Subscribe to the newsletter and get Edwardian-themed news delivered straight to your inbox!


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

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.

Website | Twitter | Facebook

The Peerage at Work


Bank of England ca 1890

In the 1880s, falling rents, an agricultural depression, and taxation all conspired against the lavish lifestyles of England’s aristocracy, and ten years later, articles appeared in leading journals and magazines, detailing the entry of the peerage into Trade!!

The old verse–
Lord Stafford mines for coal and salt,
The Duke of Norfolk deals in malt,
The Douglas in red herrings;
But gartered name and noble brand
Are powerless to the notes of hand
Of Rothschild and the Barings

had lost a bit of its bite by the Edwardian era, for the boundaries of Trade and Aristocracy began to overlap, with self-made men rapidly appearing in Debrett’s and longtime denizens of Debrett’s rapidly appearing on the Stock Exchange. Granted, many of the great landholders made their fortune from minerals such as coal (the Earl of Derby sold his wholesale, though Lord Londonderry sold it at retail), but others–such as the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who owned the only vineyard in Britain, and the Earl of Harrington, who opened a fruit store in London–were more creative with their money-making schemes. Other inventive peers included Lord Sudeley, who owned a flourishing jam business, Lord Mulgrave, who turned Mulgrave Castle into a boys’ school charging 220 guineas a year, and Lord De La Warr, who developed his own property in Sussex to found the seaside resort, Bexhill-on-Sea.

Aristocratic ladies also struck out into business, combining their adherence to philanthropy with the pursuit of profit. The Duchess of Abercorn ran a successful creamery on her Irish estate, Lady Molesworth established a jam factory at Walters Hall, near Minster-on-sea, the Hon. Frances Wolseley founded a school for women gardeners at Glynde, Sussex, Lady Augusta Orr-Ewing owned a hotel with popular golf links in Scotland, and Miss Edith Kerr established a servants’ registry in London. The most prominent peeress in Trade was Daisy Warwick, who opened a needlework shop in Bond Street boldly called “Countess of Warwick”. The socialist peeress also founded an agricultural school for women at Studley Castle. There, for £80 to £100 for three terms of thirteen weeks’ residence in the year, young ladies were equipped with the necessary training to become superintendents of the dairy, the garden, and the conservatories. However, the hardest working aristocrat was Lady Duff Gordon, whose fashion house Lucille set many trends over the course of the Edwardian era, and whose empire stretched across Europe and America.

So influential were businessmen and industry titans of the late Victorian era, many newly-created peers were rumored to have purchased their titles, and those deriving from the brewing industry were so numerous they were dubbed the “Beerage“. Bankers like the Baring family and the Rothschilds were also ennobled for their contributions to society, and South African Randlords were, if not elevated to the peerage, at least given baronetcies.

Other ways in which peers and aristocrats could make money were to be appointed directors and presidents of companies and financial firms. This was lucrative in a time where a new trust or firm could raise money from investors and brokers on the prestige of its Board of Directors, which an article in Jerome K. Jerome’s To-Day noted acerbically: “There is a peer who is a director of twenty-one companies, a barrister who sits upon the board of eighteen, a half-pay officer, who once observed that he did not come to the City to play marbles, who is on the board of eleven companies. Nor is there any attempt to keep to any particular class of business. All is fish that comes to their net. One man I know is director of four telegraph companies, of eight railway companies, of trusts, insurance companies, land companies. His income from directors’ fees alone must be over £4,000 a year.”

This all did much to add to aristocratic coffers, and to the relief of many, the Edwardian era did see a recovery from the agricultural depression! Interestingly enough, many critics of the day credited the survival of the British aristocracy to their flexibility, and no doubt their bold move into the “workforce” reflected this.

Promenades Through London: Mayfair


st george's The parishes of Christ Church and St George, Hanover Square, included the greatest and most characteristic part of Mayfair. Not all who lived in these parishes were rich, but the inhabitants included, together with their households, many of the wealthiest people in London. The district took its name from the fair which was held there every May until the middle of the 18th century, on ground now covered by a part of Curzon and Hertford Streets. At its heart lay Grosvenor Street, which was surrounded by splendid houses. Despite the introduction of gas lighting in the early 1800s, the aristocratic square long resisted its intrusion, and still has much fine ironwork for the holding of its lamps and the extinguishing of its torches. Here, the eldest houses date from the early years of the eighteenth century, many of whom have hardly been touched since they were built two hundred years ago.

