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When Consuelo Vanderbilt's grandfather died, he was the richest man in America. Her father soon started to spend the family fortune, enthusiastically supported by Consuelo's mother, Alva, who was determined to take the family to the top of New York society—forcing a heartbroken Consuelo into a marriage she did not want with the underfunded Duke of Marlborough. But the story of Consuelo and Alva is more than a tale of enterprising social ambition, Gilded Age glamour, and the emptiness of wealth. It is a ...
When Consuelo Vanderbilt's grandfather died, he was the richest man in America. Her father soon started to spend the family fortune, enthusiastically supported by Consuelo's mother, Alva, who was determined to take the family to the top of New York society—forcing a heartbroken Consuelo into a marriage she did not want with the underfunded Duke of Marlborough. But the story of Consuelo and Alva is more than a tale of enterprising social ambition, Gilded Age glamour, and the emptiness of wealth. It is a fascinating account of two extraordinary women who struggled to break free from the world into which they were born—a world of materialistic concerns and shallow elitism in which females were voiceless and powerless—and of their lifelong dedication to noble and dangerous causes and the battle for women's rights.
As the delay lengthened and nervousness grew, selfappointed society experts in the crowd had time to debate one important question: had anyone seen the Vanderbilt family, whose apotheosis this was alleged to be? There could be no dispute that Vanderbilt gold was a powerful chemical element at work in St Thomas Church on 6 November 1895. It had given the bride her singular aura; it had drawn a duke from England; and without it, Alva would not now be waiting anxiously for her daughter to arrive. Scintillae of Vanderbilt gold dust brushed everything on the morning of Consuelo's wedding, from the fronds of asparagus fern to the glinting lorgnettes in the crowd outside. It was remarkable, therefore, that apart from the father-of-the bride, its chief purveyors should be so conspicuously absent; and even more striking that this scarcely mattered because of the force of character of the bride's Vanderbilt great-grandfather, whose ancestral shade still hovered over the players in the morning's drama as if he were alive.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the House of Vanderbilt, lingered in the collective memory partly because he laid down the basis of the family's extraordinary wealth; and partly because of the robust manner in which he did it. He died in 1877, a few weeks before Consuelo was born, but he left a complex legacy and no examination of the lives of Alva and Consuelo is complete without first exploring it.
Fable attached itself to Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as 'Commodore' Vanderbilt, Head of the House of Vanderbilt, even in his lifetime. He generally did little to discourage this, but one misconception that irritated him was that the Vanderbilts were a 'new' family and he embarked on genealogical research to prove his point. However, he held matters up for several years by placing an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper in 1868 which read: 'Where and who are the Dutch relations of the Vanderbilts?', causing such offence that none of the Dutch relations could bring themselves to reply.1
More tactful experts later traced the Vanderbilts' roots back to one Jan Aertson from the Bild in Holland who arrived in America around 1650. A lowly member of the social hierarchy exported by the Dutch West India Company, Jan Aertson Van Der Bilt worked as an indentured servant to pay for his passage and then acquired a bowerie or small farm in Flatbush, Long Island. His descendants traded land from Algonquin Indians on Staten Island, starting a long association between the Vanderbilts and the Staten Island community of New Dorp. They also joined the Protestant Moravian sect, whose members fled from persecution in Europe in the earlyeighteenth century and settled nearby. The Vanderbilt family mausoleum is to be found at the peaceful and beautiful Moravian cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island to this day.2
In a development that goes against the grain of immigration success stories, the Vanderbilt family arrived in America early enough to suffer a downturn in its fortunes in the mid-eighteenth century. Just at the point when the Staten Island farm became prosperous, it was repeatedly sub-divided by inheritance and by the time the Commodore was born in 1794, his father was scratching a subsistence living on a small plot, and ferrying vegetables to market on a periauger, a flat-bottomed sailing boat evolved from the Dutch canal scow. Historians of the family portray this Vanderbilt of prehistory as feckless and inclined to impractical schemes, but he compensated for his deficiencies by marrying a strong-minded, hard-working, frugal wife of English descent, Phebe Hands. Her family had also been ruined, by a disastrous investment in Continental bonds. They had nine children. The Commodore was their eldest son.
