Alva Vanderbilt: All Gilt, No Guilt
page 2 of 6
|Alva Vanderbilt dressed as a Venetian princess for the Vanderbilt ball, 1883|
The "cottages” of resort town Newport, RI, grew increasingly lavish during the 19th century, but the one that Alva Vanderbilt unveiled in 1892 made the rest look shabby by comparison. Constructed in secrecy for almost four years and ostensibly a present from her husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt, Marble House did what Alva meant it to do—confirm her position as one of the leading lights of society.
Marble House’s bronzed entrance gates weigh at least 10 tons. The Gold Room, where guests danced until dawn, put the “gilt” in the Gilded Age. The home consumed more than half a million cubic feet of marble. Alva’s delight in drawing inspiration from famous buildings of old was best expressed by the façade’s quartet of Corinthian columns. They resemble those that support the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis in Egypt, with one key difference—Alva’s are bigger.
Alva knew that any millionaire could commission an opulent house, but few had the taste to create something that was as elegant as it was expensive. Working with architect Richard Morris Hunt, she spent liberally and got her money’s worth. Marble House cost $11 million, an amount comparable to $260 million today. The home is a fitting memorial to Alva’s uniquely strong and unforgettable character. Her indefatigable drive made her the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers, planting the flag of the house of Vanderbilt at the summit of Gilded Age society. Her passion for architecture, underwritten by Vanderbilt wealth, set new standards for grandness. She had a bottomless reserve of bravery, which she drew upon when she divorced her philandering Vanderbilt husband in March 1895, a time when divorce was unthinkable. But her bullheadedness propelled her to dark acts that included forcing her only daughter to marry a man she didn’t love.
Alva Erskine Smith was born into a well-to-do Southern family in 1853. She savored the privileges of wealth—summers in Newport, schooling in France—but resisted the meek role imposed then on girls. She preferred to play with boys, and when they taunted her, she taunted them back. She also showed a precocious talent for getting what she wanted. In her unpublished memoirs, Alva recalled deciding that she had outgrown the family nursery and should graduate to her own bedroom, but pled her case to her parents and nanny without success. Words having failed her, little Alva switched to deeds: She smashed the china figurines that decorated the nursery and waited for the whipping that would follow. It did, but her caregivers also soon moved her into a bedroom. Alva achieved her goal and felt the pain was worth the price.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETTMANN/CORBIS (ALVA); OSCAR WHITE/CORBIS (WILLIAM); COURTESY OF THE NEWPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY (MARBLE HOUSE); bettmann/corbis (consuelo in chair, w.k. vanderbilt with consuelo); corbis (consuelo with hat); courtesy of the newport historical society (belcourt); collection of the new-york historical society (belmont, 65147)