Celebrating International Women's Day 2021
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
“Men only respect power. So we must be powerful.” -Alva Belmont
Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I’ve had several mini write-ups this week celebrating #WomensHistoryMonth.
In addition to Joy Hancock and Maggie Mace, whom I previously wrote about here, I have posts planned throughout the remainder of March dedicated to (some of) the many #inspiringwomen I admire.
One of those women is Alva Belmont.
This phoenix reimaged herself time and again. From Southern belle to New York’s queen bee; socialite to one of the leaders in the suffrage movement, Alva was the ultimate influencer. Indeed, if social media were around during the 19th century, the Kardashians would be hard-pressed to keep up with her.
But it wasn’t always that way. Married to William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1874, her climb to the top was accomplished through sheer grit and determination. Though it may seem hard to believe by today’s standards, the name Vanderbilt was not always synonymous with status or power. During the early part of the Gilded Age, they were considered “nouveau riche.”
French for “newly rich,” the term is usually used in a derogatory sense and perfectly illustrated in this scene from James Cameron’s Titanic; the DeWitt Bukater’s being of Old Money passed down through inheritance. While Molly Brown bears her social slights with grace, Mrs. Vanderbilt was not so forgiving.
Refusing to be shunned from Caroline Schermerhorn Astor’s “400”, Alva decided to host her own party in 1883. Details were purposely slipped to Town Topics –a cross between Lady Whistledown’s and Page Six- who quickly dubbed it the Ball of the Century. It was all Knickerbocker society talked about for weeks leading up to the event.
A total of 1,200 invitations were issued. Unfortunately, Mrs. Astor’s seemed to have been misplaced. #awkward
This lead to the ladies having a private meeting at Astor’s Fifth Avenue mansion, with Alva effectively usurping the throne.
Similarly, when New York’s Academy of Music refused to give the Vanderbilt’s box seating, Alva circled the wagons and was instrumental in founding Metropolitan Opera House. Game, set, match.
Of course, as the old saying goes, money does not buy happiness. Despite having her own Fifth Avenue palace, summer “cottages” in Newport, RI and Long Island, and the world’s largest yacht, by 1895 the Vanderbilt’s marriage was crumbling. Fed up after years of Willie K’s philandering, and never one to shrink from a challenge, she filed for divorce; tantamount to social suicide at the time.
Enter Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough and titled Earl of Sunderland. Try saying that three times fast.
Nicknamed “Sunny” (short for ‘Sunderland’), he was the nephew of Lord Randolph Churchill and a first cousin to Winston. Titles aside, he was also flat broke. Luckily for him, Alva’s eldest child- Consuelo- had recently made her debut.
An American celebrity marrying into the British peerage? Sounds a bit familiar, wouldn't you say?
In all fairness, Meghan and Harry seem genuinely in love (and, in 2020, subsequently dropped their HRH) whereas the Marlborough’s decidedly were not. Both were deeply attached to other people.
Consuelo’s memoir, “The Glitter and the Gold,” recalls how she had been locked into her room until she agreed to the marriage. If we’re comparing Royals, their relationship is more akin to that of Charles and Diana, which is even more ironic when you consider it was Consuelo who coined the term “the heir and the spare.”
The bride's dowry, a whopping $2.5 million (the equivalent of $77M today), not only bought her a title but effectually squashed any coups aimed at her mother's reign over Newport on this side of the pond. Yes, Alva was a recent divorcee (for shame!) but now she was also Mother of a Duchess.
The relationship between the mother and daughter pair is both complicated and fascinating. With family dynamic being one of the overarching themes of my novel, its also one I drew upon when developing some my own characters, heiress Jennie Martin and her maternal aunt, Gertrude Callaway.
I'm certainly not the first to do so. Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellows, also found the duo inspiring, so much so that he has another project in the works with HBO as I write this.
Can't wait that long?
Check out these reads to tide you over. In contrast to my work, both novels chronicle Alva directly and capture her vitality extremely well.
You can snag Fowler's book here.
Rosen's releases later this spring, on April 20th, but is currently available for pre-order.
Now, you may be wondering, just how does someone go from socialite to suffrage champion?
I mean, what's even remotely likeable (let alone admirable) about a woman who sold her daughter into marriage just to save her own hide? As a mother myself, it's seemingly unimaginable.
But its unfair to judge the situation from a 2021 perspective. Fowler further expounds on the issue in this interview with VIDA stating:
"A man who protected his daughter from an unwise marriage despite her resistance and arranged a far better one for her would be lauded, while Alva has been demonized for doing just that. Her behavior was viewed through a prejudiced lens and represented accordingly, and then those judgments were repeated ad nauseam over the ensuing century.
This is not to say that she was some kind of saint; rather, she was simply a strong woman whose personality didn’t fit the feminine standard, and so she was punished by men as well as women for refusing to keep to her place."
Alva eventually remarried, finding true love in second husband Oliver Belmont. Following his death in 1908, she threw herself into the more meaningful work of advocating for Women's Rights. Some of her more noteworthy contributions include:
- fighting for the inclusion of black women in the suffrage movement
- bankrolling Alice Paul and Lucy Burns
- bringing English suffragists on a U.S. speaking tour in 1914
- writing the satiric operetta "Melinda and her Sisters" in 1916
- helping found the National Women's Party, where she served as President after the ratification of the 19th Amendment
As for Consuelo, her marriage to the Duke was annulled after years of separation. She, too, remarried for love and happily spent her later years with Jacques Balsan.
In 1932, she had a 26,000 home built in Florida, just outside of Palm Beach. The name of the house? Casa Alva- after her mother.