Mayfair was actually only a very small district, its boundaries being Piccadilly on the south, Oxford Street on the north, Bond Street on the east, and Park Lane on the west. However, in that small area bordered by four major London streets resided many of Society’s brightest and most famous: Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner; Gloucester House and the gorgeous palace, Devonshire House along Piccadilly; while Park Lane boasted Londonderry House, Dorchester House, Dudley House and Grosvenor House; and Berkeley Square, considered the “darkest square in London,” was adjacent to Lansdowne House.

Of the smaller streets within the district, none was so famous as Curzon Street. It was here where the infamous Reverend Alexander Keith joined in matrimony as many as six thousand couples a year in a little chapel of his own with a church porch close to Curzon Chapel. Among those that took advantage of Keith’s Chapel was James, 4th Duke of Hamilton, and the younger of the beautiful Miss Gunnings. Keith later died in the Fleet prison, and Curzon Chapel was demolished in the 1900s to make way for a townhouse built for the 9th Duchess of Marlborough.

At its east end Curzon Street narrowed to a passage between the gardens of Devonshire House and Lansdowne House which took the foot passenger into Berkeley Street. This passage was closed by a set of vertical iron bars on either end after a highwayman in the late 18th century, whilst escaping from a successful coup in Piccadilly, evaded his pursuers by dashing down the steps and along this passage. It was in No 19 Curzon Street where Benjamin Disraeli died in 1881.

On Bolton Street lived Fanny Burney at No 12. Emma, Lady Hamilton and the celebrated actor Edmund Kean both resided in Clarges Street; Prince Lieven, the husband of one of Almack’s patronesses and also Russian Ambassador, resided at No 30 Dover Street. To the south of Piccadilly lay St. James’s. Somewhat of an extension of “Mayfair”, the district housed London’s greatest clubs, special government offices, foreign embassies, St. James’s Palace–where up until the Prince Consort’s death in 1861, the Queen held her levees and drawing rooms–and other aristocratic palaces and fashionable addresses.

White’s, a Tory club famous for the bow window added in 1816, was situated 37-38 St James, just down the road from the Whiggish Brooks’. Boodle’s, directly across from Brooks’s, was at No 28. By the 1880s, these were joined by clubs devoted to all sorts of interests and backgrounds: politics, literature, arts, sciences, military units, sports, social clubs and even, for the first time, ladies’ clubs.

Cleveland Row, adjacent to Pall Mall, and Carlton House Terrace parallel to the south, was the most fashionable address up until the Second World War. The latter was built by Nash to replace Carlton House in the 1830s, and each terrace consisted of nine large houses. Built without mews in order to make the best possible use of the view of the park, and also to present an attractive facade to the park, the service accommodation was placed in two stories of basements (rather than the usual one) and underneath broad terraces between the houses and the park. Lord Palmerston resided at No 5 from 1840-1846, Gladstone at 4 in 1856 and No 11 from 1857-75, while Lord Curzon lived at No 1 for twenty years. Nos 8 and 9 housed the German Embassy.

Bridgewater House was to be found in Cleveland Row, the former site of Cleveland House, a residence of Charles II’s longtime mistress, Barbara Villiers. Stafford House, or Sutherland House, the residence of the Dukes of Sutherland, was so magnificent, Queen Victoria exclaimed upon a visit: “I have come from my House to your Palace“. Standing at the end of Cleveland Row, the magnificent Georgian style mansion was famous for the sweeping grand staircase featured in many Edwardian memoirs. Starring Millie, Duchess of Sutherland, she is eternally captured in ink, “standing in her diamond tiara at the top of the staircase in Stafford House, receiving her lines of mounting guests while the strains of waltz music floated from the ballroom.”

Mayfair was the most aristocratic neighborhood in London and the home of Society, while society (with a little ‘s’) could be found in Kensington and Bayswater, two districts both south-east and north-east, respectively, of Kensington Gardens. Spacious mansions, every convenience, liveried footmen and so on were to be found here, and entertaining and decorating, courtesy of Whiteleys and other luxurious department stores, could be done inexpensively. But a Mayfair residence was key to entree to the most exclusive of circles and few who had not been born into it, if any, were able to obtain it.