From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Consuelo Vanderbilt
BornConsuelo Vanderbilt
(1877-03-02)March 2, 1877
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
DiedDecember 6, 1964(1964-12-06) (aged 87)
Southampton, New York, U.S.
Buried St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England
Noble family Vanderbilt (by birth)
Spencer (by marriage)
( m. 1895; div. 1921)
( m. 1921; died 1956)

Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan (formerly Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt; March 2, 1877 – December 6, 1964) was a socialite and a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. Her first marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough has become a well-known example of one of the advantageous, but loveless, marriages common during the Gilded Age. [1] The Duke obtained a large dowry by the marriage, and reportedly told her just after the marriage that he married her in order to "save Blenheim Palace", his ancestral home. [2]

Although the teenage Consuelo was opposed to the marriage arranged by her mother, she became a popular and influential Duchess. For much of their 25-year marriage, the Marlboroughs lived separately; after an official separation in 1906, the couple was divorced in 1921, followed by an annulment. Her first marriage produced two sons, John Spencer-Churchill, the 10th duke, and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. She went on to marry the wealthy French aviator Jacques Balsan and continued her charitable endeavours. She lived in France before World War II, when she and Balsan returned to live in New York and Florida. When she died, she was buried near her son, Lord Ivor, not far from Blenheim Palace.


Early life

Consuelo Vanderbilt as a child
Consuelo Vanderbilt

Born in New York City, Consuelo Vanderbilt was the only daughter and eldest child of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, Southern belle and budding suffragist Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933, who later married Oliver Belmont) from Mobile, Alabama (a daughter of Murray Forbes Smith). Her Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Consuelo Yznaga (1853–1909), a half- Cuban, half- American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World aristocracy and New World money. Consuelo and her friends were the inspiration for Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, who was determined that her daughter would make a great marriage like that of her famous namesake. In her autobiography, Consuelo Vanderbilt 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. [3] She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors, and learned foreign languages at an early age. [4] Her mother was abusive and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions. [5] When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told." [6]

Like her godmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt 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 she developed an instant aversion to him. [7] None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt, herself the daughter of a cotton broker. Consuelo Vanderbilt was considered 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." [8] 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." [9] She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era. [9]

First marriage

The Duchess of Marlborough, c. 1903, by Paul César Helleu

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 indebted, titled Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget, the wife of Sir Arthur Paget. Born as Mary "Minnie" Stevens, Lady Paget was the daughter of 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. [10]

Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to American socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd. [11] Her 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. [12] 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 at death's door that the malleable girl acquiesced. [13] 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. [14] The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected US$2.5 million ($87.9 million in 2022 dollars) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement. [15] Consuelo's father built a mansion for her in London, Sunderland House in Curzon Street.

Consuelo c. 1910

Consuelo Vanderbilt married the 9th Duke of Marlborough at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, on November 6, 1895. [16] They had two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (who became 10th Duke of Marlborough), and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. [17]

The new duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, whom she visited and to whom she provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children. [18] She was also a social success with royalty and the aristocracy of Britain. [19] 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. A few years into their marriage, Consuelo reconnected with Winthrop Rutherfurd and went on to spend two weeks in Paris with him, soon after she confessed to her husband that she loved Rutherford and wished to elope with him (The duke's second wife Gladys went on to imply his and Consuelo's second son Ivor was actually Rutherfurd's). In 1900, with the duke's reluctant permission, she went to London to discuss the elopement with Rutherfurd, only for him to refuse her. In despair, the duke set off to the South African War with his cousin, Winston Churchill. He was away for six months, returning in July 1900. Upon his return, The duchess confessed to having an affair with his cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes [20] [21] (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents) [22] She may also have had an affair with the artist Paul César Helleu, who portrayed her several times in his sketches and pastel artwork. The artist’s daughter believes that Helleu and Consuelo probably had an affair between 1900 and 1901, which continued after his return to Paris, where she visited him and sat for him again. [23] By this time the duke and duchess had completely stopped being intimate, and soon 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. [24] After the Duchess' affair and planned elopement with the married Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, [25] The Marlboroughs separated in 1906, divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and with Consuelo's assent, on 19 August 1926. [26]

Consuelo and Winston Churchill at Blenheim, 1902

Though largely embarked upon as a way to facilitate the Anglican duke's desire to convert to Roman Catholicism, the annulment, to the surprise of many, also was fully supported by the former duchess's mother, who testified that the Vanderbilt–Marlborough marriage had been an act of unmistakable coercion. "I forced my daughter to marry the duke", Alva Belmont told an investigator, adding: "I have always had absolute power over my daughter." [26] In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.

