High Style in the Gilded Age: Consuelo Vanderbilt
CONSUELO VANDERBILT BALSAN (1877-1964) - THE PAWN
Consuelo Vanderbilt was a willowy beauty of 17 when the 26-year-old Frenchman and future aviation pioneer, Jacques Balsan, first saw her and fell in love. It would be nearly another 26 years before the two would finally marry in 1921 and Consuelo would find happiness with Jacques in France, and later in Southampton.
In the intervening years, both would marry others, Balsan would be celebrated for his record-breaking feats of aviation, while Consuelo would submit to the life imposed on her as the spectacularly rich and aristocratically groomed daughter of Alva Vanderbilt, a woman with obsessive social ambitions. While Balsan was being lionized as a hero, Consuelo was enduring a loveless marriage and lonely exile as the wife of a foppish English peer of the realm.
Consuelo’s mother, Alva, had married William Kissam Vanderbilt, the richest of the very rich Vanderbilts, in 1875. From the day of Consuelo’s birth, Alva harbors the highest social goals for her only daughter, but as long as Consuelo remains a young girl, she is allowed some freedom to enjoy her very privileged surroundings.
Of the three family mansions, Cosuelo’s favorite is the one called Idle Hour in Oakdale on Long Island, designed by William Morris Hunt. The original 100-room Queen Anne-style wooden structure, completed in 1882, will burn to the ground in 1899 to be replaced by a more formal brick mansion.
It is the original Idle Hour that Consuelo loves. She refers to it as her father’s house, the place where she spends the early summers and autumn months of her childhood crabbing, fishing in the Connetquot River, and learning to sail. She loves the time spent there with her warm-hearted but seldom available father, but even the normally unbending Alva loosens up a bit at Idle Hour. She allows Consuelo and her siblings to take over an old bowling alley on the property as a playhouse, but insists the children do all the housework themselves, even the cooking.
Later, Consuelo’s summers are spent at Newport in the colossal Marble House, a grandiose mansion, also designed by William Morris Hunt, and completed in 1892. To Consuelo, Marble House seems “like a prison,” with its high surrounding wall and heavy drapes to keep out the sun and the sound of the surf. Still, she manages to escape the splendor occasionally to have some fun at a nearby farm.
There is little escape for Consuelo from Alva’s dominance when the time comes to return to the Petit Chateau, the family’s Fifth Avenue palace completed in 1882. William Morris Hunt pulled out all the stops on this extravagant showplace designed to allow Alva to display her wealth and high-end francophilia to the world.
On March 26, 1883, Alva hosts a masked ball for 1,000 guests to officially open her Fifth Avenue castle and confirm her triumph in entering the highest ranks of New York society. Like many of her guests, Alva is photographed in costume beforehand in the studio of photographer Jose Maria Mora, known for his profusion of backdrops and props--including stuffed doves for Alva. The party is said to have cost her indulgent husband $3 million.
William Vanderbilt finds another beneficiary for his indulgences early in the 1890s, when the newspapers reportthat he is in a scandalous liaisonwith another woman.At about the same time, Alva is observed flirting with Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, usually called O.H.P. He has scandalized his family by abandoning his first wife on their honeymoon to travel with a French dancer. In 1894, Alva and William Vanderbilt separate, with unpleasant consequences for Consuelo. Alva, having satisfied her own social ambitions as a Vanderbilt, is able now to turn her laser focus on marrying Consuelo into the highest European society.
Consuelo’s course of instruction, supervised by her mother, has always bordered on cruelty. Two governesses, one German, one French, have her reading both languages by the age of eight. History, Literature, mathematics, Latin and science are taught in special small-scale classes for girls. Music lessons and an hour of exercise in Central Park fill out the day. Deportment is emphasized all day long. Perhaps most harsh, Alva orders creation of a steel brace to run from Consuelo’s forehead to her waist to ensure correct posture, and, indeed, Consuelo is often praised for her regal carriage. In her teens, Consuelo is recognized as a great beauty.
Now that Consuelo has been molded into the perfect wife for a noble husband, Alva takes her to Europe and introduces her to many titled young men. Consuelo is besieged by suitors but Alva finds the man she considers the perfect choice for a son-in-law in Charles Richard John Spencer Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. Much has been written about this ill-starred match, but there are no kind words in any account for the Duke, who has been described as “surly, critical, suspicious and without intellectual qualities.”
To say that Consuelo does not share her mother’s enthusiasm is an understatement. Under no circumstances would the intelligent and sensitive Consuelo ever have been impressed by the dandyish duke but, in fact, she is in love with another man. And Winthrop Rutherfurd, a young man with an impeccable pedigree and considered the handsomest bachelor in New York society, is in love with her. He and Consuelo manage to find time with each other, despite Alva’s fixation on a European crown for her daughter, and during a bicycle excursion on Riverside Drive, Winthrop proposes and Consuelo accepts.
That is their last meeting. After learning of the proposal, Alva watches Consuelo like a hawk, intercepts her mail and refuses to allow Rutherfurd into the house.She sweeps Consuelo off to Europe and when Rutherfurd follows, Consuelo is forbidden to see him. In her desperation, Alva tells Consuelo there is madness in the Rutherfud family and that he can’t have children. Alva invites Marlborough to visit Marble House, expecting him to propose to Consuelo. The surly Duke makes Alva wait but finally proposes to Consuelo in the gloomy Gothic Room at Marble House, and Consuelo’s fate is sealed.
