Alva Vanderbilt: All Gilt, No Guilt
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In August 1895, Alva held a party at Marble House and set her plan in motion. She showcased Sir Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, as her guest of honor. His nickname, “Sunny,” derived from one of his previous titles, Earl of Sunderland, not from his outlook, and he was half a head shorter than Consuelo. Worse, it was glaringly obvious that he was interested in Alva’s daughter only because of her immense wealth. His birthright shackled him to Blenheim Palace, a 320-room, 18th-century estate in Oxfordshire that was the most elephantine of white elephants. The cost of its upkeep had already driven his father, the eighth duke, to wed rich American widow Lilian Hammersley. Sunny grimly resigned himself to marrying for money to keep the lights on.
The courting of Sunny and Consuelo was 1895’s closest thing to reality television. Few could look away from the drama of the beautiful teenage heiress, her domineering mother and the sullen nobleman attracted to a fat dowry. But the most gripping episode had already happened in private earlier that summer, when Consuelo tried to stand up to her mother. Mustering her courage, she asserted the right to pick her own husband, and said she chose Winthrop Rutherfurd, a tall, handsome man from an impeccable family. Alva’s rage was fearsome and ludicrous. She accused Rutherfurd of impotence, insanity, gold digging and a few other things before pledging to shoot him if he ran away with Consuelo. Alva carried her drama-queen act into the next day when she remained in her room and let her daughter believe that her defiance had provoked a heart attack. Her confederates told Consuelo that if she didn’t submit, she would stress her mother’s heart again and kill her.
|Marble House’s entrance foyer|
The August Marble House ball was a shimmering success, deemed the most beautiful fête ever held in Newport. Sunny, who was staying at Marble House as the family’s guest, greeted the attendees with Alva as they arrived. The festivities lasted until 5 AM; Alva’s position in society was restored. The following month, on the final full day of his stay, the duke proposed to Consuelo in Marble House’s Gothic Room. She gave the only answer she was allowed to give; the ceremony was set for November 6, 1895. Having reclaimed her social status, Alva turned around and married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont two months after wedding her daughter to the duke. Belmont was a Newport friend who had accompanied her and William on several cruises aboard the Vanderbilt yacht. Unlike his glorious relatives, the naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry and Commodore Matthew Perry, the man who opened Japan to Western trade, Belmont was content to enjoy the world rather than change it. With Belmont by her side, Alva was satisfied and might have spent the rest of her life drifting along happily with him had he not died of peritonitis in 1908. Widow Alva soon found something to occupy her time, though: the women’s suffrage movement. Never good at taking orders from others, she founded the Political Equality Association in 1909, a catch-all vehicle for her suffrage interests. Later, she involved herself in another organization that she renamed the National Woman’s Party. (It still exists, but now serves as an educational organization and an archive.) She admired Emmeline Pankhurst, an Englishwoman regarded as an extreme suffragette, and sponsored her 1913 American lecture tour. Alva hosted suffrage conferences at Marble House and staged fundraisers on its grounds. Its Chinese Tea House, added to Marble House’s backyard in 1913, united her love of architecture and women’s rights. She built it for schmoozing potential donors but declined to mar its interior with tea-brewing facilities. Instead, she employed a miniature train to ferry crockery and refreshments between the teahouse and the kitchen; when teatime was over, the tracks were dismantled and stored. She leveraged her image as a society matron and encouraged suffragettes to pressure President Wilson to support an amendment to the Constitution that would grant women the vote, a goal that was achieved in 1920.
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)