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Consuelo Vanderbilt, Born a Princess

At the time Consuelo Vanderbilt married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, on November 6, 1895, she was worth an estimated $4 billion in today’s money. Reportedly, upon her arrival at church, it was immediately obvious that she had been crying. Both Consuelo and Charles were forced into the marriage, Consuelo by her mother Alva who wanted the social standing that came with having a Duchess daughter, Charles by his need of funds to maintain Blenheim Palace and the estate he had been charged by birth to manage.


The arrangement was hardly an uncommon one. During America’s Gilded Age, a number of heiresses from the United States married into aristocratic but impoverished European families. This arrangement was portrayed in the popular Downton Abbey; Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, was an American heiress married by the Earl of Grantham for her money; unlike the Spencer-Churchills story, the Crawleys eventually fell in love and had a happy marriage.


Consuelo was the daughter of William K. Vanderbilt, heir to the then massive Vanderbilt fortune, and Alva Erskine Smith, who would later go on to become a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement. Smithsonian.com produced a video entitled "Could you have endured Consuelo Vanderbilt’s upbringing," which detailed not only the strict tutoring program Alva designed for her only daughter, but also that Consuelo was strapped to a specially constructed steel rod to ensure good posture. Consuelo grew up a beauty, tall, slim, with a famously long neck captured in paintings, among them by Paul César Helleu, rumoured to be a lover of Consuelo during her unhappy marriage with the Duke.


After Alva and William divorced, Alva kept her luxurious homes, including the showcase Newport mansion Marble House, but socially, she was shunned. It was a time when the infidelity of men were widely accepted and divorce was simply not something women of Alva’s position did. According to a documentary by PBS, Alva thought marrying off her daughter to British aristocracy would not only allow her to regain her social standing, but to improve it. Author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart also posited that Alva wanted to empower her daughter by making her a Duchess. With her marriage to and divorce from a Vanderbilt, Alva experienced life as a mere appendage of a very wealthy man. Perhaps Alva thought that as a Duchess, Consuelo would have a social role, even power, by virtue of her title.


The problem was, Consuelo had already fallen in love, and was engaged to a fellow American, Winthrop Rutherfurd. It was not until Alva claimed that she had fallen seriously ill because of her daughter’s obstinance and that she was at death’s door that Consuelo finally acquiesced. The Duke of Marlborough himself was also said to be in love with another woman; he, too, left her to marry Consuelo.


Consuelo and Charles had two sons. Consuelo reportedly adjusted well to life as a Duchess, though her relationship with her husband eventually deteriorated to the point where they separated, then divorced, and a few years later the marriage was annulled. Interestingly, Consuelo’s mother Alva herself declared that she did indeed force her daughter to marry the Duke. Relations between mother and daughter improved.


Consuelo married a second time in 1921, to Jacques Balsan. She published a ghost written autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, in 1953, and died in 1964 at the age of 87.


A few notes...

👑Consuelo’s descendant, George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blanford, will eventually become the 13th Duke of Marlborough. He’s cute, no?

👑I really want to write about Consuelo’s mother Alva, but I don’t feel cool enough to write about her just yet. She was such a strong woman who fashioned life according to her own terms. And yes, she was far from perfect, but hers was one of the most fascinating tales I have come across.

👑It was only after I finished writing this post that I came across an article with several allegations about Consuelo’s conduct during her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough.

👑When I started working on this post roughly four hours ago, I thought I would find Consuelo Vanderbilt a particularly sympathetic figure of history. She was, of course; her childhood and forced marriage were appalling. It was odd, however, to look at a story asking if one could endure the childhood of Consuelo Vanderbilt, given what we know of what children endure every day in this modern world of ours. I confess to enjoying stories of the lives of the wealthy plenty of times; they are entertaining, and they provide a respite from real life. There are times, however, when they serve to focus on the inequities of modern life.


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