Consuelo Vanderbilt competition

13 August 2011

I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage‘ – Sir James Barrie.

As you may or may not know, my next book, Before The Storm was inspired by The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, which happens to be one of my all time favourite books OF ALL TIME. If you aren’t familiar with The Buccaneers (or the excellent BBC adaptation which I reviewed here a few months ago) then it is about a group of wealthy but parvenu American girls who can’t quite break into stuffy New York high society and so decide to go to England instead where impoverished aristocratic families are only too grateful for the odd injection of American cash to help them keep up appearances and restore their mouldering country piles.

Just as my own book is inspired by The Buccaneers, Edith Wharton herself took inspiration from a bevy of real life beauties who made the journey across the Atlantic in the middle of the nineteenth century and married into some of the grandest English families. The famous beauty and inspiration for Lizzie Elmsworth in The Buccaneers, Miss Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, New York who married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 is perhaps the most famous of all due to her becoming the mother of Winston Churchill and also inventing the Manhattan cocktail but there was also the equally lovely Consuelo Vanderbilt, who scooped the big prize when she married Lord Randolph’s nephew, the 9th Duke of Marlborough and became chatelaine of glorious Blenheim Palace.

Nowadays, the surname Vanderbilt evokes thoughts of Edwardian luxury, rich New Yorkers and that pungent scent with the swan design on the bottle that I knocked everyone out with while at school. Mm, Vanderbilt but back then it was a byword for extreme and rather vulgar wealth as Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, the only daughter of a millionaire railroad builder and Southern belle, Alva, was known to be heiress to an enormous fortune of $20 million (about $4 billion in today’s money). Rather unfairly, she was also extremely beautiful.

Her unusual name was a tribute to her half Cuban godmother, Consuelo Clement, who had been in the vanguard of American buccaneers, inspiring the enchanting Conchita Closson in Wharton’s book and had married Viscount Montagu, prompting his father, the Duke of Manchester to speculate if his son’s then unseen bride was ‘a Red Indian’. When her goddaughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt was growing up however, there was no such confusion and Anglo-American matches were becoming commonplace to the chagrin of the eligible British debutantes who were being launched onto society every year and found themselves at a bit of a loss when confronted with the fashionable ways, seemingly bottomless bank vaults and high spirits of the American girls who were arriving on their shores in ever increasing numbers.

It wasn’t all fun though – Consuelo was later to recall a rigorous education that was entirely focused upon making her a suitable bride for an English nobleman. Her ambitious mother, who never forgot the humiliation of being excluded from the most fashionable and upper crust Manhattan balls in her youth, also made the poor girl wear a steel contraption around her torso to improve her posture and would insist upon choosing her every piece of clothing, determined that nothing would ruin Consuelo’s chances of marrying into the aristocracy.

Consuelo’s mother was so determined to engineer a suitable marriage for her daughter that she got Lady Paget, an American heiress who had married an English Lord and who now worked as an unofficial matchmaker, who specialised in introducing rich American girls to impecunious English gentlemen to look into matters for her. Lady Paget came up trumps and put Consuelo in the way of the Duke of Marlborough, who may well be owner of Blenheim Palace and thousands of acres but was also rather strapped for cash.

Despite recognising that theirs was a match made in Manhattan Heaven, neither of the couple was particularly smitten by the other and when Consuelo rebelled and secretly became engaged to a fellow American, Winthrop Rutherfurd, her mother was naturally incensed and insisted that she ditch him before locking the unfortunate Consuelo in her room and using a combination of threats, cajolement and emotional blackmail to get her way.

Whatever she did seems to have worked and on the 6th November 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt was married to the Duke of Marlborough at the St Thomas Episcopal Church in New York amidst the sort of interest and scenes of public hysteria that would normally be expected to accompany royal matrimonials. Thousands of New Yorkers turned up outside the church to catch a glimpse of the pale and allegedly weeping bride and many thousands more pored over every detail of her wedding finery (Consuelo’s wedding gown from Worth reportedly cost a staggering $6,720.35 and was cream satin with a pearl and silver embroidered fifteen foot train) and trousseau in fashionable magazines.

Her mother was thrilled and the Duke was rather happy to receive a dowry of $2.5 million (the equivalent of $67 million in today’s money so not bad really). For her part, Consuelo seems to have been determined to throw herself wholeheartedly into her new role as a wealthy Duchess and took a great deal of interest in the welfare of the people on her new husband’s estates as well as playing her new grand part to the manor born right from the outset.

Sadly, the ducal marriage was less than perfect and after having two sons together (an heir and spare – Consuelo was very thorough when it came to doing her duty), the couple separated in 1906 and then divorced in 1921 leaving both parties free to marry again. In the Duke’s case he was to marry another American beauty, Gladys Beacon who had been one of Consuelo’s friends before replacing her as Duchess. Sound familiar?

Consuelo was delighted to leave Blenheim and all the splendour of her old life behind and her second marriage, to charming Frenchman Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Balsan was infinitely happier than her first. Her new husband had fallen in love with her the first time that he had seen her, at age seventeen just before she had married the Duke and had never forgotten her. The couple were ecstatically happy and lived together in a chateau near Paris until Balsan’s death in 1956. I love that although she fulfilled romantic novel convention by being the rich, beautiful girl who married a duke, Consuelo only really found true love and happiness when she met someone more down to earth.

Consuelo survived her husband by eight years and died in New York in 1964. She was buried in the churchyard in Bladon by Blenheim Palace alongside her son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill and cousin by marriage, Winston Churchill.

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