Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuela in her coronation robes for the coronation of King Edward II
and Queen Alexandra in 1902.


Consuelo Vanderbilt, (March 2, 1877December 6, 1964), was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt Family, as well as an English aristocrat. She was seen as the ultimate marital prize of the Victorian age. Her marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough was an international emblem for socially advantageous marriages.

Early life

Born in New York City, she was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, a Mobile, Alabama belle and budding suffragette, Alva Erskine Smith (1853-1933, later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont).

Her exotic Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, María Consuelo Yznaga del Valle (1858-1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Victor Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, Alva, who was determined that Consuelo would make a great marriage like her famous namesake. In her biography, Consuelo Vanderbilt later described how she was required to wear a steel rod, which ran down her spine and fastened around her waist and over her shoulders, to improve her posture.
She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors and learned to read and write foreign languages (French and German) by age 8.  Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions.  When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva Vanderbilt told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told."

Like her godmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt also attracted numerous title-bearing suitors anxious to trade social position for cash. Her mother reportedly received at least five proposals for her hand. Consuelo was allowed to consider the proposal of just one of the men, Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, but Consuelo developed an instant aversion to him.
None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt. Luckily, as opposed to more than a few contemporary heiresses in search of her particular prince charming, Consuelo Vanderbilt was a great beauty, with a face compelling enough to cause the playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write, "I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage."

Five-foot-eight and very slender, with a small head, a pert, delicately retroussé nose and a cascade of thick, wavy dark hair, Consuelo also emanated a warmth and kindness that for decades to come would captivate most everyone who came to know her.

Oxford undergraduate Guy Fortescue later described how he and his friends were captivated by her "piquante oval face perched upon a long slender neck, her enormous dark eyes fringed with curling lashes, her dimples, and her tiny teeth when she smiled. She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era.

First Marriage

Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of the most famous heiresses in U.S. history. For one thing, she was astonishingly beautiful. For another, she was one of the wealthiest young women in the United States. By the time she she'd made her debut in 1895, the entire country knew she possessed $20 million -- a sum equal to almost $4 billion today. But that money placed Consuelo in a sort of golden coffin. It severely restricted who might be eligible to marry her, dictated her future as an ornament for a wealthy or powerful man, and sealed her off from any kind of meaningful life.

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family in New York society, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the land-rich, money-poor
Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace.

The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget (née Mary "Minnie" Stevens), the daughter of Mrs. Paran Stevens, the socially ambitious widow of an American hotel entrepreneur who had successfully obtained admittance to the exclusive New York society of the fabled "Four Hundred". Lady Paget, always short of money, soon became a sort of international marital agent, introducing eligible American heiresses to British noblemen.

Unfortunately Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd

Alva felt strongly that the Duke was the best possible match for Consuela and that everyone else was no match at all.  Thus the dour, diminutive duke was imposed on her by her mother. Ironically nicknamed "Sunny" because he had once held the title of Earl of Sunderland, the ninth duke had an appalling attitude toward those he referred to as the "lower orders"; and like his first cousin Winston Churchill and several earlier generations of Marlboroughs, he was prone to fits of depression.

 Consuelo and Winston Churchill became and remained best of friends.  This picture was taken at Blenheim in 1902.

Seeing himself as a "link in a chain" of his family's glorious tradition, he found his greatest pleasure in staging ostentatious ceremonial displays that conveyed the splendor of his lineage, and in bringing improvements to his beloved, deteriorating Blenheim, the principal goal of his search for a wealthy overseas bride.

Consuelos' mother cajoled, wheedled, begged, and then, ultimately, ordered her daughter to marry Marlborough. When Consuelo – a docile teenager whose only notable characteristic at the time was abject obedience to her fearsome mother – made plans to elope, she was locked in her room as Alva threatened to murder Rutherfurd.  Still, she refused. It was only when Alva Vanderbilt claimed that her health was being seriously and irretrievably undermined by Consuelo's stubbornness and appeared to be on death's door did the gullible girl acquiesce. Alva made an astonishing recovery from her entirely phantom illness, and when the wedding took place, Consuelo stood at the altar reportedly weeping behind her veil.

The fabled beauty was therefore auctioned off to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, in a ceremony that was surrounded with ostentation and hysteria. (Hundreds of New York's finest were called out to restrain thousands of onlookers -- mostly women -- who were frantic to glimpse the bride in her wedding finery. The newspapers of the day carried exhaustively detailed descriptions of the trousseau: her pink lace corset apparently had gold hooks, and her silk stockings were held up by diamond-encrusted garters.)

