It was a rainy, dreary Sunday at court and talk drifted aimlessly about the usual subjects: boys, fashion, and peasant uprisings. Somehow--and God only knows how things like this happen--a comment was made by two new-comers about just who Alva Vanderbilt was and why I had mentioned her.
Alva Smith Vanderbilt was the only being on earth who wanted to and could assault the previously unassailable Mrs. Astor (it is to be recalled that the reason for the title of this blog is my mother's constant calling me by that name). Alva, through her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, had just about everything a woman could want except membership in Mrs. Astor's "400", the number 0f people who could fit in her ballroom and a group which members of society eagerly vied for.
When Alva wanted something, she got it, and after the completion of her French chateau-styled mansion on Fifth Avenue, she threw an opening party like no other. Alva was a very early manipulator of the press and thrilled the public with things like electricity. She was a marvel at public relations and not inviting Mrs. Astor's daughter, Carrie, caused the world of New York Society to stand still until the indomitable Mrs. Astor gave in and sent her liveried carriage to deliver a calling card. Alva replied with an invite and the Four Hundred opened up to a calculating member they had always feared. Afterwards, she terrorized "society" by inviting those kept out by the draconian standards of the time; Alva developed her own standards and didn't care who liked them or not.
Alva built the exquisite Marble House
in Newport to further position herself beyond the aging Mrs. Astor. Between 1905 and 1908 Mrs. Astor fell into a state of confusion and retired to Beechwood
where she gave state dinners to an empty room, dressed in Worth and dripping in the diamond ropes that Henry Lehr once remarked made her look like a chandelier, while talking to imaginary guests. Alva was too busy to care about this as she was brow-beating her husband, W.K., about the furnishings at Marble House; she filed for divorce (a rather big scandal them) because of the house matter and W.K. gave her it in the settlement. She then turned around and married fellow Newporter, Oliver Belmont, and took over Belmont,later Belcourt Castle
All this and Alva still had the time, the money, and the drive to marry her daughter, the ravishing Consuelo
, to the Duke of Marlborough. Blenheim Palace, thanks to Alva's money, made it into the 20th Century intact, although the sad Consuelo had to endure a loveless marriage.
And THIS is where the money and power of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont came into bloom. After the death of Belmont, Alva discovered the suffrage movement. Alva turned Newport into a monied time bomb for the suffragette movement enlisting her friend and self-described "society anarchist", Mamie Stuyvesant-Fish into the cause. (I once described a party Mamie gave in Newport for "The Count del Drago". Mamie was from the old Dutch wealth of New York, so everyone invited showed up, only to find out the "Count" was a monkey in a tux.)
Alva in the U.S. and Consuelo in Great Britain never, ever ceased the fight for the right of women to vote. She once said at her famous Chinese Tea Pavillion at Marble House (she never gave up any of the properties), that "...good citizenship was impossible without the right to vote." And, she put her money where her mouth was. She had a china service designed named Votes of Women
, and it is still sold today in the gift store of Marble House. She terrorized politicians who were at once afraid of her power and mindful that they were treading in unsafe political waters. Newspapers called her "That Vanderbilt-Belmont Woman", totally unsure of what a woman with such wealth was up to.
"Alva, That Vanderbilt-Belmont Woman" by Margaret Hayden Rector, is sold by the Woman's International Center as "The first biography of one of America's richest and most powerful women who was the Manager and Financier of the American Woman's Suffrage Movement". It's a delight to know you order the book by contacting:-mailto:Emailfirstname.lastname@example.org
It's a boring Sunday, but just thinking about Alva makes it fun.