The Saddest Dollar Princess

Many little girls dream of being princesses courtesy of fairy tales and Disney. They envision beautiful weddings, castles, and their own Prince Charming ready to give them a “happily ever after.” It might seem the fairy tale had come to life for a carefully reared daughter of an extremely wealthy American family who married Great Britain’s most prestigious title, but the reality for Consuelo Vanderbilt (2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964) was quite the opposite. Born into the family founded by railroad tycoon Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt , Consuelo was the daughter of William “Willie K.” Kissem Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith, a native of Mobile, Alabama. Willie K. managed the family’s wealth, but it was ambitious Alva who dominated Consuelo’s early life and determined her future through manipulation and social machinations.

Alva dressed for her ball.

Consuelo was named after Consuelo Yznaga, her godmother and Alva’s good friend. The elder Consuelo’s marriage to George, Viscount Mandeville, later 8th Duke of Marlborough, certainly must have influenced Alva’s desire regarding her daughter’s future and also led to a personal triumph over her enemy, “The” Mrs. Astor. Despite the enormous Vanderbilt wealth, a French chateaux-style 5th Avenue mansion, and lavish wardrobes, Alva was not “known” by Mrs. Astor and her 400. Breaking her rival’s stranglehold on society while exacting revenge became Alva’s mission. Lady Mandeville’s visit to New York provided Alva with an excellent excuse to show off her new mansion by throwing a fancy-dress ball in honor of her great friend. The ball room was said to accommodate no fewer than 1000 guests and the lavish decorations and food were rumored to run to about $3 million. The invitations to Alva’s ball were much sought after thanks to some skillful PR provided by obliging society journalists. The city’s young debutantes eagerly accepted and planned their costumes, all that is except Carrie Astor. Alva let it be known she simply could not invite Mrs. Astor’s daughter since the mother had not deigned to call at the Vanderbilt home. Carrie was not about to be excluded from the most exciting event of the season, so Mama Astor had no choice but to leave her calling card at the Vanderbilt mansion. Carrie got her invitation the next day. Alva’s ball was a resounding success, the doors of society yawned wider, and her enemy had received a humiliating comeuppance. Not a bad day’s work for a woman originally deemed unworthy of darkening Mrs. Astor’s door.

Alva next turned her attention to her daughter’s future. Mother had always ruled daughter with an iron hand. When Consuelo complained about the clothes selected for her, Alva is purported to have responded, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” As a child, Consuelo was forced to wear an iron brace that ran down her spine, around her waist, and over her shoulders to train a perfect posture. She was educated at home by governesses and tutors from whom she learned several languages. When she displeased her mother, Consuelo was hit with a riding crop. There is a reason riding crops are fairly limber and have a leather flap on the end. In the right hands, they get the desired results without leaving a mark. Apparently children respond to their application as quickly as horses do for Consuelo grew into a young woman completely bent to her mother’s will.

At 16, Consuelo drew admirers wherever she went. Alva rejected the suits of several eligible young men because Consuelo’s $20 million fortune ($4 billion today) deserved no less than an aristocrat and Alva was determined to have one as a son-in-law. Unfortunately for Consuelo, this meant a demand that she give up the man she loved, the 29 year-old American lawyer and socialite Winthrop Rutherford.

Consuelo met Winthrop in 1893 on a voyage to India with her parents. He should have been all that Alva hoped for. He had a successful career and an impeccable lineage being a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New York. Alva planned a Paris debut for her daughter and Winthrop in no way figured in her design. Consuelo debuted in the spring of 1894 at a ball thrown by the Duc and Duchesse de Gramont. She was a tall, slim, lovely, dark-haired beauty with an eminence fortune. Within a month she had received no less than five marriage proposals from various European noblemen, but they, too, had no place in Alva’s plans for she had already selected the candidate the previous year while visiting Lord and Lady Lansdowne in Calcutta. Lady Lansdowne was aunt to Great Britain’s most eligible peer, Charles “Sunny” Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. With the Paris debut completed, the next stop was the London home of Alva’s great friend Minnie, Lady Paget, née Stevens, herself a dollar princess of the previous generation. Consuelo’s father did not accompany his wife and daughter because Alva was in the process of divorcing him on grounds of adultery.

CONSUELO VANDERBILT (1877-1964). 9th Duchess of Marlborough. Photographed at the time of her marriage, 1895, in New York, to the Duke of Marlborough.
9th Duke Marlborough as a young man

Minnie entertained the Vanderbilt women in her lovely Belgrave Square house where the first meeting between Consuelo and Lord Marlborough took place at an intimate dinner with the duke as guest of honor. Minnie seated the duke on her right with Consuelo next to him, a not very subtle but effective move. Sunny was in great need of ready cash to shore up the crumbling Blenheim. His late father’s second marriage to Lily Warren Price ( had brought sufficient funds to make some repairs but there was still much to do in the 187 room palace. For her part, Consuelo initially thought His Grace intelligent and handsome.

