2009: 66. Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

“In November 1985, shortly before the New York wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, her cousin Gertrude raged in her diary at the unhappy lot of heiresses.”

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

This is a non-fiction account of the relationship between two of the richest women in the world, Alva Vanderbilt, and her daughter, Consuelo.  The hook (and the reason their relationship is book worthy, beyond general interest in rich Edwardian women), is that Alva basically forced her daughter to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  It was the ur-example of rich American girls being married off to titled Englishmen and it caught national attention, with Consuelo being seen as a pawn of her titled mother.  And, in fact, the marriage was a failure, and they eventually ended up divorced (after she provided her heir and her spare), which was a great scandal, and proof of why your mother probably shouldn’t pick your husband.

Kidding aside, the part of the story about why Alva strong armed Consuelo into marrying the Duke* was very very interesting.  It was a scandalous story at the time, and from this distance seems almost unbelievable - like something from a fairy tale.   Stuart is fair to Alva, who it would be very, very easy to paint as a monster, without hiding the fact that Alva was a serious force of nature, and really, once she made up her mind Consuelo had little if any chance of escaping.  I thought the story was juicy, and the analysis credible, and I really enjoyed that part of the book.

The rest of the time it was just a standard biography of the two, and thus is dipped off quite a bit at the end, because while Alva was kind of a mega bitch force of nature, she was generally more interesting than Consuelo who ended up a happy rich old lady married to a French guy, and so the end of the book seriously drooped, once Alva was dead, and Consuelo was just living out her life.  While the beginning was a great story of Gilded Age scandal and excess, the end was the life of a society type in the nineteen fifties and sixties, which doesn’t do much for me.  Still, that’s just a bit of the book, and if you’re interested in the Gilded Age this is a good read.

*It’s complicated, but some of the reasons include prestige, to help Alva recover from her own scandalous divorce from Consuelo’s father, and because she generally felt she would be happier and more satisfied in life if she was a duchess, and thus had more of a role than “New York society lady.”

Date/Place Completed:  May 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Non-Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017