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Consuelo & Alva Vanderbilt: The Dollar Princess and Her Mother by Julie Ferry

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08 Jul 1914, Newport, Rhode Island, USA — Duchess of Marlborough and Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

As mother and daughter relationships go, Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt’s was perhaps one of the worst during the Gilded Age. Alva, a Southern belle who married into the rich Vanderbilt family when she wed Willie K Vanderbilt on 20 April 1875 was determined from the moment her only daughter was born to ensure she made the perfect match. And Alva’s ambition for Consuelo seemingly had no bounds. After enduring a life on the fringes of New York’s high society, she saw Consuelo as a means of achieving social acceptance, so she set to work organising endless hours of study for her daughter, so that she could converse on a wide range of subjects, speak several languages and become an accomplished musician. She would frequently have Consuelo brought to her for the purpose of reciting long passages of prose and drilled her on the finer points of etiquette. Alva even went so far as to make Consuelo wear a metal back brace to ensure she learned the perfect posture.

There is no doubt that when it came to her daughter Alva was determined and while her methods can seem cruel and domineering, they were no doubt informed by Alva’s own adolescence, which was characterised by uncertainty and upheaval. Alva had grown up on her father, Murray Smith’s, cotton plantation in Mobile, Alabama before her father moved his family to New York in an attempt to take advantage of the city’s pivotal role in trade. At first the family seemed to get on well there and were welcomed into society but when Civil War broke out between the North and South of the country, they suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage. With business suffering and now deemed social outcasts, the family fled to Paris, where their dwindling fortune would stretch further and Alva could learn the finer points of European society firsthand. By the early 1870s when Murray Smith realised his interests in the States were in real trouble, the family moved back to New York to find themselves scraping out an existence in genteel poverty. It was Alva’s brilliant marriage to Willie K soon after that transformed the family’s fortunes but Alva never forgot her exile from society and the realities of living with a fluctuating and uncertain income. In many ways marriage had saved Alva and she was determined that whoever Consuelo married would bring respectability to the nouveau riches Vanderbilt’s. Never again would Alva want for dollars or invitations.

Alva looked to England and its titled but impoverished gentlemen as a means of acquiring instant social acceptance. She had a number of close friends including Consuelo Yznaga, now the Duchess of Manchester and Minnie Paget, who had also married an English aristocrat, who had made fortuitous marriages, conquering the English aristocracy and in so doing gaining prestige within American society. She sought the same for Consuelo. However, not just any title would do, she was determined that the Vanderbilt millions would make Consuelo a Duchess. A Lord, Earl or Marquis would not be permitted, only a Duke would be prestigious enough, as there were only a select number of eligible Dukes in the country. After consulting with Minnie, she settled on Sunny, the 9th Duke of Marlborough for Consuelo and after the two met at one of Minnie’s dinner parties in 1894, she was convinced that the match would go ahead.

The only problem in this scheme was Consuelo herself. Alva had long thought that her daughter would just do what she was told but hadn’t reckoned on her falling in love. In fact Consuelo had fallen for an older man, the dashing Winthrop Rutherford, a friend of her father who secretly proposed to Consuelo on her eighteenth birthday on 2 March1895. Correctly guessing that the attachment had intensified, Alva whisked Consuelo off to Paris. Unbeknown to Consuelo, Winthrop Rutherfurd followed her to Europe but was not permitted to see her by servants under strict instructions from Alva. His letters were intercepted or returned. Meanwhile Alva pressed on to London and to the Duke once more keen to highlight how the Vanderbilt fortune could help the Duke’s crumbling Blenheim Palace. By the time that Consuelo and Alva arrived back in America and settled at Marble House, the Vanderbilt’s opulent holiday “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island, Alva was confident the deal had been done. When the Duke announced he would visit later that summer, Alva expected a proposal to be forthcoming.

However, Consuelo would make one last bid for her happiness. When she bumped into Winthrop Rutherford at a Newport ball and stole a dance with him, the pair managed to reconfirm their attachment to one another. Quickly ushered away by Alva, Consuelo maybe for the first time in her life, firmly told her mother that she intended to marry Winthrop. In a mother-daughter showdown that would have implications for years to come, Alva railed against Winthrop accusing him of engaging in adulterous affairs, said there was madness in the Rutherford family and that Winthrop couldn’t have children. Finally, she told her daughter that she would rather shoot Winthrop herself than see them married. Consuelo stood firm, however when she was told in the morning that Alva had had a suspected heart attack, she relented, agreeing never to see Winthrop again. On hearing that news, Alva made a miraculous recovery.

