There were a lot of other things going on in United States in the late 19th century – and one of my current projects is taking me there, which means that the vast amount of reading that I did to research my earlier projects is paying off yet again.
One of these things was a veritable explosion in the number of American millionaires. In the post-Civil War years, enormous fortunes were being made in industry, from building railways, in steamship lines, in mining, in mercantile interests. The post-Civil War decades increasingly came to be dominated by ‘new money’ men, beside which the ‘old money’ families – with fortunes based on land, banking, the fur trade, sailing ships, or cotton and rooted in the earlier decades of the 19th century began to appear pale, and dull to everyone but each other. Mark Twain called the latter decades of that period ‘The Gilded Age’ – and he didn’t mean it particularly as a compliment, even if people have used the expression ever since as implying something rather fine. Twain meant it in the sense of something cheap, of a microscopically thin layer of gold overlaid on cheap metal, something flashy, over-ornamented, an object which would not wear very well, but caught the eye and impressed no end.
That era seemed strange and uncomfortable to someone who remembered an earlier day – for all its comforts, convenience, riches and plenty. Changes came thick and fast; the telegraph, the transcontinental railway, the ease of taking a steamship passage across the Atlantic and being there in a week or so, where once it had taken months. More Americans of the upper crust began traveling for pleasure and for education, rather than strictly business and in numbers, once the crossing became relatively pleasant and short. The United States had never, even before the Civil War, been particularly isolated, but post-war, the larger world the 19th century world became increasingly accessible. Mark Twain himself became a part of this trend, by participating in one of the first great American tourist excursions, the 1867 voyage of the “Quaker City” to the Holy Land and elsewhere, which was documented in one of the funniest travel books ever, The Innocents Abroad.
It was an interesting time, no two ways about it – and one of the interesting aspects is that there were so very many assorted experiences recorded in the years between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the new century – rich pickings for someone like me, doing research. One of those collisions that I became interested in exploring was the same collision that Twain wrote about so humorously: the Old World and the New. There were quite a lot of opportunities for them to collide, and nowhere more than among the very newest of the new money, or even the semi-new money of the New World and the aristocracy of the old. One book I picked up at random was a joint biography of Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt – of whom I was sort-of-aware, mostly because the Vanderbilts are one of those filthy-rich families that you can’t help not having heard of, and because Consuelo Vanderbilt was married off – mostly unhappily – to an English Duke. It was kind of ick-making to think about; fabulously wealthy American heiresses married off to the impecunious inheritors of ancient name, royal favor – and crumbling stately homes. Their vulgar American new dollars in exchange for an old name, a title and a coronet with strawberry leaves on it; it’s hard to decide which is more awful, the decayed noblemen hunting for heiresses that they would condescend to honor with their titles and past-due bills, or the social-climbing and wealthy American families of a supposedly democratic and more or less equalitarian nation going all weak-kneed at the thought of a title in the family.
The wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough was covered with breathless interest by the media of the time – which since it took place in 1895, meant coverage by newspapers only. However, the wedding was as lavish, and the interest in every tiny detail as intense as that paid to the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. It took place at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New York’s 5th Avenue, and the crowds of spectators outside the church and for a good way down the avenue was so thick that squads of policemen could barely force enough of an open way between them for the invited guests. The inside of the church was lavishly decorated with flowers – pink and white roses, swags of lilies, ivy and holly, arches of ferns, palm leaves and chrysanthemums. No expense was spared – even more astonishing was the fact that Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke had only been engaged for about six weeks and only known each other for barely a year. She was barely eighteen, reserved and sheltered, the very pretty daughter of a woman with a will of iron and ambition to match. After her marriage, she would blossom into one of the acknowledged beauties of that era: Playwright James Barrie supposedly said he would wait all day in the street just to watch her get into a carriage.