Second marriage and later life

Consuelo's grave at St Martin's Church, Bladon, England

Consuelo's second marriage, on July 4, 1921, was to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, aircraft, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Also a textile manufacturing heir, Balsan was a younger brother of Étienne Balsan, who was an early lover of Coco Chanel. [27] Their marriage lasted until Jacques Balsan died in 1956 at the age of 88. [28]

After the annulment of her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough, she still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill. He was a frequent visitor at her château, in Saint-Georges-Motel, a small commune near Dreux about 50 miles from Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s, where he completed his last painting before the war. [29]

Records in Florida show that in 1932 Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan built a home in Manalapan, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. It was designed as a love nest by Maurice Fatio. The dream home of 26,000 square feet is called Casa Alva, in honor of her mother. Although Consuelo sold the house in 1957 after Jacques Balsan's death, it still exists. Many believe [30] that, in 1946, Churchill polished his famous Iron Curtain Speech in the Florida house, as he visited his cousin's former wife on his way to Missouri, to deliver the address at Westminster College. [31]

As Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, she published her insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, in 1953. In spite of suggestions that it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times, Preston consistently denied that role while admitting unspecified involvement with the book. [32] A reviewer in the Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance." [33]

Consuelo Balsan died at Southampton, Long Island, New York, on December 6, 1964. She 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. [34]

Public service

During World War I, Consuelo Vanderbilt worked as the chair of the Economic Relief Committee for the American Women's War Relief Fund. [35]

During the inter-war period, she and Winaretta Singer-Polignac (the Princess de Polignac and Singer Sewing Machine heiress) worked together in the construction of a 360-bed hospital destined to provide medical care to middle class workers. The result of this effort is the Foch Hospital, located in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, France. The hospital also includes a school of nursing and is one of the top ranked hospitals in France, especially for renal transplants. It has remained true to its origins and stayed a private not-for-profit institution that still serves the Paris community. It is managed by the Fondation médicale Franco-américaine du Mont-Valérien, commonly called Foundation Foch.


Other images of Vanderbilt by artist Paul César Helleu:


  1. ^ "How American Dollar Princesses Changed British Nobility". Ancestry. 25 January 2016. Retrieved 16 October 2022.
  2. ^ Vanderbilt, Amanda Mackenzie (2005). Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt. p.  178. ISBN  978-0-06-621418-4.
  3. ^ Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Harper Perennial, 2005, ISBN  978-0-06-093825-3, p. 69
  4. ^ Stuart, p. 70
  5. ^ Stuart, pp. 69–70
  6. ^ Stuart, p. 84
  7. ^ Stuart, p. 101
  8. ^ Stuart, p. 493
  9. ^ a b Stuart, p. 209
  10. ^ Stuart, pp. 102–103, 116–117
  11. ^ Stuart, pp. 112–115
  12. ^ Stuart, p. 120
  13. ^ Stuart, p. 121
  14. ^ Stuart, p. 145-146
  15. ^ Stuart, p. 135
  16. ^ Stuart, pp. 146–147
  17. ^ Stuart, p. 222, 224
  18. ^ Stuart, p. 203
  19. ^ Stuart, pp. 212–213
  20. ^ Waterhouse, Michael, and Wiseman, Karen The Churchill Who Saved Blenheim: The Life of Sunny, 9th Duke of Marlborough Unicorn Publishing Group, 2019, ISBN  1912690225
  21. ^ Reginald Fellowes is possibly Hon. Reginald Ailwyn Fellowes (1884–1953), banker cousin of Winston Churchill and the Duke, who married on 9 August 1919 the heiress Marguerite Séverine Philippine Decazes de Glücksbierg (29 April 1890 – 13 December 1962) as her second husband.
  22. ^ Stuart, p. 359
  23. ^ Stuart, pp. 234
  24. ^ Stuart, pp. 252–254
  25. ^ Stuart, pp. 268–269
  26. ^ a b Stuart, pp. 412–425
  27. ^ Stuart, pp. 391–392, 464
  28. ^ Stuart, p. 496
  29. ^ "Manalapan Estates, Florida: The Churchill Connection - The Churchill Centre". 4 October 2006. Archived from the original on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 8 July 2018.
  30. ^ "Casa Alva: From home to club to home again". the Coastal Star. 1 April 2010. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
  31. ^ Davis, Christine (12 February 2010). "Fit for a Vanderbilt". Palm Beach Daily News. Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  32. ^ "Stuart Preston". The Independent. 15 February 2004. Retrieved 20 September 2023. Preston consistently denied that he was the ghost of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan's memoirs, The Glitter and the Gold, published in 1953, but, whatever the precise arrangements, he had an editorial hand in that book, for which he is acknowledged in the preface.
  33. ^ Stuart, 486–494
  34. ^ Stuart, p. 501
  35. ^ Allen, Anne Beiser (2000). An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp.  67. ISBN  9780313314667. american women's war relief fund.

External links