Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964) was one of the most highly sought-after heiresses of America’s Gilded Age: the period between 1870-1900 when US industrialists became the richest men in the world. The only daughter of railroad millionaire William Vanderbilt and his formidable wife Alva, Consuelo was pre-destined to marry into the British aristocracy like her godmother Consuleo Yznaga who had married the heir to the 7th Duke of Manchester.
In 1886 William Vanderbilt inherited $65 million on the death of his father. Wishing to upstage her social rival Mrs Astor, Alva commissioned a Rococo summer house she christened the Marble House on Newport Rhode Island that was modelled on Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles and the largest privately-owned yacht in the world called the Alva. Her palatial Vanderbilt mansion on 5th Avenue could comfortably host 1000 people at a legendary masquerade ball she held in 1883 costing $3 million.
Though surrounded by such opulence, Consuelo Vanderbilt was schooled strictly by a series of governesses and tutors. Her mother Alva forced the pretty child to wear a steel corset contraption that would keep her spine ramrod straight, she was whipped with a riding crop when disobedient and was forced to abide by Alva’s golden rule ‘I do the thinking. You do as you are told’. Consuelo blossomed into the beau ideal of a Belle Epoque beauty: slim, delicately pretty with a swan-like neck and thick, dark, luxuriant upswept hair. She had five proposals of marriage including one from Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg that Consuelo declined.
Lady Paget, American-born Minnie Stevens, introduced Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, who had become 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1892 inheriting the monolithic Blenheim Palace and crippling debts. Consuelo disliked ‘Sunny’ Marlborough and in a rare act of independence became secretly engaged to New York socialite Winthrop Rutherford. Alva fought back: first threatening to have Rutherford murdered then pretending that Consuelo’s disobedience was quite literally killing her. According to Consuelo, she was locked in her room until she agreed to marry the 9th Duke who had negotiated a settlement of $42.5 million in railroad stock from the Vanderbilts plus an annual allowance of $100,000 for he and his future wife.
The 9th Duke married Consuelo Vanderbilt in New York in 1895 telling her after the ceremony that he was in love with another woman and that he ‘despised anything that was not British’. The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough returned to England via Paris where the duke dressed her like a doll at Worth and replenished the family jewels with Vanderbilt money acquiring pearls that belonged to Catherine the Great and the Empress Eugenie. As Consuelo wrote in her autobiography The Glitter and the Gold (1953), ‘jewels never gave me pleasure and my heavy tiara invariably produced a violent headache, my dog collar a chafed neck’.
On meeting the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo was told ‘your first duty is to have a child and it must be a son because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston (Churchill) become duke’. Consuelo did produce an heir and a spare, Lord John and Lord Ivo, while also conquering London society and dazzling the Prince of Wales and his Marlborough House Set. Consuelo’s father bought Sutherland House on Mayfair’s Curzon Street for the Marlboroughs to entertain during the London season and Consuelo was inducted into the social round of Marlborough House balls, Royal Ascot, weekends at Sandringham and boxes at the Royal Opera House.
The Glitter and the Gold demonstrates Consuelo’s talent as a perceptive witness to great moments in late Victorian and Edwardian history. She attended the Duchess of Devonshire’s fancy dress ball in 1897, Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901, the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 for which she was Queen Alexandra’s canopy bearer and travelled to India for King Edward’s coronation durbar as a guest of Viceroy Lord Curzon. The Marlboroughs travelled to the court of Russia’s last Tsar Nicholas II where Consuelo had a private audience with Queen Alexandra’s sister the Dowager Empress Marie and commented ‘her courtesy to us was favourably compared in court circles with the Tsarina’s failure to give us an audience and the realisation how unpopular the latter’s unsocial nature was making her’.
In 1905 the Marlborough family was painted by John Singer Sargent. The most beautiful duchess in England was also drawn by Hellieu and painted by society artist Boldini. But in 1906 the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough separated. As Consuelo concluded, ‘we had been married eleven years (and) life together had not brought us closer. Time had but accentuated our differences. The nervous tension that tends to grow between people of different temperament condemned to live together had reached its highest pitch’.
The Duchess quit Blenheim Palace and took-up residence in Sutherland House. It was to her credit that the Prince of Wales’s set did not drop her though she spent an increasing amount of time in the company of the aesthetes who called themselves The Souls led by Lady Desborough. Guests at Sutherland House included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sir J. M. Barrie, Margot Asquith, Lady Astor, Lady Cunard and the Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia. She took a small country house, Crowhurst, on the Marlborough estate and – taking a cue from the redoubtable Alva – became a leader of the women’s suffrage movement and a frequent visitor to the Strangers’ Gallery in the Palace of Westminster.
In 1921 the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough formally divorced and Consuelo married dashing French aviator Jacques Balsan who she had first met in Paris at her coming out ball hosted by the Duc de Gramont. It was, in Consuelo’s words, a marriage of love. The 9th Duke of Marlborough married a dazzling American beauty Gladys Deacon. Marcel Proust said of Gladys, ‘I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm’. The marriage ended acrimoniously with the 9th Duke evicting Gladys from Blenheim after she had ruined her beauty injecting her face with paraffin wax.
Consuelo and Jacques Balsan lived an idyllic existence at their chateau St Georges-Motel near Fontainebleu where cousin Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine were frequent visitors. The aging Alva Vanderbilt bought a neighbouring chateau to be near her daughter. The 9th Duke died in 1934 and Consuelo was once again welcome at Blenheim Palace as a guest of her son the 10th Duke. The Balsans were evacuated from France in 1940 at the onset of the Nazi invasion and set-up home in Casa Alva south of Palm Beach in Florida. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan died in Long Island, New York, in 1964 and was buried on the Blenheim estate next to her younger son Lord Ivo Spencer-Churchill.