Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt
The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age
By Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
(HarperCollins, Hardcover, 9780066214184, 608pp.)
Publication Date: January 2006
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On a November day in 1895, crowds of curious sightseers gathered outside St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, intent on spotting a small dapper bridegroom whom they knew to be a great English aristocrat awaiting his bride-to-be. When she arrived, twenty minutes late, anyone who caught a glimpse beneath Consuelo Vanderbilt's veil would have seen that her face was swollen from crying.
When Consuelo'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. She was adamant that her daughter should make a grand marriage, and the underfunded Duke of Marlborough was just the thing. It didn't matter that Consuelo loved someone else; as Alva once told her, "I don't ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you're told."
However, the story of Consuelo and Alva is not simply one of the emptiness of wealth, of the glamour of the Gilded Age, and of enterprising social ambition. This is a fascinating account of how two women struggled to break free from the deeply materialistic world into which they were born, taking up the fight for female equality. Consuelo threw herself into good works; Winston Churchill encouraged her to make her first public speech, and her social and political campaigns proved an antidote to loneliness. Alva embraced the militant suffragette movement in America, helping to bring the fight for the vote to its triumphant conclusion and campaigning vehemently for women's rights until she died. In this brilliant and engrossing book, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart suggests that behind the most famous transatlantic marriage of all lies an extraordinary tale of the quest for female power.
“A saga of transatlantic maneuvers worthy of Henry James or Edith Wharton.”
“Compellingly readable… [Mackenzie Stuart] writes... with the eye of an accomplished historian and with profound sympathy for the central figures.”
“Fascinating... A thoughtful portrait of two strong, well-educated women who were more than the measure of their extreme wealth.”
“Impeccably researched . . . Mackenzie Stuart’s history marshals an impressive trove of primary documents.”
-The New Yorker
“A riveting story... Alva and Consuelo emerge as unique and fascinating characters... A very entertaining read.”
“[A] fascinating dual biography.”
“[A] deftly contextualized account.”
“Book lovers, Anglophiles and social historians alike will find much to please them in this fine, well-researched biography.”
“Skilfully and sympathetically told. . . . Brilliant.”
-Antonia Fraser, The Times (London)
“Riveting . . . [An] excellent biography . . . Mackenzie Stuart narrates with an elegance equal to her subject’s.”
-Francine du Plessix Gray, New York Times Book Review
“An intimate look at two women whose lives reveal changing social patterns. Just fascinating.”
“Mackenzie Stuart has skillfully integrated a great deal of research... and she gives a rich sense of both women.”
-Washington Post Book World
“Astute. . . . A lively narrative. . . . Written with impressive verve and confidence.”
“highly readable, well constructed, novelish biography…a confident and compelling book.”