Consuelo would finally marry Sunny, the 9th Duke of Marlborough on 6th November 1895 in New York, having spent the morning of her wedding in tears. Alva had got her way, her daughter would be a Duchess. Consuelo wrote in her memoirs that when her carriage drove away from the reception she looked back and saw her mother hiding behind a curtain in tears, ‘“And yet,” I thought, “she has attained the goal she set herself, she has experienced the satisfactions wealth can confer, she has ensconced me in the niche she so early assigned me, and she is now free to let ambition give way to a gentler passion.”’ Whether in that moment Alva felt regret for the pressure she had exerted on her daughter isn’t clear but many years later she atoned for her role in Consul’s union to the Duke when she helped Consuelo secure an annulment of the marriage, which had been unhappy from the start. Alva was the star witness at the Catholic Church’s Rota, a body who would decide whether or not the annulment would be granted by the Pope. She stated that she had forced her daughter into marrying the Duke and that she had “absolute power” over Consuelo and that therefore the annulment should be granted on the grounds of coercion.

Surprisingly, Alva and Consuelo would remain close for the rest of their lives, working on philanthropic projects together and supporting the fight for women’s suffrage. When Alva died on 26 January 1933, despite all that had transpired between them, Consuelo was at her mother’s side.

The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau: Husband hunting in the Gilded Age: how American heiresses conquered the aristocracy is out now, published by Aurum Press.


About Julie Ferry
Julie Ferry is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and the Independent, among others. She writes on subjects ranging from protecting women’s rights to discovering Paris alone. She graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in English Literature and then upped sticks and moved to a tiny island between Japan and South Korea to teach English, where she quickly got used to being followed around the supermarket by her inquisitive students. It was in Japan that she got her first byline for an English language newspaper and was quickly hooked. Since then, she’s been fortunate to write for most of her favourite publications, but always harboured dreams of seeing her name on the front of a book. Now, she’s managing to combine her love of writing and an obsession with interesting and largely unknown women from history, with the school run in Bristol, where she lives with her husband and two children.

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PERIOD DRAMA ALERT: Howards End (2017)

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The BBC and Starz have teamed up to produce a new adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. Just released is the first official picture from the series, showing Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel and Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox dining at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand (if you’ve read the book, you remember the scene!).

Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel and Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox in Howards End. Starz
Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel and Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox in Howards End.
Starz

BBC press release

BBC and Starz will co-produce Howards End, based on the classic E.M. Forster novel. Academy Award® nominated screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea, Gangs of New York, You Can Count on Me) brings the beloved novel from the page to the screen in his first television adaptation. Hettie Macdonald (White Girl) will direct the four hour-long episodes.

Executive produced by Playground in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment, this four-part series explores the changing landscape of social and class divisions in turn of the century England through the prism of three families: the intellectual and idealistic Schlegels, the wealthy Wilcoxes from the world of business, and the working class Basts.

Lucy Richer, BBC Executive Producer says, “Kenneth Lonergan is one of our truly great contemporary voices, and his adaptation of this adored timeless classic will surprise and delight a whole new audience with its timely and relevant themes.”

Carmi Zlotnik, President of Programming for Starz, says “Starz continues our commitment to bring quality drama to the screen with Howards End and we’re delighted to once again work in partnership with the BBC and Colin Callender on this literary period piece.”

Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron) will portray Margaret Schlegel and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street, The Last Kingdom, Spooks) will portray Henry Wilcox in the adaptation. Tracey Ullman (Tracey Ullman’s Show, Into the Woods, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union and The Tracey Ullman Show) will play Aunt Juley Mund.

Other Cast:

Philippa Coulthard as Helen Schlegel
Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky
Alex Lawther as Tibby Schlegel
Julia Ormond as Ruth Wilcox
Joseph Quinn as Leonard Bast


More photos on set

PICTURES: Film stars spotted shooting scenes for new TV series in Swanage

PICTURED: Hayley Atwell is Edwardian chic in a brown full-length coat with patterned red scarf as she joins dapper Matthew MacFadyen on the London set of Howards End

Hayley Atwell covers up in a checked shirt and button-up maxi skirt as she is spotted in costume for the first time in her new role in Howards End

Mogul and the Chinese Exclusion Act: An Interview with Joanna Shupe

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Award-winning author Joanna Shupe writes the men of Edwardian era New York like no other. While some are born to the Knickerbocker Club set, others are self-made titans of industry. But whether they are from Five Points or Fifth Avenue, they are all swoon-worthy. In Mogul, one will battle a real historical injustice: the restrictive immigration laws of the late nineteenth century.

She never expected to find her former husband in an opium den.

