On a November day in 1895, crowds of curious sightseers gathered outside St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, intent on spotting a small dapper bridegroom whom they knew to be a great English aristocrat awaiting his bride-to-be. When she arrived, twenty minutes late, anyone who caught a glimpse beneath Consuelo Vanderbilt's veil would have seen that her face was swollen from crying.
When Consuelo's grandfather died, he was the richest man in America. Her father soon started to spend the family fortune, enthusiastically supported by Consuelo's mother, Alva, who was determined to take the family to the top of New York society. She was adamant that her daughter should make a grand marriage, and the underfunded Duke of Marlborough was just the thing. It didn't matter that Consuelo loved someone else; as Alva once told her, "I don't ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you're told."
However, the story of Consuelo and Alva is not simply one of the emptiness of wealth, of the glamour of the Gilded Age, and of enterprising social ambition. This is a fascinating account of how two women struggled to break free from the deeply materialistic world into which they were born, taking up the fight for female equality. Consuelo threw herself into good works; Winston Churchill encouraged her to make her first public speech, and her social and political campaigns proved an antidote to loneliness. Alva embraced the militant suffragette movement in America, helping to bring the fight for the vote to its triumphant conclusion and campaigning vehemently for women's rights until she died. In this brilliant and engrossing book, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart suggests that behind the most famous transatlantic marriage of all lies an extraordinary tale of the quest for female power.
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Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is the author of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age. She lives in Oxford, England.From The Washington Post:
Alva Erskine Smith came from a family with more pretensions than money. She saved her family from barely genteel poverty by marrying William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the richest man in America. And she saved the Vanderbilts, who had not yet transformed their money into social standing, by maneuvering her way to the pinnacle of the Gilded Age New York elite. Her daughter, Consuelo, was both instrument and victim of her most brilliant social coup, in which she converted wealth and beauty into an aristocratic title by forcing Consuelo to marry the fatuous and ill-tempered Duke of Marlborough. The duke desperately needed Vanderbilt money to refurbish his vast ancestral home at Blenheim, a money pit with its 150 rooms and only one bath.
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart tells the stories of Alva and Consuelo in an intertwined narrative, an approach that adds depth to our understanding of both their lives. Mother and daughter strongly influenced each other, although not in ways that either found comfortable. Alva was a strong-minded woman increasingly frustrated by her role as wife of a rich man with little of meaning to do; her time was consumed with planning and attending parties and balls, ordering clothes and wearing them, building and decorating mansions. According to Stuart, she believed that she was giving her daughter a chance to play a more satisfying role as the Duchess of Marlborough. Consuelo resisted the match, but Alva took to her bed until she gave way and agreed to the near-royal wedding that Alva had already trumpeted to the newspapers.
Consuelo's marriage made her miserable -- the duke criticized every initiative she took, and his mother despised her -- but she established herself as a sought-after presence in British high society, in spite of its prejudice against American heiresses. Winston Churchill was a particular friend, as were other luminaries of the time. She speedily produced two male heirs, but she and the duke separated in 1906, 11 years after they married. More liberal than her husband, as Edwardian society began to disintegrate and reform into something more modern, she flourished while the duke languished. Philanthropy gave Consuelo an effective public role, as her mother had hoped in arranging her marriage. After the separation, Consuelo became a conservative feminist, an able organizer and administrator of many projects for the less fortunate and a successful public speaker. And in 1921, Consuelo remarried for love, to Jacques Balsan, a French pioneer of aviation.
Alva also sought love the second time around, divorcing William K. Vanderbilt to marry Oliver Belmont, a wealthy "gentleman of leisure." After Belmont's death, she reemerged into public life as a militant feminist -- far more radical than her daughter but with the same arrogance she had exhibited as a mother and socialite. She played an important role in the National Woman's Party, supporting Alice Paul and the suffragists who chained themselves to the White House fence during World War I. Alva constantly tried to recruit Consuelo for the more militant wing of the suffrage movement, but Consuelo declined to be swayed. Her mother could no longer rule her, although she used Consuelo's fame to her own advantage in planning social events. Readers who are not familiar with the personalities and struggles of the suffrage movements in the United States and England will not learn much here. Stuart's focus is on the two women and not the cause in which both, in quite different ways, were involved.
Stuart has skillfully integrated a great deal of research, including interviews with family members and an extensive bibliography, into her twined biographies, and she gives a rich sense of both women. She is less successful with the other characters. Several of the recurring and important people remain simply names and events, with no life, no color, of their own. But Stuart is excellent at describing the almost monstrous social occasions, such as the Prince of Wales's 1896 visit to Blenheim: "There were over a hundred people in the house while the shooting party lasted. . . . The women spent most of their time dawdling, chatting and changing. . . . The men were rather more active for they had come to shoot. . . . On Tuesday morning the Duke escorted his guests to part of the estate known as High Park where eight guns shot over two thousand rabbits. On Wednesday the party went to North Leigh where eighty beaters were on hand in light brown Holland smocks and red caps to assist with the bagging of over a thousand birds."
With Stuart's precise descriptions of the endless balls and fetes and the gowns and jewels worn by each woman, reading the book at times feels like consuming six courses of pastry. The latter half, when Alva and Consuelo begin to be politically active, is far livelier. Mother and daughter were both activists and snobs (Alva abused her servants, Consuelo was anti-Semitic), do-gooders and clothes-horses, denizens of Vogue and the political papers. Alva certainly deserves to be returned to her place in the history of feminism and the struggle for the vote in the United States, however controversial and uncomfortable her personality made her. But as Stuart ably demonstrates, they both heroically met the challenges faced by talented and energetic women at the turn of the last century.
Reviewed by Marge Piercy
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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