Alva Smith had married for money herself – having pursued, wed and just recently divorced the oldest grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, called ‘The Commodore’, who had founded the family fortunes in shipping and branched out into railways. Her own father’s fortunes were sadly diminished by the Civil War, and Alva resolved to secure her own future and those of her family by marrying rich. She emerges as a domineering, driven and stubborn woman with a fiery temper and a will of stainless steel. Very few people ever said ‘no’ to Alva Vanderbilt, least of all her own family; neither her parents, either of her husbands, or any of her children. Her own mother, a cultured Southern belle spoke French, and traveled widely in Europe with her children in those distant days when it meant a long voyage on a sailing ship. In a fragmentary memoir written late in life, Alva recalled that her mother had made a yearly order of clothes for herself and her daughters from a Paris dressmaker. All the clothes they would need for the next year would arrive one time – a means which was sufficient for that era, but not when Alva was raising her own children. By that time, being rich and in the social set meant a degree of ostentatious competition that is purely mind-boggling to contemplate today. Everything about those at the very top of the social network still astonishes, beginning with the ‘summer cottages’ built at the edge of Newport, Rhode Island. Alva was responsible for one of the most lavish, ‘Marble House’ which seemed like nothing much but a couple of square acres of the Sun King’s Versailles, set down in the New World. The balls and parties that prominent members of this high society threw for each other also defy belief. At one infamously grand banquet, an artificial river filled with live fish ran the length of the dining table – and guests were provided with little silver shovels to search for jeweled party favors in the sand at the bottom of the river. Such a grand dinner ran to course after course of elaborately prepared dishes, and an ordinary day for a society woman might involve changing clothes four or five times over the course of a day. And Alva Vanderbilt was one of the leading social lionesses by the time her daughter was of marriageable age, despite having divorced William Vanderbilt.
Divorce was almost unthinkable in that milieu – and yet, Alva went ahead with it; she would marry her daughter off to a nobleman, and having achieved that apotheosis, would marry again herself, to Oliver Belmont – another wealthy member of the Gilded Age’s highest social circle. Incredibly, she would have a contented marriage with him – and maintain her high position in that society – until his sudden death from complications of appendicitis. Incredibly and without a moment’s hesitation, Alva would involve herself in the campaign for women’s rights to vote, using her considerable wealth to fund suffrage organizations and publications, to lobby in Washington and among the highest levels. She would fight for women’s property and political rights with the same stubborn intensity that she applied to any of her previous enthusiasms. In fact, she became something of a militant – and after her own death in 1931, had a full suffragette’s funeral, with women pallbearers and choir. Never mind the contradiction, of being for women’s rights, yet having dictated Consuelo’s marriage and overruled any of her daughter’s considerable misgivings.
Consuelo married reluctantly, in obedience to her mother. In spite of that, she serenely adorned the great estate of Blenheim Palace – which her marriage settlement helped repair and renovate – and the highest levels of British political and social circles equally. She was one of the noble wives who carried the canopy over Queen Mary at the coronation of King George V. She would produce two sons, and is thought to have been the originator of the expression ‘an heir and a spare’. The marriage was not happy; she and the Duke were of different and incompatible temperaments and Consuelo had something of her mother’s spine. They separated barely ten years after their lavish wedding day, and divorced in 1921, upon which Consuelo married a wealthy French aviation pioneer named Jacques Balsan. She achieved no small victory in managing to remain on easy and affectionate terms with her ex-husband’s family, which included his redoubtable cousin, Winston Churchill. Her further life adventures included escaping with her husband from France in 1940, and returning to live in the country she had departed nearly half a century before. Amazingly, she lived until 1964 – and if pictures taken of her during the last years of her life are any guide – she was still amazingly beautiful. And if her story seems rather Edith Whartonish, there was a reason for that. Edith Wharton and her family moved in the same Gilded Age high society that the Vanderbilts did, although not quite on the same level, and Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers features a character and a story-line very much like Consuelo’s unhappy first marriage.