amanda mackenzie stuart: consuelo and alva vanderbilt

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt is Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of mother and daughter Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt, of the American railway fortune – where the moral of the story is, riches can’t always make you happy. Only love can.

Stuart takes us into America of the late 1890s, when opulence and decadence were the hallmarks of the lifestyles of the rich, while frightful squalor and poverty afflicted the less fortunate. Fortified by great wealth, ensconced in her grand mansion called Marble House, Alva did not have much to do in her cosseted life save to look after her milionaire husband William Kissam Vanderbilt and their children (Consuelo, William Jr., and Harold Stirling), and to seek dominance in upscale New York and Newport society, dominated at that time by Mrs Astor.

In her quest to become “Queen of Newport” during that fussy, protocol-laden era, the determined and bossy Alva married off Consuelo at 19 to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Not only was the teenager tall, beautiful, and endowed with swan-like grace and high intelligence, she was also obscenely rich, with a dowry in the millions of dollars.

The Duke, called “Sunny” (from one of his hereditary titles, “Earl of Sunderland”, and not because his nature was particularly bright), only wanted Consuelo’s money to save his family’s aged ruin of an ancestral palace, Blenheim Castle.

Though Consuelo was in love with another man (socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd), Alva railroaded the marriage through. Predictably, the marriage was not happy and did not last, ending later in divorce. Consuelo married again, to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, the love of her life, with whom she spent her twilight years.

Aside from being a window into the past, it is a brilliant story that reinforces an idea I’ve formed through the years – that many times, first marriages don’t work out and it’s the second one that brings wedded bliss.

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