High Style in the Gilded Age: Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo and her sons


Young Consuelo reading a book

Jacques Balsan

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.

Alva Vanderbilt

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.

William Kissam Vanderbilt

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.

The original Idle Hour

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.

Consuelo, 10 years old

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.

Marble House

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.

Petit Chateau, Fifth Avenue

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.