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Consuelo Vanderbilt

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Consuelo Vanderbilt
c. 1900–05
Consuelo Vanderbilt

(1877-03-02)2 March 1877
Manhattan, New York City, United States
Died6 December 1964(1964-12-06) (aged 87)
Southampton, New York, United States
Resting placeSt Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England
(m. 1895; div. 1921)
(m. 1921; died 1956)

Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan (formerly Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt; 2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964) was an American socialite and member of the Vanderbilt family. Her first marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough has become a well-known example of the advantageous, but loveless marriages common during the Gilded Age.[1] The Duke obtained a large dowry through the marriage and reportedly told her just after the wedding that he married her in order to "save Blenheim Palace", his ancestral home.[2]

Although Consuelo was opposed to the marriage arranged by her mother, she became a popular and influential duchess. For much of their 25-year marriage, the Marlboroughs lived separately; after an official separation in 1906, the couple was divorced in 1921, followed by an annulment in 1926. Her first marriage produced two sons, John and Ivor. She went on to marry the wealthy French aviator Jacques Balsan and continued her charitable endeavours. Consuelo and Balsan lived in France prior to World War II, then moved to the United States. As stipulated in her will, she was buried near her younger son, Lord Ivor, at St Martin's Church, not far from Blenheim Palace.[3]

Early life

Consuelo as a child
Consuelo as a teenager

Born in New York City, Consuelo was the only daughter and eldest child of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, Alva Erskine Smith, a Southern belle, budding suffragist, and daughter of Murray Forbes Smith. Consuelo's Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Consuelo Yznaga, a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who had created a social stir in 1876 when she married the fortune-hunting George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (later 8th Duke of Manchester), a union of Old World aristocracy and New World money.

Consuelo was largely dominated by her mother, who was determined that her daughter would make a great match like that of her famous namesake. In her autobiography, Consuelo described how she was required to wear a steel rod, which ran down her spine and fastened around her waist and over her shoulders, to improve her posture.[4] She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors, and learned foreign languages at an early age.[5] Her mother whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions,[6] and when, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told".[7]

Like her godmother, Consuelo attracted numerous title-bearing suitors anxious to trade social position for cash. Her mother reportedly received at least five proposals for her hand. Consuelo was allowed to consider the proposal of just one of the men, Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, but she developed an instant aversion to him.[8] None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva, herself the daughter of a cotton broker.

Consuelo was considered a great beauty, with a face compelling enough to cause the playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write, "I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage".[9] Oxford undergraduate Guy Fortescue later described how he and his friends were captivated by her "piquante oval face perched upon a long slender neck, her enormous dark eyes fringed with curling lashes, her dimples, and her tiny teeth when she smiled".[10] She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era.[10]

First marriage

The Duchess of Marlborough, c. 1903, by Paul César Helleu

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family, Alva engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the indebted, titled Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget, the wife of Sir Arthur Paget. Born as Mary "Minnie" Stevens, Lady Paget was the daughter of Marietta Reed Stevens, the socially ambitious widow of American hotel entrepreneur Paran Stevens, who had successfully obtained admittance to the exclusive New York society of the fabled "Four Hundred". Lady Paget, always short of money, soon became a sort of international marital agent, introducing eligible American heiresses to British noblemen.[11]

Consuelo had no interest in the Duke, being secretly engaged to Winthrop Rutherfurd, an American socialite 15 years her senior.[12] Her mother cajoled, wheedled, begged, and then, ultimately, ordered her daughter to marry the Duke. When Consuelo — a docile teenager whose only notable characteristic at the time was abject obedience to her fearsome mother — made plans to elope, she was locked in her room as Alva threatened to murder Rutherfurd.[13] Still she refused. It was only when it was claimed that Alva's health was being seriously and irretrievably undermined by Consuelo's stubbornness, and she appeared to be at death's door, that the malleable girl acquiesced.[14] Alva made an astonishing recovery from her supposed illness, and when the wedding took place, Consuelo stood at the altar reportedly weeping behind her veil.[15] The Duke, for his part, allegedly gave up the woman he loved back in England and collected $2,500,000 ($91,600,000 in 2023 dollars) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement.[16]

Consuelo, c. 1910

Consuelo married the 9th Duke of Marlborough at Saint Thomas Church, Manhattan, on 6 November 1895.[17] They had two sons, John Albert Edward William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (later 10th Duke of Marlborough and a godson of the future King Edward VII)[18] in 1897, and Lord Ivor Charles Spencer-Churchill in 1898.[19]