The wedding, set for November 6, 1895, precipitates weeks of excited anticipation for nearly everyone but the heartbroken bride-to-be. When the day arrives, 300 policemen line the street in front of St. Thomas’ Church where thousands of spectators have gathered. Inside, the cream of New York society (minus most of the Vanderbilts) watches the weeping bride approach the altar like a lamb to the slaughter. The Duke, who has set a high price on himself and his title, has arrived late for the ceremony after last-minute negotiations to squeeze more from the Vanderbilt fortune.
The Duke needs all the money he can get. Blenheim Palace, his monumental 300-year-old residence in Oxfordshire, is in terrible shape, ready to devour Consuelo’s dowry in restoration expenses. Blenheimis the one thing the Duke appearsto really care about and he is determined to restore it to its original glory.
Many recognize the wedding for what it is: an especially prominent example of “dollars for dukes,” a craze among rich Americans for forging marital ties with titled but impecunious peers of the realm. Consuelo is just one of nine American girls who make such a marriage in 1895. In fact, such transactions occur with such frequency in the Gilded Age that the New York Times periodically prints a list of the sums changing hands. The Duke is said to have collected $2.5 million (more than $25 million today), delivered in valuable railroad stock. Just months before their daughter’s wedding in 1895, Alva and William are officially divorced and a year later Alva becomes Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont. It is a scandal but the indomitable Alva survives socially while Consuelo makes the difficult adjustment to life at Blenheim, far from home in a house full of haughtyservants with a husband she does not love and who does not love her. Nevertheless, by all accounts, Consuelo acquits herself well as the Duchess of Marlborough.
With no alternative, Consuelo masters the difficulties of managing a household with scores of servants, dinners for royalty, elaborate hunting parties and balls. She overcomes much initial suspicion and becomes a popular figure in England. In 1902, she is one of four duchesses chosen to bear the canopy of Queen Alexandra at the coronation of Edward the VII.
It is only a matter of time before Consuelo and the Duke have a marriage in name only. He has his clubs, his sports and his obsessive focus on the restoration of Blenheim to occupy him. Travel is her escape, Paris her favorite destination, and there she is often able to enjoy the company of her exuberant father.
Life at Blenheim also has its consolations. Consuelo bears two treasured sons and forges a deep friendship with the young Winston Churchill, her husband’s cousin, who would, in fact, have succeeded her husband as the next duke, had she failed to produce a son. At the time, Winston, as she later described him, was “the life and soul of the young and brilliant circle that gathered round him at Blenheim...Whether it was his American blood or his boyish enthusiasm and spontaneity, qualities sadly lacking in my husband, I delighted in his companionship.”
Churchill commiserates with Consuelo’s marital unhappiness and as Consuelo and the Duke grow further and further apart, Churchill is her ally in negotiating an official separation in 1906. The separation is made easier, no doubt, thanks to the Duke’s romance with Gladys Deacon, a celebrated beauty with a sordid background: her father murdered her mother.
Consuelo is only too happy to move into the charming 15h-century Tudor manor house, Crowhurst. Located not far from London, Crowhurst becomes the scene of many happy gatherings with friends who arrive from the city for the weekend houseparties. In her newfound freedom, she is also able to take activist stands on issues important to her. She lends her support to causes relating to child welfare and women’s higher education, and comes out strongly for women’s suffrage. It is a busy and happy time, though its carefree nature ends with the advent of the Great War.
Moving in the same circles as the dashing Jacques Balsan, over the years, Consuelo has often been in the presence of the man who first fell in love with her when she was the unattainable pawn in her mother’s marital maneuvers. In Balsan the flame has reignited and Consuelo is smitten. In 1921, when the Duke marries Gladys there is finally a divorce and that same year, 27 years after that first encounter, Consuelo and Balsan are married--finally a marriage of love. To make the break with her first marriage absolute, in 1927 Consuelo goes before an English tribunal of Catholic priests to ask for an annulment. According to canon law, being married against one’s will is the only valid claim for annulment and it falls on Alva to offer testimony in her daughter’s support. Without apparent embarrassment she states: “I forced my daughter to marry the Duke. I have always had absolute power over my daughter. When I issued an order nobody discussed it. I therefore did not beg, but ordered her to marry the Duke.”
The Balsans build a villa on the French Riviera but when the Nazis invade France, they are forced to make a daring escape through Spain to Portugal and eventually to the United States where they live the rest of their lives. In 1954, they begin summering in Southampton in the shingled cottage on Ox Pasture Road variously known as Gardenside and Cara Mia.
After Jacques Balsan’s death two years later, Consuelo continues to divide her time between New York and Southampton, becoming a familiar figure around town. The days of her notoriety are behind her but she has apparently not lost her aristocratic tastes. Having once admired a Louis XVI room and its boiserie in a French chateau, she has the entire room transported to Gardenside, where it remains until her death in 1964 at the age of 88.