It was November 6, 1895, at 12:20 p.m., and the elaborate wedding at New York City’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church was on hold.The ushers sauntered up to their stations, three on one side of the central aisle and three on the otherthen sauntered back to the church porch again. Mr [Walter] Damrosch, who had completed his concert programme, beat time with his baton in silence, his head turned round towards the church door. The Duke of Marlborough began to fidget nervously, and only regained some of his composure when he noted the English sang-froid of his best man. As the delay lengthened, the guests shuffled and whispered. Alva was observed looking uncharacteristically worried. And then decidedly strained. Five minutes passed . . . then ten . . . then twenty . . . and still the bride had not appeared.
The bride-to-be was home weeping uncontrollably at the prospect of entering into matrimony with a loathsome Englishman. Her socially ambitious mother had forced her into the union, however, and there was no way out. Trapped like a bird in a gilded cage, she had been denied contact with the man she loved. Her mother had feigned a heart attack and, when Consuelo remonstrated against the impending nuptials, threatened to shoot the object of her affections (a thirty-three-year-old rake). Attempting to offer comfort by pointing out the advantages to becoming a duchess and at the same time escaping her mother’s clutches was Consuelo’s father, William Kissam Vanderbilt, whose great wealth made possible a dowry much needed by the financially strapped lord of Blenheim Palace. On to the cathedral they went. An unruly throng of spectators jostled outside to catch a glimpse of the red-eyed eighteen-year-old whose vital statistics, including length of hand and foot (eight and a half inches) and shape of nose and chin (“pointed, indicating vivacity”) had appeared in the New York World. Town Topics described the bridal underwear down to the gold stocking supporters and rosebud-embroidered corset covers.
The mother of the bride, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, forty-two and recently divorced, hailed from Mobile, Alabama, where her father had been a cotton trader. The family relocated to New York on the eve of the Civil War and to Paris shortly after the cessation of hostilities. Back in the Empire City three years later, the Smiths acquired a villa in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, and fit in socially with its wealthy summer residents. After financial fortunes took a skid and her parents’ health failed, Alva, in the author’s words, “took the only option open to her. She put herself on the marriage market for two anxious years” before snagging the handsome grandson of steamship and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt. The family savior then proceeded to win over the curmudgeonly patriarch. Society dowager Caroline (Mrs. John Jacob) Astor looked down on the Vanderbilts as crude parvenus. Nonetheless, William K. and Alva were part of a younger “smart set” who ultimately found acceptance in the most exclusive circles.
When Cornelius died, a three-million-dollar bequest enabled the couple to purchase nine hundred acres on Long Island for a sporting retreat and watering hole named Idle Hour. Alva worked closely on the specifications with architect Richard Morris Hunt. Alva and Hunt also collaborated on designs for a new Fifth Avenue mansion. Some sixteen hundred invitations went out for the housewarming, and only a handful came back with regrets. Mrs. Astor attended the costume ball in deference to a daughter who otherwise could not have gone (such being etiquette protocol at the time). A star quadrille featured dancers with electric lights in their hair. Fashion arbiter Ward McAllister organized a Mother Goose quadrille, and the costumes for a hobbyhorse quadrille made the participants appear to be on horseback.
Educated at home by Alva, who meted out punishment with a riding whip and employed a steel rod to produce straight posture, Consuelo recalled: “Often as I lay on the bed . . . I reflected that there was in her love of me something of the creative spirit of an artistthat it was her wish to produce me as a finished specimen framed in a perfect setting, and that my person was dedicated to whatever final disposal she had in mind.” The demise of William K.’s father, William Henry, in 1885 brought another fifty million dollars into family coffers, making Consuelo at age nine the world’s richest heiress. A frustrated architect, Alva supervised construction of Marble House in Newport, whose Gold Room in retrospect symbolizes Gilded Age vacuity. The family took long cruises on a private yacht, perhaps at Alva’s behest in a forlorn attempt to curb William’s infidelities. His...
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