Saturday, November 10, 2018

DAY 73: A Girl Called Alva

Alva Vanderbilt, in a portrait at Newport's Marble House
Jennie Churchill had a number of remarkable friends, but the toughest and perhaps most resourceful was undoubtedly Alva Erskine-Smith, of Mobile, AL and New York, who became Alva Vanderbilt the year after Jennie married Randolph. I won't presume to tell her story here--Therese Anne Fowler has just done so in her new novel, A Well-Behaved Woman. Alva was a force of nature, something Jennie recognized early in life. They met during the Civil War, at Delmonico's Family Dancing Classes, when the Smith family had fled warfare in the South and taken refuge in Manhattan and Newport. Their friendship continued in France, when both girls attended the same boarding school outside Paris from age 13.

Alva used the Vanderbilt money to wage war on Caroline Astor's control of New York Society, with houses and glittering, exclusive parties as her chosen weapons. In 1883, while Consuelo Yznaga and her feckless husband, George, Viscount Mandeville, were staying at Alva's spanking new chateau on Fifth Avenue, the Vanderbilts threw a ball to both consecrate the new house and employ Connie's title on their own social behalf. (Connie's brother Fernando had married Alva's younger sister, so the two women were in some sense relatives.)
Vanderbilt Mansion, 5th Avenue, later demolished

Alva in costume dress, as a Venetian noblewoman, with live doves.
The Vanderbilt Costume Ball went down in Gilded Age history. Alva cleverly understood that Lina Astor's debutante daughter was dying for an invitation, which Alva could not extend--because Caroline Astor had never called upon the Vanderbilts, a necessary form of social recognition. Caroline paid the call, her daughter received an invitation to the Vanderbilt Costume Ball, and Alva's social career was launched. 

Her prominence allowed the rest of the Vanderbilts--who prior to Alva had been regarded as too "new money"--to climb New York's ladder behind her. Here's an image of her sister-in-law Alice Vanderbilt's Worth-designed costume for the ball. Alice went as Electric Light, and carried a lit electric bulb above her head. Talk about GILDED! The gown is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Her Grace the Duchess of Marlborough

he last and perhaps greatest social weapon in Alva's arsenal was her daughter, Consuelo, whom she'd named after the Viscountess Mandeville. Alva was determined to marry her off to a European titled nobleman, preferably an English duke, and thought Jennie's financially strapped nephew, Sunny--the 9th Duke of Marlborough--was an obvious choice. With the help of her three oldest friends, Alva secured Sunny's attention, and he married Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895. Consuelo's account of the entire proceeding in her memoir, The Glitter and the Gold, suggests she regarded herself for many years as a victim of her mother's rapacity for social prominence. Here she is in her official robes for Bertie's coronation as Edward VII in 1902--notice the pearl and diamond dog collar on her incredibly swanlike neck, for which she was famous. Her father had given her the tiara on her wedding day.
For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.  

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