Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Gilded Age or My Homage to the Vanderbilts

Biltmore, ca. 1900
I've always been fascinated by the Gilded Age. The clothes were luscious (if you didn't mind being trussed up like a turkey), the houses were huge, and being socially mobile was all the rage. I grew up taking day trips to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina (I highly recommend a visit to both the estate and the city...fabulous architecture, awesome food, and good beer...what else could you want?) and so my childhood fantasies were filled with thoughts of the Vanderbilts. Even though I have visited the estate mulitple times, I never get tired of it. In fact, my hubby and I paid a visit back in April and I was finally able to see the gardens in all of their spring glory thanks to a particularly warm winter. They've added many new features including period clothing to some of the rooms and we were lucky to catch the opening of a new history exhibit that satisfied my obsession for all thing Vanderbilt.

For those of you not familiar with Biltmore, it was built in the 1890s by George Washington Vanderbilt, the grandson of the original Robber Baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt. I don't really think he did anything besides inherit millions of dollars (OK, apparently he managed the family farm in upstate New York). He was rather sickly and upon a visit to the Asheville area, he decided that a mountain estate was just what he needed for his health. He commissioned Richard Morris Hunt (my favorite architect of the era) to design the house and Frederick Law Olmstead (yes, that Olmstead...of Central Park fame) to do the gardens. Ten years later, George moved into the palatial estate, along with his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, a pedigreed old New Yorker who was raised in Paris. Her fabulous portrait by Boldini hangs in the house. She was quite tall apparently!

The house today remains intact and owned by Vanderbilt's grandsons. It is also the largest privately owned residence in the US and I am always marveled by how the family has turned such a palatial estate into a million dollar business.

Lovely family portrait of the Marlboroughs
by John Singer Sargent

As I grew older and my interests began to extend to all things British, I became fascinated by another Vanderbilt--Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough. She was George's niece, the daughter of his brother William Kissam Vanderbilt and the pugnacious Alva Erskine Smith, who from all accounts was someone you did not want to cross. I've been reading To Marry An English Lord: Or How Anglomania Really Got Started and it details all of Alva's machinations to obtain entree into New York society (it's a tongue and cheek account of the time period...very funny). Consuelo was named after her mother's BFF, Consuelo Iznaga, who was one of the original "Buccaneers" -- she married the Viscount Mandeville who eventually became the 8th Duke of Manchester.

It was fitting that Consuelo Vanderbilt became one of the second generation "Buccaneers". She married Charles, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, though sadly, their marriage was loveless at best. She gave him "the heir and the spare" and checked out around 1906 with their divorce being finalized in 1921. She went on to marry the French aviator Jacques Balsan, who incidentally, was the brother of Etinenne Balsan (one of Coco Chanel's early lovers). Small world!

Consuelo was recently used as a model for Cora Cash in Daisy Goodwin's novel "The American Heiress". Many of the incidents (domineering mother, a secret engagement) in the book were ripped from Conseulo's own autobiography "The Glitter and the Gold".

That's enough for today. I might detail more on the other Buccaneers (including Consuelo's aunt-in-law Jennie Randolph, mother of Winston Churchill) at a later date.


  1. http://carolinewilsonwrites.blogspot.com/2012_09_01_archive.html
    While doing research on my ancestor, Consuelo Yznaga, I came across your lovely blog and the section entitled The Gilded Age or My Homage to the Vanderbilts. I noticed that you had written “Consuelo was named after her mother's BFF, Consuelo Iznaga” Since Consuelo was named after Alva best friend, Consuelo YZNAGA, I thought I would present links showing that her name was spelled with a Y and not an I. I’m sure the accuracy and integrity of your website is important to you so I am attaching the following links for proof of correct surname.

    Wikipedia Alva Belmont

    Willie K. Vanderbilt II: A Biography By Steven H. Gittelman

    Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter in the “Gilded Age”

    The Vanderbilt Women

    Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women's Rights

    Museum of the City of New York

    The Peerage

    Smithsonian Institute

    National Portrait Gallery UK

    There are further links I can provide if need be. Thank you,
    Diana Yznaga Gomez

    1. Thanks Diana! I've seen the name spelled both ways in various publications, but it would seem that you know best. How interesting that she is your ancestor! I'm very jealous. Thanks so much for commenting.