Circumstances thus conspired to provide the Commodore with what are now known to be many of the most common characteristics in the background of a great entrepreneur: a weak father and a 'frontier mother'; a marked dislike of formal education (he hated school and spelt 'according to common sense'); and a humble background.3 A humble background is almost mandatory in nineteenthcentury American myth-making about the virtuous self-made man, but it was a characteristic the Commodore genuinely shared with others such as John Jacob Astor, Alexander T. Stewart and Jay Gould. After his death the Commodore was accused of being phrenologically challenged with a 'bump of acquisitiveness' in a 'chronic state of inflammation all the time', but he was not alone in finding that childhood poverty and near illiteracy ignited a very fierce flame.4 More unusually for a great entrepreneur, the Commodore was neither small nor puny. He developed enormous physical strength, accompanied by strong-boned good looks, a notorious set of flying fists and a streak of rabid competitiveness. Charismatic vigour, combined with a lurking potential for violence, made him a force to be reckoned with from an early age and even as a youth he developed a reputation for epic profanity and colourful aggression that never left him.
The Vanderbilt fortune was made in transportation. Its origins lay in the first regular Staten Island ferry service to Manhattan, started by the Commodore in a periauger, under sail, while he was still in his teens. From there his career reads like a successful case study in a textbook for business students. He ploughed back the profits from his first periauger ferry service until he owned a fleet. He expanded into other waters and bought coasting schooners. Then, when others had taken the risk out of steamship technology, he sold his sailing ships and embraced the age of steam, founding the Dispatch Line and acquiring the nickname 'Commodore' as he built it up.
The Dispatch Line ran safer and faster steamships than any of its competitors to Albany up the Hudson, and along the New England coast as far as Boston up Long Island Sound disembarking at Norwalk, New Haven, Connecticut and Providence. Between 1829 and 1835, the Commodore moved easily into the role of capitalist entrepreneur, profiting from . . .
Excerpted from Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart Copyright © 2006 by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 29, 2009
Before reading this book I had not a clue about the Vanderbilt's. To author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, thank you for a fine book. In getting started I did twenty minutes here, twenty there and realized I looked forward daily to the next page. Once Consuelo marries a weak example of an English Duke, the reader follows a story of a duo, (the other, Alva, her mother) tackling issues and maintaining position at the top of the social latter. Consuelo seemed out of luck in having no voice about marriage yet in the end her life's experience was full and productive. She became an intellectual entity during her British "occupation" or should I say survival. Philanthropy helped Consuelo keep her sense of person. Her duty to the Duke however."I gave you an heir and a spare." I wonder how many times she may well have said, ".and you will not touch me again." A stylish and beautiful woman with an unforgettable posture, thanks to her Mom, she was painted and photographed and sought after. She seems to have been a very likable person said having a unique voice, approachable by all. The reader will feel the tenseness of Consuelo's escape from the Nazi's in France with only the clothes her back finding a way to the Spanish shore looking for help back to the States. The stories about Mrs. John Jacob Astor brought smiles and moments for pause. Alva's role in the quest for women's suffrage is important while she still plays top host to the lifestyle of her exclusive circle. Her strength and steady deportment began in childhood and from then on she picked her battles and won. Not everything actually.
Stuart's style of writing is accelerated at times. The dictionary may be necessary. A great selection of black and white and color images give good visual understanding of periods and moments both subjects had in life. Consuelo was quite a beautiful woman. The Giovanni Boldini portrait of Consuelo is still at the Met. in NYC. It is a large piece. She is captivating, really breath taking. And the etching of Consuelo by Helleu is rapturous.
My faults with the book: too many personalities at times. It does not kill the reading however. Don't know about this piece of history, read this, you will enjoy.
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Posted September 1, 2009
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