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'Consuelo and Alva': An Early Story of Celebrity

"The rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed. Ours is an era where celebrity and wealth -- and especially wealthy people who become celebrities -- are avidly watched. How else to explain the allure, say, of The Donald, or Paris Hilton? The chronicling of society fixtures such as the Trumps, the Steinbergs, and the Gettys was legion in the '80s. Tom Wolfe's best selling doorstopper, The Bonfire of the Vanities, wrote about it for more than 700 pages.

In the '90s, fame began to overshadow wealth. But fame and wealth is, apparently, a chronically irresistible combination. And it's not a new preoccupation for the American public.

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's maiden book is a dual biography of two women who were famous because of their wealth at the end of the 1800s: Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age is every bit as fascinating as the latest cover story in People or Vanity Fair. Drawing on years of research, Stuart meticulously sketches New York at the turn of the century, the mores by which the wealthiest part of society lived, and the avid interest the rest of the country had in their goings-on.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of the most famous heiresses in U.S. history. For one thing, she was astonishingly beautiful. For another, she was one of the wealthiest young women in the United States. By the time she she'd made her debut in 1895, the entire country knew she possessed $20 million -- a sum equal to almost $4 billion today. But that money placed Consuelo in a sort of golden coffin. It severely restricted who might be eligible to marry her, dictated her future as an ornament for a wealthy or powerful man, and sealed her off from any kind of meaningful life.

The fabled beauty was eventually auctioned off to a cash-poor but pedigree-rich Englishman, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, in a ceremony that was surrounded with ostentation and hysteria. (Hundreds of New York's finest were called out to restrain thousands of onlookers -- mostly women -- who were frantic to glimpse the bride in her wedding finery. The newspapers of the day carried exhaustively detailed descriptions of the trousseau: her pink lace corset apparently had gold hooks, and her silk stockings were held up by diamond-encrusted garters.)

It was an unhappy marriage from the very start, and eventually Consuelo freed herself of it, and went on to find meaning in her life as a political activist (she supported the suffrage movement early on) and true love with a less exalted, but more simpatico companion.

Author Stuart had just returned from India after a few weeks' holiday; she gave us this interview via e-mail while she was still trying to re-adjust to being back on English soil -- and time. We focused on Consuelo's life at the time of her wedding.

Can you describe life in New York as Consuelo Vanderbilt came of age to marry? What defined the prominent families in society? And what made a young woman an attractive prospect for marriage?

Dizzying amounts of money! By the time Consuelo Vanderbilt came to marry in 1895, prominent families in U.S. society were defined first and foremost by wealth. Huge fortunes were made in the boom years for the North after the Civil War, and by the time Consuelo reached marriageable age, the distinction between the new, vulgar rich and the older families descended from Dutch settlers had largely broken down. Consuelo's extremely forceful mother Alva led the attack on this kind of social distinction while Consuelo was still quite young by challenging Mrs. Astor, the society leader who refused to admit the newly wealthy Vanderbilts to her famous ballroom with space for the top 'Four Hundred'.

Alva effectively broke Mrs. Astor's power after she married the extremely rich William K. Vanderbilt in 1875. By doing this, she simultaneously made it more and more difficult for the less wealthy to participate in society. There were exceptions, of course. Some older, less wealthy families stayed the course partly because genteel social codes remained in force. And money wasn't the sole defining criteria: However rich you were, you also had to demonstrate you could behave like a gentleman, or lady. So prominent families also had to demonstrate a degree of good taste that set them apart from rich vulgarians. (Confusingly you also had to be visible too. Without seeming to do anything about it, you had to make sure your activities were publicized -- for without visibility, how would the masses know just how elite you were?)

If wealth defined the American aristocracy of the Gilded Age, it was wealth, even more than beauty, that made a young woman an attractive prospect for marriage. Indeed, trying to make your way as an unmarried young woman at the top of Gilded Age society without money was very, very difficult even if you were attractive, as Edith Wharton demonstrates in her portrait of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.

How had Consuelo been raised to position her advantageously in the highly competitive marriage market at the time?

Well, after her grandfather died unexpectedly young in 1885, everyone knew that Consuelo was one of the greatest heiresses in America, second only to her cousin Gertrude. There was never any shortage of suitors -- quite the opposite. The problem Alva faced was keeping the wrong sort of man away from Consuelo.

This raises the question, who was the right sort of man, as far as Alva was concerned? She was very unkeen on Consuelo marrying a man from an old American family who would then use his wife's fortune to subsidize a life of philandering and other pleasures. It's clear that from very early on, Alva decided that Consuelo would marry into the European aristocracy, and the British aristocracy in particular. She named her daughter after an old friend, Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester -- the only duchess she knew at that stage. She made sure Consuelo could speak, read and write French and German by the time she was eight. She ensured that Consuelo was well traveled and highly educated. (Actually, as it turned out, Alva rather over-educated Consuelo for the job of an English duchess.)

Alva pushed her daughter extremely hard to marry an English duke. How did her personal history affect her zeal for this match?

I believe that Alva's reasons for pushing Consuelo so hard into marrying the Duke of Marlborough are more complex than they appear. At first glance, Alva's intense desire that Consuelo should marry the Duke looks like a straightforward case of mad social ambition. But in 1895, the year of the engagement, Alva also divorced her philandering husband William K. Vanderbilt (whom she now detested,) and she certainly had no interest at all in aggrandizing the Vanderbilts.

