring Blenheim Palace which was, I think, a fine use of the money.

In spite of the fact that Consuelo was less than excited to be marrying Charles and moving to England, she quickly became enormously popular in Britain because she was great at stuff.

Despite being one of the wealthiest women in America, and having her garters made out gold, Consuelo was down to earth. When she arrived at the Duke’s palace and asked the butler to light a fire, he informed her that he could not, because it was beneath him and the job of a valet. Consuelo found that funny and apparently lit the fire herself. She was determined to be a force for social justice, providing help for poor tenants on the estate, calling for minimum wage, and establishing a home for prisoners’ wives. And, while she was known as “The Democratic Duchess”, she also charmed the aristocracy. According to The New York Times:

Suavely concealing her distaste for the stifling protocol of British aristocracy, she staged a brilliant success in all strata of society. Always a quick study, in no time she had mastered the etiquette attendant to visiting Queen Victoria at Windsor, to entertaining the Kaiser for a weekend or the Prince of Wales for a 100-guest shooting party, events that involved at least four changes of costume a day.

Every costume change was one of gold! Hah, no, I don’t actually know that. Probably not. I do like to think so, though.

One of her coolest friends (I may be biased) was Winston Churchill, who was Charles’ cousin, although the Duke regarded him as a “lower order.” Some of her other notable friends were Charlie Chaplin and Henry James. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, claimed that he would “stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.” This quote has also been recorded as “wait all night in the rain” but that seems crazy.

Unfortunately, despite her social and philanthropic successes, the marriage was never really happy. I think there’s a saying about how events are probably doomed if, on your wedding day, you are sobbing hysterically hoping not to marry this person. No? There’s no saying like that? That is because such a saying is not necessary given that it’s abundantly evident to everyone who has ever thought about the future. Ah well. Nonetheless, she produced two sons – the older later becoming the 10th Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo is said to have coined the phrase “an heir and a spare.” Just like William and Harry – until yesterday, when Harry moved back one step on the succession chart.

And then, in 1906, Consuelo and Charles separated. Later, the marriage was annulled. This step was to help the Anglican Duke convert to Roman Catholicism, but was also – believe it or not – fully supported by Alva. Remember that Alva had divorced her husband (and Consuelo’s father) William Vanderbilt shortly before Consuelo’s wedding in 1895. At that time divorce was considered a scandalous choice for well brought up young ladies. There was – and still is – thought that Alva pushed so hard for Consuelo to marry a Duke because she thought it would help cement her own social position which was precarious after her divorce. Despite her incredibly rigid treatment of her own daughter, Alva was a champion for most women’s rights. She not only helped promote women’s suffrage, she also called for women to leave their marriages if they were unhappy. She asserted that wives were essentially unpaid prostitutes and, following her own divorce, said, “Do I believe in burning down houses? Certainly, after what women have had to put up with!” Whether she was a great feminist heroine is open to debate but she was certainly supportive of women. Alva did marry again to a yachtsman named Oliver Belmont; they sailed around the world and that marriage seemed pretty great.

Perhaps these experiences made Alva more sympathetic when Consuelo wanted to divorce her husband. So, that’s nice. As was the fact that Alva decided she would help Consuelo annul her marriage. Usually annulments only take place if the marriage has never been consummated, which would have been a hard case for turn-of-the-century ladies to argue given that Consuelo had two children with the Duke. Saying that they weren’t his would have been tantamount to saying that she was sleeping around, which would have certainly ruined her reputation. However, on trial, Alva said that the marriage had never been valid because Consuelo had agreed under duress. She told the judge, “I forced my daughter to marry the Duke. I have always had absolute power over my daughter, my children having been entrusted to me entirely after my divorce. When I issued an order, nobody questioned it. I therefore did not beg, but ordered her to marry the Duke.” That, honestly, seems like Alva Vanderbilt’s most generous act. If you don’t find this fascinating, by the way Edith Wharton did. Her final unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, is about a bride unhappily married to an English duke.  

Later, Consuelo fell in love with and married a wealthy Frenchman named  Louis-Jacques Balsan. In spite of the fact that he was bourgeois! At this moment I wonder what happened to Winthrop, but apparently he had a lot of affairs, and became kind of dissolute, so I guess . . . nothing good. He was married twice – first to the daughter of a US Vice President and then to Lucy Mercer, a former mistress of US President Franklin Roosevelt. He also had a favorite hobby of breeding fox terriers.

If Louis still sounds less exciting by comparison, take comfort in the fact that he flew hot air balloons and had worked as a pilot with the Wright Brothers. He was also the younger brother of Coco Chanel’s lover, Etienne Balsan. Consuelo married Louis in a small Catholic ceremony in 1921. The press was more fantastic than they would have liked, in large part because Alva had courted coverage for so long.

After her mother defended her right to an annulment  and supported her second marriage, Alva and Consuelo had a much warmer, friendlier relationship. Consuelo remained married to Jacques until he passed away in 1956 at age 88. Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor to their chateau near Paris, despite being a member of the lower orders. And in 1953, Consuelo published her autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold which almost immediately spent 20 weeks atop the Times bestseller list. A review in the New York Times said it was “an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance.” At the age of 82, Consuelo was still considered, “the acknowledged beauty of the Southampton season.” She remained so until she died at age 87 in 1964.

Consuelo was buried alongside her younger son in England near her former home of Blenheim Palace. Upon her grave, she had inscribed, “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? Perhaps. But honestly, I can’t tell you a damn thing about the 10th Duke of Marlborough, so maybe Alva did have a few good directives.

Additional reading:

The Glitter and the Gold, by Consuelo Vanderbilt

New York Times, “Vanderbilt Family Values”

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Stuart

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