After the initial introduction, Alva withdrew to a rented house on the Thames and then to New York where she had important matters to settle. Once installed back in 660 5th Avenue, she launched Consuelo in her New York debut while simultaneously finalizing the divorce from Willie K. and beginning an affair with Oliver Belmont. All ventures proved successful. Free to do as she pleased with the fortune settled on her, Alva whisked Consuelo off to England once more with her sights firmly set on making her daughter a duchess. What Alva did not know was that Consuelo and Winthrop Rutherford had become secretly engaged. Despite being closely watched, Consuelo and Winthrop had manged to snatch moments alone. He proposed and she accepted. Consuelo was deeply in love. She could not have cared less about becoming a duchess.

Alva began her campaign for a ducal marriage in earnest and the first step was to separate Consuelo from Win. Mother dragged daughter back to Europe. Though Win followed, he was blocked at every turning. He was forbidden all contact with Consuelo and his letters to her were confiscated. Consuelo went to balls, the Louvre, dinners, and Worth, but everywhere she went, she was never alone. In June, they moved on to London and attended a ball given at Stafford House, home of the Duke of Sutherland. Sunny, Duke of Marlborough, was there and danced with Consuelo several times. She must have made a good impression for his next move was to invite mother and daughter to Blenheim. Sunny might have been in need of a fortune, but not just any would do. The bearer of said fortune must also be worthy of his title. Viewing the candidate in the ducal pile was necessary to any furtherance of the relationship. Again, Consuelo acquitted herself well and His Grace paid her special attention. With such encouragement, Alva invited Sunny to her New Port cottage.

The summer of 1895 was one of anticipation in New Port. Willie was there as was Cornelius, whose house The Breakers opened in July. Oliver Belmont was in new Port, as well. The potential for fireworks loomed large, but all who awaited an explosion were disappointed. Everyone was on their best behavior, at least in public. In secret, Consuelo managed a few stolen moments with Winthrop and even a dance at one of the many balls. Alva was incandescent. She and Consuelo had a mighty screaming match in which Alva raged, telling her daughter that Win was in love with a married woman and only wanted Consuelo for her money. At one point, Alva even threatened to murder Winthrop. The following morning, Consuelo was informed that her mother had had a heart attack and that any further disobedience might well kill her mother. The girl was no match for such dramatics and capitulated. She gave Win up and awaited Sunny’s arrival. After an anxious month of parties, dinners, yachting, balls, and drives about the area, Sunny finally proposed and Alva made the triumphant announcement that her daughter was to become a duchess.

In the weeks leading up to the wedding, the society press presented such fevered coverage of the gifts, the bride, the groom, the respective families, and everything connected to the event that when the day finally arrived, the public lined the sidewalks around St Thomas’ Church on 5th Avenue. Extra policemen were put in place to hold back the crowds hoping for glimpse of the bride and her father as they stepped from car to sanctuary door. No expense had been spared. Eight bridesmaids were to wear elegant white satin gowns with blue sashes. Thousands of flowers were ordered to decorate the church. The officiants would include at least one bishop. Though St. Thomas’s was not their home church, Alva choose it because the sanctuary afforded the greater space into which to cram the best of New York’s upper crust. It was as much spectacle as it was a religious ceremony.

The appointed hour passed and the bride did not appear. Twenty minutes passed before Willie K. escorted his daughter down the aisle. Consuelo’s eyes were still puffy despite her efforts to reduce the swelling caused by a morning spent crying. She must have sensed her marriage would not be one of the blissful, fairy tale, “happily ever after” sort.

Her premonitions were correct. Sunny and Consuelo’s temperaments were ill suited. His prime directive and nearly sole interest was in preserving his palace, his estate, and his family name. His personality and upbringing rendered him cold, distant, snobbish, and image obsessed. It is rumored that while the Duke was away in 1900-1901 fighting in the Boer War, Consuelo had an affair with the artist Paul César Helleu who had come from Paris to Blenheim to paint her portrait.

Sunny and Consuelo had two sons together and she is credited with coining the phrase “an heir and a spare.” The famous John Singer Sargent portrait shown below was painted in 1905, about a year before the couple separated. She went to live in Sutherland House in London. She later stated, “We had been married eleven years (and) life together had not brought us closer. Time had but accentuated our differences. The nervous tension that tends to grow between people of different temperament condemned to live together had reached its highest pitch.”[1]

Consuelo became involved in several causes, most notably, the fight for women’s suffrage. The couple’s divorce was finalized in 1921. She then married the dashing French aviator Jacques Balsan whom she had first met in Paris at her coming out ball hosted by the Duc de Gramont. The 9th Duke married another American, Gladys Deacon. That marriage, too, was ultimately a failure. The 9th Duke died in 1934 and the 10th Duke, her son, welcomed his mother back to Blenheim. Consuelo and her pilot were a love match and lived happily in their chateau in the French countryside with Alva nearby until the Nazis forced them to flee to America in 1940. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan died in Long Island, New York, in 1964 and was buried on the Blenheim estate next to her younger son Lord Ivo Spencer-Churchill.

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Notes and Sources