Thus begins Mogul, Shupe’s last book in the Knickerbocker seriesCalvin Cabot, the son of humble American missionaries in China, has grown up to become one of the most influential men in America. Even with his lucrative newspapers and powerful friends, though, can he find a way around one of the worst laws of the Gilded Age—the Chinese Exclusion Act—to reunite a friend’s family?

In this post, Joanna Shupe answers our questions about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how she came up with the idea to work such substantive history into the conflict of her novel.


Interview with Joanna Shupe author of Knickerbocker Club series of Gilded Age historical romance

What was the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how will it affect your characters?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Arthur, severely limited the ability of Chinese men and women to enter the United States. It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.

So why were Chinese immigrants singled out? In the 19th century, America was undergoing a massive transformation. The Gold Rush and the railroad expansion led to the need for cheap labor, and many Chinese immigrants (mostly men) were able to find jobs here. Gradually, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, polarized by a few politicians who used the Chinese immigrants as excuses for why wages remained so low. Their solution was to call for the banning of any Chinese laborer, thereby freeing up those jobs for American workers.

Starting in 1882, no Chinese laborer could enter the United States—and it was nearly impossible to prove you weren’t a laborer. Only diplomatic officials and officers on business, along with their servants, were considered non-laborers, so the influx of Chinese immigrants came to a near standstill. They also tightened the rules for reentry once you left, which meant families were separated with little hope of ever reuniting.

How effective were the Chinese Exclusion Acts at excluding the Chinese? For the last half of the 1870s, immigration from China had averaged less than nine thousand a year. In 1881, nearly twelve thousand Chinese were admitted into the United States; a year later the number swelled to forty thousand. And then the gates swung shut. In 1884, only ten Chinese were officially allowed to enter this country. The next year, twenty-six.

— “An Alleged Wife:
 One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era” by Robert Barde, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1.

Mogul is set in 1889, and circumstances have separated the hero’s best friend from his wife, who is still back in China. His best friend is African American, so they decide to tell politicians and the government that she is really the hero’s wife. This presents a problem when the hero falls in love with—and impetuously marries—the heroine of the story.

Racist anti-Chinese cartoons from Australia and United States illustrating Chinese Exclusion in Joanna Shupe historical romance novel Mogul.
Racist illustrations from Australia and the United States.
This sounds like a pretty sobering piece of history. What inspired you to use the Exclusion Act as a central plot line in Mogul?

I started with this idea that my hero would be discovered in an opium den in New York City, so that was where my research began. I didn’t remember the CEA from my history classes, so I was floored when I discovered it. It’s tragic and racist, and yet seems still so relevant today.

As romance novelists, we love to find conflict for our characters. I thought the CEA might be an interesting way to drive the story forward. I wanted to both highlight the xenophobia of the CEA and use the forced familial separation to craft the plot.

Anti-immigration illustrations and cartoons about Chinese Exclusion Act for interview with Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance
From left: illustration of 1880 anti-Chinese riot in Denver; poster celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; photo of Chin Quan Chan and family at the National Archives.
What kind of research did you need to do on the act itself and on the Chinese-American community in general? Do you have any sources that you recommend for students and researchers?

I read quite a bit online about the CEA and the effects of the legislation. The 19th century Chinese-American community was fascinating to research. A good friend of mine is Chinese-American, and I peppered her (as well as her family) with lots of questions about the language and culture. They were all very patient and helpful.

I used mostly archives of The New York Times for tidbits about Chinatown, opium, and the Tongs, which is how I saw a mention of the game fan tan and began researching that. As with most historical research, you can fall into a rabbit hole pretty easily because it’s all so fascinating.

Uncle Sam lodging house anti-immigration cartoon from Puck leading to Chinese Exclusion Act focus of Mogul by Joanna Shupe historical romance author
Centerfold of “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” from 7 June 1882 edition of Puck, accessed at the U.S. Library of Congress.
In a genre that some claim is about escapism, did you encounter any resistance to using this real history as a conflict in your book—either from editors, publisher, or readers?

I didn’t receive any resistance about this storyline, per se, but I’ve had readers tell me that they won’t read any historical set in America. The reason given is they can’t “romanticize” it the way they can with British history.

While I understand what they’re saying—after all, we’ve lived and breathed American history in school since Kindergarten—I don’t agree. We can’t assume we know everything in our history so well that we can’t learn something new or enjoy a compelling story. There’s so much history that isn’t taught—or isn’t taught well—and looking into the past gives us the clearest view of where we are today.

The Gilded Age is one of our finest eras…but also one of our nation’s low points. In each of the Knickerbocker Club books, I’ve tried to highlight some of the issues and problems as well as the opulence and wealth.

Thank you to Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance Knickerbocker Club