On the other hand her personal circumstances also made it very important that Consuelo's marriage to the Duke took place that year. Divorce was difficult to survive socially, especially since everyone knew that Alva had also taken a lover, a man named Oliver Belmont. There is absolutely no doubt that Alva used the visit by the Duke of Marlborough to her house in Newport in 1895 to shore up her fragile social position, and that she wanted to become the mother of a duchess in order to maintain it during that fraught period of divorce and re-marriage.

However, I believe, in Alva's defense, that she also wanted to place Consuelo in a position that the latter would find fulfilling. To use a modern word, she wanted to empower her daughter. As a result of her unhappy marriage to William K. Vanderbilt, Alva didn't believe this was possible in America, where the wives of rich men simply became appendages with no social or charitable role like that of an English duchess. Alva's rather embittered view was that once love faded, as it invariably did, Consuelo should have a role that gave her power, prestige and influence in the community. This, in Alva's view, was best achieved in 1895 by becoming an English duchess.

Why an English duchess, not a French countess, or some other kind of European nobility?

1895 was the time when the sun never set on the British Empire and English dukes were very much at the center of national power, unlike the French or German aristocracy. English duchesses, by extension, had a well-defined and absorbing role. At least that was Alva's opinion.

It's often noted that when young women get married and their mothers are excessively involved in the wedding arrangements, what they mothers are really doing is giving themselves the wedding they would like to have had, not the wedding their daughter really wants. Would it be fair to say that was the case with Alva? Why?

I'm absolutely certain that this match and this wedding was exactly what Alva would have wanted for herself. It was Alva who felt deeply the exclusion from power and influence of the rich American wife, not Consuelo, who after all, was only 18. It was Alva who was passionately interested in living in palatial houses -- she had already built several herself with William K. Vanderbilt's money. It was Alva, not Consuelo, who loved the idea of the role of an English duchess, though Alva's view of this role was somewhat misty-eyed as Consuelo soon found out. Much of this, I believe, had its roots in Alva's own feelings of exclusion that started when she was very young, and the genteel poverty that hit her own family during her teens.

The notion of romantic love was just starting to take hold when Consuelo married; before that, the more European concept of family alliance and financial amalgamation were accepted among the very rich. Was Consuelo ahead of her time in wanting a love match, rather than a financial merger?

It's an interesting question. Consuelo certainly wasn't ahead of her time in feeling she was entitled to a love match, but even society love matches of that period were subject to family approval and made within a very tiny caste of the very rich and grand -- their young weren't allowed to meet anyone else. But even when marriages were subtly arranged, the young couple was generally given a chance to say 'no.'

Consuelo, however, wasn't permitted this degree of freedom by Alva, who was determined that she knew best. And such a calculating and determined view of what was best, in the face of her daughter's profound reservations was unusual, a throwback to an earlier age of dynastic alliances. I'm not even sure Alva would even have objected to this description. As far as she was concerned, Consuelo was part of the new American royalty of wealth, and love matches were a middle-class sort of business. Later, Alva embraced feminism and was inclined to view the very notion of romantic love as a plot against all women.

Would you describe some of the public hysteria that surrounded Consuelo's wedding to the Duke of Marlborough in 1896? How does it compare to some of today's celebrity nuptials -- Diana and Charles, Victoria and David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston?

There are striking similarities, starting with using a wedding as a colossal opportunity for conspicuous display in order to reinforce your public profile, along the lines of the Beckhams. This is exactly what Alva did with Consuelo's wedding, down to leaking details of her daughter's bridal underwear to Vogue -- except in this case the publicity was ultimately designed to benefit the mother of the bride, rather than anyone else. Then there's the modern obsession in the newspapers, even the more respectable ones, with the cost of it all. Toss in the drama arising from doubt about the extent of real feeling between the couple, as with Charles and Diana. And then you have the sense that the public's curiosity was not only fed by the publicity but became ever more insatiable as a result of it. Modern celebrities engineer this state of affairs for themselves and often come to regret it. In this case, Alva deliberately set out to achieve celebrity for the Duke and Consuelo, against their will. That's less common, I'd say.

Most people were clear -- very rich ones were, anyway -- that young women were bartered into good matches. Does this still occur in the upper echelons of British society?

Not as far as I'm aware! The upper echelons of British society have no more control over their daughters than anyone else these days. You ought to hear them moaning about it.

Finally, how did the vast research you did on Alva and Consuelo's lives affect your own thoughts on what makes a marriage satisfying?

Well, I don't think it's a very good idea to pressure someone into marriage -- or out of it, for that matter. In the end, it's a bad idea to think you know better than your children. You have to let them make their own mistakes.

On the other hand, I've just come back from India, where arranged marriages are the norm. It's clear from the many discussions that I had with all sorts of people in India over the last couple of weeks that when a marriage is arranged, success partly depends on a great deal of support of from the much wider family, not just at the beginning, but for years, which helps the couple to achieve and maintain affection for each other. For in the end, whatever the system, I'd say that what sustains a marriage is affection, an underestimated emotion that is easily destroyed. The worst thing of all would be to start married life without much affection at all, like Consuelo.

Maybe the worst thing would be to have a mother who is so ambitious for herself, she's willing to sell you off to accomplish her own agenda…


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Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.