Friday, November 26, 2010

Consuelo Vanderbilt Duchess of Marlborough

Paul Cesar Hellau

Continuing with my theme of Boldini's subjects I bring you Consuelo Vanderbilt.  Consuelo was an heiress born into the prestigious, wealthy American Vanderbilt family.  At the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century European aristocrats were struggling to maintain their country piles, they may have had vast estates, servants and titles but money was thin on the ground, in order to maintain their lifestyles and save their estates a lot of them had to make advantageous marriages to wealthy women usually sought from across the pond, in return the wealthy Americans gained social status and often begrudging acceptance into Europe's ruling classes.

Many of these marriages turned out to be happy unions such as the marriage depicted in Downton Abbey (much missed in the UK but being televised in the US soon) but sadly for Consuelo this was not the case...

Born in New York City, 2nd March 1877, she was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York rail road millionaire, and his first wife, a Mobile, Alabama belle and budding suffragist, Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933, later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont). Her Spanish name was in honour of her godmother, Maria Consuelo Iznaga Clement (1858–1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th Duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)

 Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, Alva, who was determined that Consuelo would make a great marriage like that of her famous namesake, even though she lacked a good pedigree.
In those days, there were many weddings of European aristocrats with American heiresses. For the nobles of the Old World, such unions were shameful, but useful in financial terms; the nobility looked upon the Americans who married into their caste as intruders, unworthy of their new position.

How tiny is that waist!

 In her biography, Consuelo Vanderbilt later 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. She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors and learned foreign languages at an early age. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions. When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva Vanderbilt told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told."

Like her godmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt also 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 Consuelo developed an instant aversion to him. None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt, herself a daughter of a mere merchant. Luckily, as opposed to more than a few contemporary heiresses in search of her particular prince charming, Consuelo Vanderbilt was 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." 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. She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era.

Paul Cesar Hellau

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the pre eminence of the Vanderbilt family in New York society, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the land-rich, money-poor Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget (née Mary "Minnie" Stevens), the daughter of Mrs. 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.

Unfortunately Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd 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. 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 on death's door did the gullible girl acquiesce. 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. The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected $2.5 million (approximately $75 million today) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement. 

Blenheim Palace, the Marlborough Family Seat

Consuelo Vanderbilt was married at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, New York, on 6 November 1895, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871–1934) They had two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (who became 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.

 John Singer Sargant

Giovanni Boldini, Consuelo with Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill

The new duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, to whom she visited and provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children. She was also a social success with royalty and the aristocracy of Britain. 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. The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband's handsome cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents) while 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.

The Marlboroughs separated in 1906, divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and Consuelo's assent, on 19 August 1926.

 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." In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.

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

Consuelo with Winston Churchill

After the annulment with the Duke of Marlborough, she still maintained ties with favourite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill (who was himself the son of an American mother). He was a frequent visitor to her château, in St. 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.

The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Balsan's insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, was published in 1953; it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times. A reviewer in the New York Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."

She died at Southampton, Long Island, New York on 6 December 1964, and 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.

Consuelo's autobiography the Glitter and the Gold is available here

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, is available here

Text Source from Wikipedia


  1. Superbes photos empreintes de nostalgie.
    Quelle merveilleuse époque pleine de romantisme.
    Merci de nous la faire revivre.

  2. I enjoyed this post so much particularly the mix of history, photography and art.
    I look forward to reading more about Consuelo Vanderbuilt now!

    1. Elizabeth Arnault-DurellJanuary 30, 2014 at 8:34 AM

      Voulez-vous dire: consuelo vanderbilt (1877-1964) -Pinterest
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      Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877-1964), onetime Duchess ...

  3. Another interesting post Dash! I love learning about these women that otherwise I never would have heard of :-)

  4. Great reading for historical events and educational benefits. I enjoy reading autobiographies that contains good plots, historical dates and just down right personal lives on a daily basis.

  5. Elizabeth Arnault-DurellJanuary 28, 2014 at 10:30 PM

    As a child, in the 60s (I am French), I was in an international school in St Maur near Châteauroux (France), with Humbert Balsan who became a film Producer ( Le Destin / Y-aura-t-il de la neige à Noël ...) the Balsan family is very well known in Châteauroux ( they used to make the uniforms for the soldiers (1st world war) and later they made carpets) Years later, as an English teacher, with my school, I visited Blenheim Palace near Oxford and when passing the portrait by J Singer Sargant where she is with her husband,her two sons and a little dog (see above), I had a very strange feeling and couldn't take my eyes out of this portrait, I know this can sound strange but I saw the distress on her face and for a brief moment I have the feeling we communicated !! On the coach, returning to our base in London, I mentioned this portrait to one of my colleagues, it seemed I was the only one who spotted this portrait. As my colleague had bought the Palace brochure, she gave it to me and I started to read to know more about Consuelo and (I didn't know at the time) and was amazed to dicover that after her divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough she married Jack Balsan ( J Balsan is well known here in Châteauroux as a pilot and I had heard about him from my friend Humbert when I was a child). I couldn't believe it. It was too late to buy her biography and it took a bit of time before I could manage to get it. I read it straight away , couldn't leave the book and then I understood why she looked so sad on this portrait. I must have read the book at least five times, started to translate it for French people but I gave up because I couldn't get the permission to publish ! Eventually I wrote a long article for the local newspaper and contributed to an exhibition at the Médiathèque in Châteauroux in December 1998 . When working at this exhibition I met Madame Jacqueline de Montalembert who was born Balsan and was Consuelo's great grand niece. As we say in French "cerise sur le gâteau", I spent an unforgettable afternoon at Velles where she lives, she told me anecdotes about her auntie Consuelo and even about Winston Churchill. I was there, in the middle of France, listening to this lovely Lady , what a wonderful memory, that was so exciting, the feeling I could nearly touch Consuelo!!

    1. What a remarkable story. You must have Scots blood. As it happens I am acquainted with Béatrice de Montalembert who had such an interesting story of WWII. Please think of me at Warm regards, Adrienne Brown

  6. Hi, I was enjoying your website when I noticed that you have the incorrect surname for Consuelo Yznaga. She was never known as Iznaga Clement nor did she ever represent herself as Iznaga Clement. Your lovely page shows: " Her Spanish name was in honour of her godmother, Maria Consuelo Iznaga Clement (1858–1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th Duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)" yet if you look at Consuelo Vanderbilt's Wikipedia page,, the same text shows her godmother's name as Consuelo Yznaga. Also, this link to "Willie K. Vanderbilt II: A Biography" and it also shows Consuelo name as Yznaga, not Iznaga Clement. You reference a book “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt” if you check this link, it will show Consuelo Yznaga, not Iznaga Clement. There are many more references I can offer if you are interested. Hope I have been of some help in maintaining the integrity and accuracy of your website.

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