Consuelo Vanderbilt was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family, a family of Dutch origin who gained prominence during the Gilded Age because of her great grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had great success with shipping and railroads and built an empire. Consuelo was named in honor of her godmother, Consuelo Yzanaga, a half Cuban, half American socialite. Yzanaga, along with her friends, was the inspiration behind Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, partly because of Yzanaga’s shocking marriage to Englishman George, Viscount Mandeville, who supposedly married her for her money while she married him for his title.
Like French socialite Madame Récamier, Consuelo Vanderbilt was an American socialite. She was born in New York City on 2 March 1877 to wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire and grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Although a fun-loving father, William was often an absent parent and this left Consuelo in the care of her demanding and authoritarian mother, Alva Erskine Smith, a Mobile, Alabama belle and upcoming suffragist.
According to Consuelo Vanderbilt, her mother was more than demanding. She recalls her being abusive and domineering. Consuelo also described her mother as “a born dictator” and someone who whipped her for the slightest infraction. Furthermore, because Consuela was taught at home by tutors, Alva reportedly constantly hovered and supervised never allowing Consuelo to escape her. However, it also meant that by the age of eight Consuelo could read and write English, French, and German because every Saturday Alva also forced her to recite endless poems in English, French, and German.
Alva oversaw every facet of Consuelo’s life. For instance, because posture was a sure sign of ladylike behavior extreme measures were introduced by Alva to ensure that her daughter had perfect posture. This meant that during her school lesson she was forced to wear a steel rod that ran down her spine. It was extremely uncomfortable and because it fastened at the waist and over the shoulders, which made it nearly impossible for Consuelo Vanderbilt to write and forced her to hold her book high to read.
With practically every moment and every movement being dictated by her mother, Consuelo did not necessarily have much time for pleasure. There was never any swimming, tennis, or golf on her educational curriculum. About the only fun Consuelo Vanderbilt remembered was a “weekly dancing class conducted by Mr. Dodsworth, an elderly and elegant instructor who had taught succeeding generations of New Yorkers how to dance and how to behave in company.”
To further demonstrate Alva’s authoritative and domineering personality, according to Consuelo when she became a teenager and objected to clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva reportedly told her “I don’t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” In addition, professor and historian Sylvia Hoeffert reported on the mother-daughter relationship stating:
“Not one to mince words where her mother was concerned, Consuelo described Alva … from the perspective of old age, … [seeing] herself as nothing more than one of her mother’s ‘projects,’ an individual who, denied the right to her own will or opinions, was merely a ‘pawn’ to be moved about as her mother wished. Even the space of her bedroom at Marble House, … she described as gloomy and ‘austere,’ was her mother’s space rather than her own. … There was no evidence that the room was inhabited by a young girl because Alva forbade ‘the intrusion’ of Consuelo’s ‘personal possessions.’ Consuelo concluded that ‘there was in her love of me something of the creative spirit of the artist.’ Placing her daughter in such a room, Consuelo believed, resulted from her mother’s ‘wish to produce me as a finished specimen framed in a perfect setting.’ The result of her mother’s efforts was to make Consuelo feel as if she were as much an ornament as the elaborate grooming set laid out on her dressing table. ‘My person was dedicated to whatever final disposal she had in mind.’”
Because of Alva’s overbearing and domineering personality, she became determined that her daughter would make a great marriage and she preferred her daughter make a match like that of her godmother, Yzanaga. Of course, because of her Vanderbilt name there plenty of gentlemen willing to trade their titles for cash. In fact, it was claimed that there were at least five proposals given Consuelo Vanderbilt.
Of the five only one gentleman was considered worthy by Alva and he was Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg. He was the fourth and youngest son of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine and the Countess Julia von Hauke. Battenberg grew to be a handsome, slender man and met Consuelo in London at an evening party in 1894. Unfortunately for him, she declined his proposal and later wrote:
“Such a marriage could mean only unhappiness. Separated from my family and my friends, living in a provincial capital, ironbound in a strict etiquette with a man whose views were those of a prejudiced German princeling – how could I reconcile myself to such a life? Only a great love could make such a marriage possible, and I felt aversion rather than attraction for the dapper man of world for whom I realized I was only a means to an end.”
