4/04/2008

Woman of the week - Consuelo Vanderbilt


Name: Consuelo Vanderbilt
Born: New York, March 2, 1877
Dead: Southampton, Long Island, December 6, 1964
Married to 1: Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, on November 6, 1895
Divorced: In 1921 (they separated in 1906)
Married to 2: Jacques Balsan, pilot, on July 4th, 1921
Children: John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (later 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill
Occupation: Heiress

Consuelo Vanderbilt had two things, she was rich and she was beautiful - and she had a mother that was sure to make the most of it - and it was very close to ending in total disaster. She was one of those wealthy American heiresses that married into the British aristocracy and had a hard time adjusting to that.

The Vanderbilts were wealthy, from rail-roads, and they new how to spend money. The house that Consuelo lived in with her parents even contained a replica of the ball-room at Verseille. Nothing was missing in the girl's life as she grew up - at least when it came to things she needed. She was, like many other girls in a similar situation, educated at home by a governess and that was considered quite enough for her. Her goal in life was after all not to be an academic but someone's wife.

Consuelo was very well known for her beauty (and her money) so there was no lack in suitors - but she was not a girl to be easily pleased. Her mother, Alva Erskin Smith, had some strong ideas on what would be a suitable match for her daughter, like Prince Franz Joseph of Battenberg. This was a match that did not interest the daughter, she disliked him from the start and could not be persuaded to change her mind. When the Duke of Marlborough approached with the same purpose Consuleo was not impressed. She was actually engaged to another man, Winthrop Rutherford, and was not easy to presuade.

But her mother was not one to give up and she wanted her daughter to marry well. She didn't stop at either threatening to kill her fiance or saying that she was herself terminally ill which at last made the daughter relent and agree to the marriage - but the daughter spent the night prior to the wedding locked up, just to make sure she would not do anything stupid. The wedding took place at Saint Thomas Church, New York, in one of the most elaborate cermonies to take place at that day and age. The bride was crying and the groom recieved $2.5 million (approximately $75 million today) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement - money needed sorely needed for the upkeep of his Blenheim Castle. Then the newly-wed were shipped off to England.

It was not a successful marriage. The couple were not happy, both having to give up other love-interests, and both finidng new ones while they were still married. But she did what she was supposed to do. She gave birth to two sons and acted as hostess at the castle, sat for portraits of the happy family and did what was expected of her. The charade lasted till 1906 when the couple separated and she moved to London.

There she continued to be popular among the finer circles, but she also took a deep interest in social well-fare. Among other things she opened a home for wives of first time offenders sent to prison to help and support them and also worked with trying to improve the working-conditions for women in sweated industries, including minimum-wages. She was also a member of the London County Council, for a less well-to-do area, 1917-1919.

Despite the separation from the Duke she continued to be on good footing with parts of the Churchill family, including Winston Churchill, a cousin of the duke. And not even her mother objected to the couple's divorce - seeing that the marriage really had done no one any good.

In 1921 she married the French Jacques Balsan, an aviation pioneer, and she moved to France where she stayed till the end of the Second World War. She had then been awarded the Legion of Honour for her charity work which included founding a children's hospital and Paris, and, when the war broke out, taking the children to the safety of the south of France. After that the couple moved to the US.

In 1953 her autobiography The Glitter and the Gold (ghost-written by Stuart Preston) she tells very vividly about her life - but perhaps not always totally honest in every detail. A reviewer from The New York Times called it 'an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance'. Balsan died in 1956 after 35 good years together - he was then 88.

Consuelo herself died in 1964 - long after the end of an era that she so much came to represent. She was buried in St Martin's church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England, close to her youngest son and in the same church as Sir Winston Churchill

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