Rockefeller, Morgan, Livingston, Astor. Names that will forever be associated with Gilded Age opulence. However, one cannot begin to think about the late 19th century without the name that would become synonymous with New York high society: Vanderbilt.
Alva Smith Vanderbilt was determined to launch the Vanderbilt family into the social stratosphere after she married William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1875. William was the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who made his fortune in the railroads. Alva hosted elaborate balls and built large homes on 5th Avenue and in Newport, Rhode Island all in the name of cementing the Vanderbilts at the top of New York society. Determined to emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family, Alva set her sights on finding the highest titled mate for her only daughter Consuelo to marry. But to make the marriage happen Alva would need help, and for that help she turned to her dear friend, Lucie Jay.
Consuelo was a beautiful young woman dominated by an overbearing, social climbing mother. Her mother reportedly received at least five proposals for her daughter’s hand, all from title-bearing suitors who were attracted to Consuelo’s sizeable dowry. Consuelo was only allowed to consider the proposal of one of the men, Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, but she could not stand him and developed an instant aversion to his presence. Like most young women Consuelo wanted to marry for love, but Alva would not hear of it. She reportedly said, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.”
American “Dollar Princesses” marrying titled Europeans was a common practice during the Gilded Age. Heiresses from the United States married into aristocratic families from Europe; families whose titles and grand homes belied the fact that their “fortunes” had diminished over generations. And there was no richer “Dollar Princess” then Consuelo Vanderbilt, and the indebted Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough knew it.
Alva was thrilled when the Duke proposed to eighteen year old Consuelo. Her daughter on the other hand, was not. She was in love with, and secretly engaged to another man, Winthrop (Winty) Rutherfurd. The Duke was in love with someone else as well; his motivation for the marriage was purely financial. Without Consuelo’s dowry his income would have been insufficient to maintain his family’s estate, let alone the lifestyle he wanted to live.
Alva also stood to benefit from the marriage. In March 1895, Alva shocked New York City by divorcing William Vanderbilt. At a time when divorce was rare among the elite, she received a large financial settlement, more than 10 million dollars, in addition to several estates. The grounds for divorce were allegations of William’s adultery, although there were some who believed that William had hired a woman to pretend to be his seen mistress just so Alva would divorce him. After the divorce Alva was concerned that she would become a social pariah. But she reasoned that if she were the mother of a Duchess, she would still be able to hold on to her place in New York society. As far as she was concerned, this marriage was happening.
While at Marble House, Alva’s summer home in Newport, Consuelo mustered up the courage to tell her mother she wanted to marry Rutherfurd. Furious, Alva flew into a rage and slandered Rutherfurd in every way possible: she claimed he was a philanderer, a scoundrel only after her money, and his family was prone to fits of madness. But Consuelo stood firm. She hadn’t stood up to her mother before, but she truly loved Winty Rutherfurd and wanted to spend her life with him. Alva would hear none of it. In her final decree she told her daughter that if she were to run away with Winty Rutherfurd, she would shoot him. In Alva’s mind, that would be the only fitting punishment for the man she believed had ruined her daughter’s life.
Trapped in Marble House with no way to send or receive correspondence, Consuelo felt hopeless. Their summer guests, Lucie Jay and her daughters, were friends of her mothers. She had no way of reaching anyone who could offer her solace. She would later write in her autobiography:
“Later that day Mrs. Jay, who was my mother’s intimate friend and was staying with us at the time, came to talk to me. Condemning my behavior, she informed me that my mother had had a heart attack brought on by my callous indifference to her feelings. She confirmed my mother’s intentions of never consenting to my plans for marriage, and her resolve to shoot X should I decide to run away with him. I asked her if I could see my mother and whether in her opinion she would ever relent. I still remember the terrible answer, ‘Your mother will never relent, and I warn you there will be catastrophe if you persist. The doctor has said that another scene may easily bring on a heart attack and he will not be responsible for the result. You can ask the doctor yourself if you do not believe me!’ In utter misery, I asked Mrs. Jay to let X know I could not marry him.” Note: “X” is Winty Rutherfurd.
In truth, the heart attack was a rouse. Alva was furious that her usually timid daughter was not going along with her plans. Along with her good friend and neighbor Lucie Jay, she invented the health scare to guilt her daughter into going along with the marriage.
The wedding was held on November 6, 1895. The New York Times covered the wedding with an eight-page story. It gave great details about the event and the people in attendance. The Jays sat near the front on the bride’s side. “Colonel and Mrs. William Jay arrived just before the time set for the ceremony. Mrs. Jay wore a handsome gown, consisting of a heavy black silk skirt made very full and with a bodice of yellow and crimson satin. It was one of the most effective costumes worn at the wedding.”
After the wedding Alva was the mother of a Duchess, and Consuelo was miserable. She moved to England with Marlborough and had two sons. But by 1906 they had separated. The couple divorced in 1921, and later that year Consuelo married Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan. But there was a hiccup. Jacques family was devoutly Roman Catholic and disapproved of the fact that Consuelo had been divorced.
In December 1925 Consuelo wrote Lucie Jay. She explained that she was hoping to get her marriage to Marlborough annulled by the church on the grounds that she had been coerced into marrying him. She wrote:
“I am appealing to the Catholic Church to declare my marriage to Marlborough was null by canon law on the grounds of my having been forced in to the marriage by my mother…The next morning you came and told me that my mother was very ill and the doctor had seen her and told you that her heart was weak and that anymore scenes of a violent nature might have fatal consequences for her. I remember so well you telling me this the morning after the talk with my mother and the effect these words had on me, for I absolutely believed them.”
By this time Alva had remarried and was close with her daughter. She also was a champion of women’s rights and president of the National Women’s Party. She gave Lucie permission to divulge the information, and the two women along with Consuelo’s aunt testified that she had been forced to marry Marlborough. The church granted the annulment, which benefited the Duke as well. He had converted to Roman Catholicism after his second marriage, and this allowed him to participate fully in the church sacraments.
Consuelo would live out the rest of her life residing in both the United States and Europe. She wrote an autobiography entitled “The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess—in Her Own Words.” Even after a lifetime of charitable work and dedication to her family, Consuelo’s obituary was devoted to recounting the wedding that never should have been.