Despite the Prince not appealing to Consuelo, Alva was determined to secure the highest ranking mate possible for her daughter and with gusto she plowed ahead with another idea to marry her daughter off to a gentleman with a title. This time Alva engineered a meeting between her daughter and Charles Spencer Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. He was an emotionally repressed English aristocrat prevented by the strict social dictates of late 19th-century from earning money and was therefore left with one solution, he must marry someone with money.
To obtain the meeting between Marlborough and her daughter, Alva used the aid of Lady Paget (the American born Mary “Minnie” Stevens). She married Sir Arthur Paget, a soldier who reached the rank of General and served as Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. As an English hostess Lady Paget became a sort of international matchmaker, introducing eligible American heiresses to British noblemen. She was also the daughter of Para Stevens (a hotel entrepreneur) and Marietta Reed Stevens, a socially ambitious widow who had successfully obtained admittance to “The Four Hundred,” a list of 400 people considered to be the most socially elite published on 16 February 1892 in The New York Times having been dictated by social arbiter Ward McAllister.
Unfortunately, for Alva, her engineered meeting did nothing to pique Consuelo’s interest in Marlborough. That was partly because Consuelo had become secretly engaged to Winthrop Rutherfurd, an American socialite from New York City. He was a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherlands before it became New York, and John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts. Rutherfurd was also one of those named to “The Four Hundred.”
Alva did everything possible to get her daughter to marry Marlborough. However, her cajoling, wheedling, and begging did not work, so finally Alva ordered her teenage daughter to marry him. Consuelo adamantly refused and then planned to elope with Rutherford, but when Alva found out, she locked Consuelo in her room and threatened to murder Rutherfurd. Consuelo still would not consent to marry Marlborough.
What finally got Consuelo Vanderbilt to agree was when her mother claimed to be desperately ill because of her unwillingness to marry Marlborough. Fearing her mother was at death’s door, Consuelo finally consented. Unsurprisingly, soon after agreeing Alva made a swift and miraculous recovery. With the engagement on, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:
“As there would be no time for a shopping expedition to Paris, Mrs. Vanderbilt has given the majority of orders by cable, and a week after the engagement was public property a skillful, trusty French woman came over, bearing a box full of samples and drawings. These were sent by the Paris houses of the Rue de la Paix, Rue Castilogne, and Boulevards Malesherbs and des Capucines, where Mrs. Vanderbilt is a valued and regular patron. … Of the seventy-five gowns included in the trousseau, not one will be sent out without two pairs of its own particular stockings.”
Because curiosity was high other details about the upcoming wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Marlborough were also published and appeared in both American and English newspapers. Closer to the date the following information was published in a Northumberland British newspaper called the Shields Daily News:
“Preparations for the wedding were upon a most lavish scale … including the bride’s trousseau, some £10,000. Over 2,000 invitations have been issued. They were couched in the following terms: – ‘Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt requests the honour of your presence at the marriage of her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough, on Wednesday, November the 6th, at twelve o’clock, at St. Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue.’”