The new Duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, whom she visited and to whom she provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children.[20] She was also a social success with the royalty and aristocracy of Britain.[21]

However, given the ill-fitting match between the Duke and his wife, it was only a matter of time before their relationship was in name only. A few years into their marriage, Consuelo reconnected with Winthrop Rutherfurd and went on to spend two weeks in Paris with him. Soon after, she confessed to her husband that she loved Rutherford and wished to elope with him (the Duke's second wife, Gladys, went on to imply that his and Consuelo's second son was actually Rutherfurd's). In 1900, with the Duke's reluctant permission, she went to London to discuss the elopement with Rutherfurd, only for him to refuse her. In despair, the Duke set off for South Africa, where his cousin, Winston Churchill, was serving in the Second Boer War. He was away for six months, returning in July 1900. Upon his return, Consuelo confessed to having an affair with his cousin, Reginald Fellowes.[22][23][24] She may also have had an affair with the artist Paul César Helleu, who portrayed her several times in his sketches and pastel artwork. The artist's daughter believed that Helleu and Consuelo probably had an affair between 1900 and 1901, which continued after his return to Paris, where she visited him and sat for him again.[25] By this time the Duke and Duchess had completely stopped being intimate, and soon the Duke fell for Gladys Deacon, an eccentric American of little money but, like Consuelo, dazzling to look at and of considerable intellect.[26] After Consuelo's affair and planned elopement with the married Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry,[27] the Marlboroughs separated in 1906, divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the Duke's request and with Consuelo's assent, on 19 August 1926.[28]

Consuelo and Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace, 1902

Though largely embarked upon as a way to facilitate the Anglican Duke's desire to convert to Roman Catholicism, the annulment, to the surprise of many, was also fully supported by Consuelo's mother, who testified that the Vanderbilt–Marlborough marriage had been an act of unmistakable coercion. "I forced my daughter to marry the Duke", Alva told an investigator, adding, "I have always had absolute power over my daughter".[28] In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.

Marriage settlement and personal fortune


As one of the wealthiest and most well-known "dollar princesses" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the financial settlement at the center of the union of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough continues to attract commentary and reference more than a century after the wedding took place.

The marriage settlement provided for the Duke to receive a $2,500,000 trust that would pay $100,000 per year. Consuelo also received a further $100,000 per year. The combined annual income of $200,000 (£40,000) more than doubled the income the Duke had enjoyed from his estates prior to the marriage. Consuelo and the Duke also acquired several large gifts from her father, William K. Vanderbilt, including a palatial London townhouse and a reported sum of $1,000,000 in cash to mark the Duke's safe return from South Africa. Consequently, the total amount given to Consuelo, her first husband and children during her father's lifetime and in his will was at least $15,000,000 and possibly as high as $30,000,000.

The Duke's trust

The Duke received 50,000 shares of Beech Creek Railroad stock, valued at $2,500,000, which was to be placed in trust, with a guaranteed income of at least 4% ($100,000 or £20,000) per year to be paid to the Duke for his lifetime, and then to Consuelo if she survived him. Following the deaths of both Consuelo and the Duke, the income from the trust would be paid to the next Duke of Marlborough, provided that he was a descendant of the 9th Duke. In the event of Consuelo and the Duke not being survived by a son or male-line descendant, the trust would vest in their other descendants, which the Duke had the power to appoint by deed or will.[29]

A 1944 court ruling in the Chancery Division of the English High Court of Justice held that death duties on this trust had become payable by Consuelo's son, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, upon the death of the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1934, despite the fact that the income was still being paid to Consuelo for the remainder of her lifetime.[30] The duties, with interest added for the period between the 9th Duke's death and 12 April 1946 were paid in 1946, and amounted to approximately £175,000.

Consuelo's trust

Part of the marriage settlement took the form of a covenant made by William K. Vanderbilt to pay Consuelo $100,000 annually for their joint lifetimes; this provided for the payment of $2,500,000 within a year of his death to Consuelo's trustees, with the income to be derived by her for the remainder of her lifetime. If she predeceased the 9th Duke, the income was to be paid to him for his life, and following both of their deaths, the trust would vest in the couple's children, unless Consuelo made an alternative appointment in her will.

