In a scene from the first episode of The Gilded Age, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) cites the rejection of New York society in relation to Alva Vanderbilt, and the reference is perfect because from what we can see, Bertha is a romanticized and edited version of the millionaire and feminist according to with Julian Fellowes‘ vision. And if it’s true, we can expect an amazing series (and season). After all, Alva’s story is nothing short of fascinating.
The reference to American society, mirrored in the Vanderbilts, was already clear in Cora’s character, in Downton Abbey. Like Consuelo, daughter of Alva, Cora married an English Duke, who was bankrupt and needed the young woman’s fortune to recover his finances. In Fellowes’ romanticized version, Cora becomes the Countess of Grantham when she joins Robert Crawley, but although the beginning of their marriage was a financial arrangement, the couple does fall in love over time. Consuelo was not so lucky. The marriage to the Duke of Marlborough was unhappy from start to finish, with the marriage being annulled years later, even with children. An extra curiosity, Consuelo is – because of this union – distant relative of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, but that’s another story!
When thinking about making the prequel to Downton Abbey, the showrunner delved into research into the period known as The Gilded Age and aborted the idea of uniting the series, creating a new one that debuted this week on HBO Max. But the link – and in particular the Vanderbilts – remain a reference.
In The Gilded Age, it is the Russells who made a fortune with the railroads and built a mansion on 5th Avenue, with Bertha embodying many of the characteristics of Alva, the matriarch Vanderbilt who deserves a movie or series about her life. Merging real people (the Astors, the McCallisters, among others) with the fictional ones, the series will recount an important historical moment, where great fortunes arose thanks to industrialization.
The “real” Alva
Born to a southern family that lost all their fortunes in the Civil War, Alva. Her childhood and youth were marked by seasons in Europe and vacations in Newport, so she was an educated and cultured girl. Her best friend, who married an English nobleman, introduced her to William Vanderbilt, who was already a millionaire. The two married and had three children. When they moved to New York, Alva was determined to only circulate among the elite, but she was rejected.
As The Gilded Age will show, there was a party where “only 400” people were invited. The “400 list” that mattered, according to the Astors, did not include the Vanderbilts. Thus was born the rivalry between millionaires. The Vanderbilts’ home, nicknamed “Petit Chateau,” occupied the blocks between West 51st and 52nd Street on 5th Avenue (near what is now Rockefeller Center). The chateau, also known as “the Vanderbilt triple palace” (only one of the houses had 58 rooms), was a project by the same architect who made the Metropolitan Art Museum, Richard Morris Hunt, and decorated with rare pieces of art from Europe. . Very similar to what we are seeing in the series. The building served as the family residence for 64 years, as a symbol of prestige and fortune, but it was demolished in 1945 (precisely by an Astor…)
As far as we’ve seen, Bertha Russell had her first humiliation and promised to turn things around. Alva Vanderbilt did it like this: when she was barred from the Academy of Music, whose directors rejected the “emerging”, Alva founded the Metropolitan Opera House, which to this day is the stage for major productions in Manhattan, but at a different address. The original was demolished in 1967. He also had a marble palace built in Newport, where the rich spent their summer vacations, next to the comparatively much simpler house of the Astors (both houses are open for tours today, you deserve it!). Afterward, she invited all the journalists of the time to visit his house. The visit yielded laudatory articles of their wonders from the Vanderbilts’ collection, creating a wider audience’s curiosity about them. Alva then announced a grand ball for “only” 700 people, but deliberately excluded the young Carrie Astor (who is a character in the HBO Max series), leaving the young woman crying and humiliated. The young woman’s mother was forced to visit Alva to guarantee the invitation to the most disputed and talked about dance in the city, in fact, credited to this day as “the dance of the century”. The Astors’ presence at the party gave the Vanderbilts official acceptance credit. “The time for the Vanderbilts has come”, would have declared Mrs. Caroline Astor.
From then on, it was a period of glory for Alva, but life wasn’t meant to be simple. When she discovered the infidelity of her husband, William, and, instead of following the model of the time of separating but pretending not to know anything, she asked for a divorce, custody of the children, and a good part of the fortune as alimony. She got everything, but she went back to square one socially because again she started to be rejected in large families because of the “scandal”. He managed to reverse the situation again when he forced Consuelo to marry the Duke. Every society in New York wanted to be at the ceremony that turned a Vanderbilt into a noble, and once again they submitted to Alva’s willpower.
However, the disappointment motivated a radical change of thought and this incredible and true Scarlett O’Hara would go down in history as one of the most important feminists of the 19th century. A year after her divorce, she married the banker (and friend of the 1st husband), Oliver Beaumont. With him followed even more millionaire and extravagant, but Oliver died suddenly, a few years later. Heartbroken, Alva embraced politics. Inspired by feminists Ida Husted Harper and Anna Shaw, Alva embraced the cause of women’s suffrage and founded the National Feminist Party (of which she was president until her death), even picketing in front of the White House. Her fortune was then dedicated to the feminist and equality cause. Alva also fought racial segregation, including black and immigrant women in the movements.
His last years were spent in France, to be close to his daughter. In 1932 he suffered a heart attack and died the following year, in Paris, of respiratory problems. At his funeral in New York, only women carried his coffin.
If Bertha Russell does at least a third of what Alva Vanderbilt Beaumont did, The Gilded Age promises to be amazing. I’m cheering! And let’s talk about Consuelo, but of course, in another post.