April 26, 2006
Two standard reasons for writing any book are more than met by Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.
This memorable history not only fills a gap in previous biographies but counters myths. Intelligent, sympathetic, fair and, though long, compelling, this impressively researched narrative by British author Amanda Mackensie Stuart moves with a confidence that reflects the author's expertise in history (University of York, UK) and wide experience (film). It's not difficult to imagine Consuelo and Alva as a series on public television in the colorful and nuanced tradition of other dramatizations of the high-flying late 19th, early 20th centuries. The book is top-notch scholarship that will attract readers partial to biography, art, history, politics and cultural studies, especially the development of the suffragette and equal rights movements in this country and Europe.
Though living a good part of their lives abroad, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, and even more, her daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill Balsan, remained the image of New York gentry. In fact, Consuelo, who for many brilliant and anguished years reigned as chatelaine of Blenheim, married to Charles Richard John "Sunny" (for Sunderland House) Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marborough and first cousin of Winston Churchill, ended her days in 1964 Southampton, at the age of 87, after launching still another humanitarian appeal, this time for the Southampton Hospital Building Fund. Alva died in the south of France in 1933, where both mother and daughter had maintained palatial homes. Their lives together and apart make for fascinating reading, and more than a little irony, for both women, despite their extraordinary wealth and admired social positions, became, in their different ways, ardent, outspoken and highly influential advocates of women's rights.
Still, myths persist — i.e. of Alva exclusively as a combative, calculating Mommie Dearest who for her own ambition pressured her compliant 18-year old daughter to enter a loveless marriage with an arrogant and anti-American duke entrenched in protocols. Consuelo, too, suffers from stereotype, seen by many as only a beautiful, passive, costumed heiress. Stuart draws heavily on extensive documents (including Consuelo's heavily edited 1953 autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, for over 20 weeks on American best seller lists) to present a complex and instructive picture of both women and their scandal-ridden times. Alva, a Southern aristocrat whose family had fallen on hard times, nicely maneuvered herself into marriage with William K. Vanderbilt, who had money but not entrée into Mrs. Astor's New York world. Alva moved out with a vengeance, but also smarts and style. She introduced Beaux Art architecture to New York and Newport and her daughter to European culture (Consuelo was fluent in several languages). Alva was convinced that power would provide Consuelo with an independent, significant life, easier to achieve in England than in America — and she was right.
When Consuelo arrived at Blenheim as a naive young girl, the estate reportedly had only one bathroom for 170 rooms. She went about making renovations, affordable now because of the dowry she brought with her, and turned the Duke's palace into an international showcase of extraordinary art and design. Several years later, however, separated from her boring, cruel, and distant husband, she began to lend her name, energies and convictions to help secure the vote for English women and to improve social and medical conditions for all. She founded and became president of Bedford College for women and later on was awarded the Légion d'Honneur. The ferocious Alva ("failure is impossible") meanwhile, daughter of an old South Carolina slave-owning line, took up the suffragette cry not only for women world wide, but for Negroes and trade unionists all over the country.
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt should encourage (re)reading Edith Wharton and Henry James, and prompt a lot of thought about the relationships among class, privilege, philanthropy, and power in democracy. Both women played out their determined and acquired roles under the eyes of an ever-watchful, politically motivated press that delighted in the adulterous, eccentric and scandal ridden antics of their set. As Stuart persuasively shows, Alva and Consuelo cannot be understood without each other, and the age cannot be understood without appreciating both of them. What times, what grandeur, accomplishments! We criticize, as Mark Twain certainly did with savage wit, but gawk. Stuart's achievement is her evocation of nostalgia for a way of life out of our reach and perhaps desire.
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. HarperCollins, 579 pp., inc. notes, biblio, index. Illus., $27.95.