Following William K. Vanderbilt's death in 1920, the $2,500,000 were treated as a debt against his estate that was duly transferred to Consuelo's trustees.[31]


In the early years of their marriage, it was rumoured that enquiries were made by Consuelo's father and husband as to whether the ancestral London townhouse of the Dukes of Marlborough, Marlborough House, could be recovered from the Crown Estate. Once it had become apparent that this could not be achieved, William K. Vanderbilt paid $380,000 for a parcel of land on Curzon Street where a large townhouse, Sunderland House (Earl of Sunderland, a subsidiary title of the Duke of Marlborough, was used as a courtesy by the 9th Duke before his grandfather's death and resulted in his nickname "Sunny"), was to be built for his daughter and son-in-law. A further $500,000 was reportedly spent on the construction, and more than $1,000,000 on fitting out and furnishing the new building. The total cost of the mansion was later reported as being in excess of $2,500,000.[32]

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Consuelo accepted the British Government's request to borrow the house for the use of the Interallied War Council. Sunderland House was sold by the Marlboroughs in 1919.[33]

Father's estate and inheritance

In the months prior to and following the death of Consuelo's father in August 1920, it was rumoured that he had gifted her $15,000,000. The speculation was serious enough to result in a representative of the New York State Tax Office being quote in The New York Times as stating that litigation could arise as to whether the gift would be subject to more than $500,000 in inheritance taxes.[31]

Besides the $2,500,000 that William K. Vanderbilt had pledged to transfer to Consuelo's trustees after his death and which formed part of her marriage settlement, his will provided for a further $2,500,000 to be placed in trust for Consuelo's benefit, with her brothers, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. and Harold S. Vanderbilt, as trustees. Following her death, the principal of this additional $2,500,000 trust was to be paid to her children. Her two sons also received $1,000,000 each.

In addition, Consuelo benefited from $1,670,000 derived from a trust established by her grandfather, William H. Vanderbilt. Following his death in 1885, each of his eight children received a $5,000,000 trust from his estate. The Anderson and Anderson report in August 1920 noted that the will of William K. Vanderbilt did not make any provisions as to the distribution of this trust, and as a result the principal vested in equal shares between Consuelo and her two brothers.[34]

Consuelo also received a reversionary interest in her father's French properties at 10 & 11 Rue Leroux, Paris and a château in Normandy, in which her stepmother had a life-interest.[31]

Second marriage and later life

Consuelo's grave at St Martin's Church, Bladon, England

Consuelo's second wedding, on 4 July 1921, was to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, aircraft, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Also a textile manufacturing heir, Balsan was the younger brother of Étienne Balsan, an early lover of Coco Chanel.[35] Their marriage lasted until Balsan's death in 1956 at the age of 88.[36]

After the end of her first marriage, Consuelo still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill. He was a frequent visitor at her château in Saint-Georges-Motel, a small commune near Dreux about 50 miles from Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s.[37]

Records in Florida show that in 1932 Consuelo built a house in Manalapan, just south of Palm Beach. The 26,000 square feet mansion was designed by Maurice Fatio and named "Casa Alva", in honor of her mother; the property was sold in 1957. Many believe that, in 1946, Churchill polished his famous Iron Curtain speech here, as he visited Consuelo on his way to Missouri to deliver the address at Westminster College.[38][39]

As Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan, she published her insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, in 1953. In spite of suggestions that it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times, Preston consistently denied that role while admitting to unspecified involvement with the book.[40] A reviewer in The Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance".[41]

Consuelo died in Southampton, Long Island, New York, on 6 December 1964. She was buried near her younger son, Lord Ivor, in the churchyard at St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, not far from her former home, Blenheim Palace.[42] Her estate was estimated to be not in excess of $2,000,000, with the majority of her income being derived from trusts which would devolve upon her sons after her death. The primary beneficiary of her personal estate, including her residence in Southampton and her jewels, was her eldest granddaughter, Lady Sarah.[43]

Public service


During World War I, Consuelo worked as the chair of the Economic Relief Committee for the American Women's War Relief Fund.[44]

During the interwar period, she and Winaretta Singer-Polignac (the Princess de Polignac and Singer Sewing Machine heiress) worked together in the construction of a 360-bed hospital destined to provide medical care to middle class workers. The result of this effort is the Foch Hospital, located in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris. The hospital also includes a school of nursing and is one of the top ranked hospitals in France, especially for renal transplants. It has remained true to its origins and stayed a private not-for-profit institution that still serves the Paris community. It is managed by the Fondation Médicale Franco-Américaine du Mont-Valérien, commonly known as Foch Foundation.



