The Story of Consuelo Vanderbilt

I’m one of the biggest fans of The Gilded Age series, which had a great first season and chances to improve even more in the second, in 2023. What’s interesting is that despite being a fictional story, there are mentions of facts and inclusion from real people, which makes the plot even more fascinating. While the Brook-Van Rhijn family is straight out of Julian Fellowes‘ imagination, the Russells’ trajectory is 100% inspired by the fascinating history of the Vanderbilts, in particular Alva Vanderbilt.

As we saw with Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) it is extremely important for her to conquer a prestigious place in the demanding society of New York, led by the snobbish Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy). All the tricks that were made to bring the two together are inspired by real situations, including the ball that closed the second season.

Among the various stories to be developed in the second season is that of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the daughter of Alva, the American who became a Duchess (long before Meghan Markle or Wallis Simpson) who is the mirror of Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga). Ironically, Consuelo was also the inspiration for Downton Abbey‘s Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and we’ll see why.

The “new rich” who became an American Duchess

Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, in New York. Her parents, William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith–Vanderbilt, were millionaires. Her mother, determined to be “someone”, carefully attended to every detail of her life, in such a notorious way that conflicts were inevitable from an early age

Very pretty, Consuelo was the asset that the Vanderbilts calculatedly valued. Their fortune and surname could only be linked to someone superior or equal to them. Even her name was chosen already signaling what awaited her. Consuelo was the name of a friend of Alva who, through marriage, became the Duchess of Manchester. Alva was determined that for her daughter, only Dukes or Princes served as a husband.

Alva, as we know, was a practical and ambitious woman who married William and worked with him to make the Vanderbilts a household name. Their mansions in Manhattan took up more than a city block, just as the one in Newport looked like a castle. Consuelo enjoyed simple things like crabbing, fishing, and sailing, activities she shared with her father. With her mother, it was another story: chores, parties, and social politics. Summers spent in Newport at the colossal Marble House were compared to being in “a prison”, all because of maternal pressure.

But the worst was yet to come. When her father fell in love with another woman, Consuelo saw herself as her mother’s salvation. That’s because Alva did the unthinkable at the time: she filed for divorce. The scandal reached unimaginable proportions, destroying all efforts to be a reference in society. After all, being betrayed was “acceptable”, but being independent? No way. To make matters worse, Alva quickly married millionaire Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. She had to tame society again and she knew it would be through Consuelo, who had an estimated inheritance of 20 million dollars, something around four billion dollars in current times.

By this time, as with Gladys in The Gilded Age, Consuelo was in love and truly committed to a wealthy young man, Winthrop Rutherfurd. But albeit rich, he was neither noble nor English, and Alva objected. She had stopped any contact between the lovers, be it correspondence or dates. She embarked with her daughter on a trip to Europe, with Winthrop on their heels. To try to discourage Consuelo once and for all, Alva made up a story that the young man couldn’t have children. After the future duchess unsuccessfully tried to run away from home, she was locked in her room.

The real obstacle lay in the fact that she had already found her ideal son-in-law: a bankrupt English nobleman who held the pompous title of Duke of Marlborough. Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill (that’s right, a distant relative of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill) could be described as “grumpy, critical, suspicious and without intellectual qualities”, but in Alva’s eyes he was perfect for her daughter. Not necessarily for Consuelo herself, but she had no say in the matter. As a last recourse Alva lied that she was terminally ill and her last wish was this union. She (finally) won.

The wedding was even more sumptuous than the “Ball of the 400” that had already made history. All the people who had excluded Alva after the divorce begged for an invitation, in a ceremony surrounded by ostentation and hysteria. Spectators spent the night on the sidewalk to see the party guests and especially the bride. All the newspapers spoke of the trousseau: from pink lace corsets and gold hooks, to silk stockings held together by garters encrusted with diamonds. But guests noted that the bride walked down the aisle in tears and still had to wait for her husband, who arrived late for the ceremony after last-minute negotiations to squeeze more out of Vanderbilt’s fortune, somewhere around $2.5 million, over 25 million today.

Unsurprisingly, history describes their union as “one of the unhappiest marriages in history,” yet another of the “dollars for dukes” arrangements common at the time for wealthy Americans. Consuelo was one of nine young women who made such a marriage in 1895 and even without love or control over her life, she built a family as the Duchess of Malborough, with two children who ensured the continuity of the family.

Popularity with Royalty, unhappiness at home

Consuelo had to adapt to a loveless marriage, a new home – Blenheim Palace, which used part of the dowry to be recovered – and a new country. Still, she managed to shine. She quickly went on to dinner with royalty, hunting parties and balls, becoming such a popular celebrity in England that she was one of four duchesses chosen to carry Queen Alexandra’s canopy at Edward VII’s coronation.

With a sham marriage and a husband more busy restoring Blenheim and participating in hunting trips or dinners, Consuelo starts to travel frequently to Paris, where she has fun and reunites with her adored father. In England, her friendship with her husband’s cousin, Winston, and their children are her solace. After 11 years of trying their best, official split after Duke falls in love with another.

Legally free, she does not immediately return to the United States and remains in London, because of her children, forced to be in England until they reach the age of majority. That’s how, like her mother at this point in time, she became involved in the fight for women’s suffrage and other social causes. But soon he would be completely happy.

Before falling in love with Winthrop Rutherfurd, when she was just 17 years old, Consuelo had been involved with Jacques Balsan, a Frenchman who would go on to make aviation history, but was virtually “nobody” in that first meeting. When Consuelo moved to Europe, they were in the same social circle again and soon the teenage passion returned in full force. Twenty-seven years later, the two finally got married. Love Wins.

Love always wins

To confirm before God that her union with Jacques, Consuelo was bold as her mother would be. In 1927, she asked for the annulment of her first marriage because it was “against her will”. To confirm, she needed precisely Alva’s testimony to confess that she forced her daughter to marry the Duke. By this time, Alva had completely changed. Disappointed with the superficiality of capitalist society, she dedicated herself to feminist and humanitarian causes. Without any embarrassment of the role she played in her daughter’s unhappiness she officially addmited that “I have always had absolute power over my daughter. When I issued an order, no one discussed it. So I did not beg, but ordered her to marry the duke.” And just like that, Consuelo was able to marry Jacques in a church.

Consuelo and Jacques were extremely happy in their marriage. First they lived in France, but with the 2nd World War they returned to the United States. After Jacques’ death, Consuelo divides her time between New York and Southampton. She lived until 1964 and died at the age of 88, still maintaining her majesty.

Consuelo’s versions in Fellowes’ universe

With this fascinating trajectory, it is no surprise that Consuelo has inspired characters in fiction. In Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes has Cora marrying Robert Crawley under similar circumstances (a union negotiated for money), but creating a genuine love story between them. In The Gilded Age, he took a different turn, as Gladys Russell is already living closely the story of Consuelo Vanderbilt. The confirmation that we will have a Duke of Buckingham (Ben Lamb) in the upcoming season demonstrates that we can now have something closer to the true story that inspired the series.

At this point, even with all the drama from Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), Gladys will be one of the main characters… do you agree?


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