Alva Vanderbilt: All Gilt, No Guilt
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Marble House’s Gold Room
If it seems curious that a woman who manipulated her daughter into marriage would embrace women’s rights, Alva never acknowledged the contradiction. She saw herself as a feminist from the first day she was told she couldn’t do something because she was a girl, yet continued to believe that women should marry for cold, calculating reasons. In her words, “You cannot help your children to advantages through sentimental romance but through money, which alone has power.”
A paralyzing stroke afflicted Alva in 1932. She died the following year and was laid to rest alongside her second husband at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. Hundreds of suffragettes attended her funeral, and she was buried with a banner bearing Susan B. Anthony’s last words: “Failure is impossible.”
If Alva could see the present, she would be mightily annoyed that few remember her work for women’s rights, but would take pleasure in the survival of Marble House. Toward the end of her life, she sold it for the bargain price of $100,000 to a family who intended to keep it mostly intact. Today, Marble House is the only one of her mansions that still exists. It now belongs to the Preservation Society of Newport County, which welcomes 160,000 annual visitors, who pay a $14 admission price to wander through its rooms, as awestruck as the society hopefuls whom Alva invited to cross her threshold more than a century ago.
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)