  1. ^ "How American Dollar Princesses Changed British Nobility". Ancestry. 25 January 2016. Retrieved 16 October 2022.
  2. ^ Vanderbilt, Amanda Mackenzie (2005). Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt. Harper Collins. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-06-621418-4.
  3. ^ MacColl, Gail; Wallace, Carol (1989). To Marry an English Lord. Workman Publishing Company. p. 308. ISBN 9780894809392.
  4. ^ Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie (2005). Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age. Harper Perennial. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-06-093825-3.
  5. ^ Stuart, p. 70
  6. ^ Stuart, pp. 69–70
  7. ^ Stuart, p. 84
  8. ^ Stuart, p. 101
  9. ^ Stuart, p. 493
  10. ^ a b Stuart, p. 209
  11. ^ Stuart, pp. 102–103, 116–117
  12. ^ Stuart, pp. 112–115
  13. ^ Stuart, p. 120
  14. ^ Stuart, p. 121
  15. ^ Stuart, p. 145–146
  16. ^ Stuart, p. 135
  17. ^ Stuart, pp. 146–147
  18. ^ MacColl, Wallace, p. 274
  19. ^ Stuart, pp. 222–224
  20. ^ Stuart, p. 203
  21. ^ Stuart, pp. 212–213
  22. ^ Waterhouse, Michael; Wiseman, Karen (2019). The Churchill Who Saved Blenheim: The Life of Sunny, 9th Duke of Marlborough. Unicorn Publishing Group. ISBN 1912690225.
  23. ^ Reginald Fellowes is possibly Hon. Reginald Ailwyn Fellowes (1884–1953), second son of Lady Rosamond Spencer-Churchill and the 2nd Baron de Ramsey, who later married the heiress Marguerite Séverine Philippine Decazes de Glücksberg.
  24. ^ Stuart, p. 359
  25. ^ Stuart, p. 234
  26. ^ Stuart, pp. 252–254
  27. ^ Stuart, pp. 268–269
  28. ^ a b Stuart, pp. 412–425
  29. ^ "Vanderbilt v. Balsan, 190 Misc. 824 | Casetext Search + Citator". casetext.com. pp. 825–826. Retrieved 15 July 2024.
  30. ^ "Vanderbilt v. Balsan, 190 Misc. 824 | Casetext Search + Citator". casetext.com. pp. 827–828. Retrieved 15 July 2024.
  31. ^ a b c "Vanderbilt's Sons Get Bulk of Estate". The New York Times. 28 August 1920. p. 6. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 July 2024.
  32. ^ "Duke and Duchess of Marlborough Separated - Financial Particulars". The Birmingham News. 25 October 1906. p. 15. Retrieved 15 July 2024.
  33. ^ "Sale of Sunderland House Recalls Striking Bits of History". The Sun. 1 June 1919. p. 6. Retrieved 19 April 2024.
  34. ^ "Vanderbilt's Sons Get Bulk of Estate". The New York Times. 28 August 1920. p. 7. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 18 July 2024.
  35. ^ Stuart, pp. 391–392, 464
  36. ^ Stuart, p. 496
  37. ^ "Manalapan Estates, Florida: The Churchill Connection – The Churchill Centre". 4 October 2006. Archived from the original on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 8 July 2018.
  38. ^ "Casa Alva: From home to club to home again". The Coastal Star. 1 April 2010. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
  39. ^ "Fit for a Vanderbilt". Palm Beach Daily News. 12 February 2010. Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  40. ^ "Stuart Preston". The Independent. 15 February 2004. Retrieved 20 September 2023. Preston consistently denied that he was the ghost of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan's memoirs, The Glitter and the Gold, published in 1953, but, whatever the precise arrangements, he had an editorial hand in that book, for which he is acknowledged in the preface.
  41. ^ Stuart, pp. 486–494
  42. ^ Stuart, p. 501
  43. ^ "Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan Left Bulk of Estate to Granddaughter". The New York Times. 2 January 1965. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  44. ^ Allen, Anne Beiser (2000). An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780313314667.