The bride was 20 minutes late to her own wedding. It was noon of Nov. 6, 1895, the hour set for the marriage of one of America's wealthiest heiresses, Consuelo Vanderbilt, to the ninth Duke of Marlborough (le tout New York in attendance, Walter Damrosch's 60-man orchestra completing their Wagner and Tchaikovsky, platoons of policemen keeping hordes of curious citizens out of St. Thomas Episcopal Church).
But the bride, greatly infatuated with an American socialite, was still at home, weeping uncontrollably in the arms of her father, William K. Vanderbilt, pleading with him to rescue her from a marriage enforced against her will by her notoriously dominating mother, Alva. As much as "William K.," grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and heir to much of his fortune, had come to dislike his former wife, he managed to calm his pale, willowy 18-year-old daughter and led her to the altar. 
The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in
England and collected $2.5 million (approximately $75 million today) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement.

So, after a long, wretched honeymoon, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, assumed her duties as mistress of the 170-room Blenheim Palace, soon becoming the leading beauty of the Edwardian Age and, less predictably, one of its most committed philanthropists. 

The acute unhappiness Consuelo suffered in her loveless marriage was soon allayed by the birth of her two sons, John Albert Edward William and Ivor (an "heir and a spare," a phrase she is said to have coined).

Consuelo and infant Lord Ivor Churchill (probably in a christening gown) and the Marquess of Blandford, 1899 (who became the 10th Duke of Marlborough.

Suavely concealing her distaste for the stifling protocol of British aristocracy, she staged a brilliant success in all strata of society. Always a quick study, in no time she had mastered the etiquette attendant to visiting Queen Victoria at Windsor, to entertaining the Kaiser for a weekend or the Prince of Wales for a 100-guest shooting party, events that involved at least four changes of costume a day.
At the other end of the social spectrum, "the democratic duchess," as she was referred to (or less kindly, the "slumming" duchess), was as concerned with the well-being of her domestic staff of more than 40, and of the poor people who lived on the margins of Blenheim, as her husband was crassly indifferent to them, and soon became idolized for her legendary charity. The new duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, whom she visited and provided assistance to on a daily basis.

However, given the ill-fitting match between the duke and his wife, it was only a matter of time before their marriage was in name only.


Consuelo about 1910.
Consuelo about 1910.

Their marriage was obviously unhappy, the duke informing Consuelo he’d given up the woman he loved to marry her on their honeymoon, and by the birth of their second son their marriage was on the rocks.   

The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and their two sons as painted by John Sargent Singer.

The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband's handsome cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents), while the duke fell under the spell of Gladys Marie Deacon, an eccentric American of little money but, like Consuelo, dazzling to look at and of considerable intellect. The Marlboroughs divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and Consuelo's assent, on August 19, 1926.

Second marriage and later life

Consuelo's second marriage, on July 4, 1921, was to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, airplane, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Also a textile manufacturing heir, Balsan was a younger brother of Etienne Balsan, who was an important early lover of Coco Chanel.  In the last year of World War I, when she found the love of her life, a wealthy French bourgeois, Consuelo shed the protections and privileges of her title with as much grace and lightness as she had borne them. Becoming Madame Louis-Jacques Balsan, she retreated, aged 44, into a deep, lifelong, well-deserved happiness.

After the annulment, she still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill. He was a frequent visitor to her chateau, the St. George Motel, near Dreux about 50 miles from Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s, where he completed his last painting before the war.

After suffrage passed, Consuelo, now based in France, continued to devote herself to numerous issues of public welfare, for which she received the Legion of Honor.

The duke died in 1934, after a wretched second marriage (his second wife took to dining with him with a pistol on the table next to her plate), and there were children and grandchildren to visit at Blenheim, which was now inhabited by Consuelo's elder son, the 10th Duke of Marlborough.
After the fall of France, the Balsans emigrated to the United States. Consuelo, born to succeed and to survive, even had a final triumph with the memoir she published in the early 1950's, "The Glitter and the Gold,"* which was a top seller in the United States for 20 weeks.
At the age of 82, she had a "silvery elegance"  that led a Long Island magazine to acclaim her "the acknowledged beauty of the Southampton season." She died in 1964, at the age of 87, and was buried at Bladon in Oxfordshire, resting place of the Spencer-Churchill clan, across from her son Ivor and at a safe distance — a few miles down the road — from her former husband's grave at Blenheim.

The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Balsan's insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, was published in 1953; it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times. A reviewer in the New York Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."

She died at Southampton, Long Island, New York on December 6, 1964, and was buried alongside her younger son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, in the churchyard at St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England, near her former home, Blenheim Palace.

The epitaph she ordered be engraved on her tomb was startling: "In loving memory of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, Mother of the Tenth Duke of Marlborough." In her last request the committed feminist and Liberal Party activist retreated, opting — as her detested husband had — for the archaic legacy of being seen as "a link in a chain" of aristocracy's command.

This capitulation might distress some of us. Yet do many women come to mind about whom one can more readily say, "She had it all?" Surmounting most obstacles through her innate intelligence and self-discipline, abandoning the harsh glitter of her life as a peer's wife for the pure gold of her happiness with a man she chose to love,

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan left an ineffable legacy of style and grace.

*I highly recommend The Glitter and the Gold if you have a curiosity about the Gilded Age.






What did you think of this article?

  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
  • No comments exist for this post.
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.


 Email (will not be published)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.