When the day finally arrived, large crowds appeared outside the Episcopal church and at the Vanderbilt residence. To ensure that order was kept a large contingency of police then surrounded the Vanderbilt home and the church on Fifth Avenue. The streets where the bridal procession was slated to pass were also heavily thronged with sightseers. Moreover, coverage on the wedding day included many interesting details:
“The floral decorations of the church far excelled anything seen before in this country, the walls, pillars, and indeed, almost every square foot of the interior, being covered with artistically arranged designs of flowers and foliage. … The scene inside the church from the moment the guests began to arrive was singularly striking and brilliant. Women of wealth and social prominence vied with each other in richness and grandeur of their dresses, and the splendour of their jewels, which dazzled the eye in all directions, lent to the scene all the brilliance of an Old World Court function. The guests as they arrived were escorted by ushers to pews which had been assigned them. At half-past ten the organist … took his seat … and beguiled the tedium of waiting by a long and varied programme of appropriate music. An hour later the member of the choir, sixty in number, entered the church, and immediately they were seated, the New York Symphony Orchestra, stationed in the north gallery … commenced playing. Shortly after noon the strains of the Wedding March … heralded the arrival of Mrs. Vanderbilt, who, accompanied by her two sons … As soon as Mrs. Vanderbilt … [was] seated the bridegroom and best man …. walked from the vestry to the chancel rail, where they awaited the coming of the bride. A few minutes after … the bridal procession was formed and advanced towards the chancel. When the bride, leaning on her father’s arm, appeared, every head was turned towards her, and as she proceeded up the centre aisle, dresses and flowers were sadly crushed in excited attempts made on every side to catch a glimpse of the slight girlish figure in whom curiosity was centered.”
Of course, the highlight of the wedding ceremony was seeing the bride walk down the aisle in her white gown. Thus, the Shields Daily News provided a detailed description of her and her wedding dress:
“Miss Vanderbilt wore no jewels, but her bridal gown was a perfect poem in cream stain, and tulle, trimmed with point d’Angleterre and point applique lace. The skirt was unusual … just cleared the floor, save where the trim, five yards in length swept the aisle. The bodice was high-necked, with very full sleeves, close fitting below the elbow, and reaching over the band in the shape of a gauntlet. The front of the gown was a mass of lace in stripes, frillings, and flounces, intermingled with half-hidden wreaths and garlands of orange blossoms, while the waist was profusely adorned with chiffon and crepe waves, tastefully arranged with sprays of orange blossoms. A revers of handsome lace fell over the sleeves from the shoulders to the elbow. The train was marvelously beautiful, and in itself was as handsome a piece of tapestry. it shimmered forth in box-pleats, the pearls and galloon border forming an exquisite framing of silver. The whole shone with rare splendour, and artistically seemed to envelope the bride in a circle of light.”
Although the wedding might have seemed like a fairy tale to those present, Consuelo was so depressed, she had cried copiously and claimed it was blessing to have her veil covering her face so that no one could she her red swollen eyes. Apparently after the vows were given, the marriage contract was signed in the vestry of the church, but in order to make that happen lengthy negotiations had been undertaken beforehand by Consuelo’s divorced parents. It seems that Alva was determined that her daughter be a duchess no matter the cost.
During the honeymoon, the Duke reportedly told his new wife Consuelo he had given up the English woman he loved to collect $2.5 million (approximately $75.2 million in 2019 U.S. dollars) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement. He also let her know that he had married her because it was the only way he could save Blenheim, a monumental country house in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England and the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. Of course, knowing such information did not endear Consuelo to the Duke nor did it help the couple’s marriage.
Although Consuelo Vanderbilt proved popular with royalty and British aristocracy and although she bore Marlborough two sons (John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford, who became 10th Duke of Marlborough and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill), she and Marlborough were an ill fit. It did not take long before their marriage was in name only and both had other liaisons. It also came as no surprise in 1906 when the Marlboroughs officially separated and then divorced in 1921.
On 19 August 1926 the Anglican Duke requested their marriage be annulled. It was a way for him to facilitate his desire to convert to Roman Catholicism. Consuelo consented and their marriage was annulled, surprisingly aided by the fact that Alva supported the annulment and admitted she had also coerced her daughter into marrying him.
-  C. V. Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess—in Her Own Words (Maidstone: WBC Books, 1973), p. 10.
-  S. D. Hoffert, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 36–37.
-  S. D. Hoffert. 2011, p. 36.
-  C. V. Balsan. 1973, p. 28.
-  The Philadelphia Inquirer, “From a Garden to a Grand Palace,” October 13, 1895, p. 26.
-  Shields Daily News, “The Marlborough Vanderbilt Wedding,” November 7, 1895, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.