Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo Vanderbilt
Consuelo Vanderbilt
Duke Marlborough Singer Sargent.jpg
Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, with Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, and their sons John, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1905.
Born 2 March 1877(1877-03-02)
New York City, New York
Died 6 December 1964(1964-12-06) (aged 87)
Spouse(s) Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough
Jacques Balsan
Issue John Spencer-Churchill, 10th Duke of Marlborough
Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill
Parents William Kissam Vanderbilt
Alva Erskine Smith

Consuelo Balsan (formerly, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt) (2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964), was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. Her marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough was an international emblem for socially advantageous but loveless marriages in the Gilded Age.



Early life

Born in New York City, she was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, a Mobile, Alabama belle and budding suffragist, Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933, later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont). Her Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Maria Consuelo Iznaga Clement (1858–1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th Duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, Alva, who was determined that Consuelo would make a great marriage like that of her famous namesake, even though she lacked a good pedigree.

In those days, there were many weddings of European aristocrats with American heiresses. For the nobles of the Old World, such unions were shameful, but useful in financial terms; the nobility looked upon the Americans who married into their caste as intruders, unworthy of their new position.

In her biography, Consuelo Vanderbilt later 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.[1] She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors and learned foreign languages at an early age.[2] Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions.[3] When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva Vanderbilt told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told."[4]

Consuelo and Winston Churchill at Blenheim, 1902.

Like her godmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt also 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 Consuelo developed an instant aversion to him.[5] None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt, herself a daughter of a mere merchant. Luckily, as opposed to more than a few contemporary heiresses in search of her particular prince charming, Consuelo Vanderbilt was 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."[6] 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.[7] She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era.[7]

First marriage

The Duchess of Marlborough, circa 1903, by Paul César Helleu. Sir James Barrie had said "I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage." [8]

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family in New York society, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the land-rich, money-poor Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget (née Mary "Minnie" Stevens), the daughter of Mrs. Paran Stevens, the socially ambitious widow of an American hotel entrepreneur 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.[9]

Unfortunately Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd.[10] Her mother cajoled, wheedled, begged, and then, ultimately, ordered her daughter to marry Marlborough. 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.[11] Still, she refused. It was only when Alva Vanderbilt claimed that her health was being seriously and irretrievably undermined by Consuelo's stubbornness and appeared to be on death's door that the gullible girl acquiesced.[12] Alva made an astonishing recovery from her entirely phantom illness, and when the wedding took place, Consuelo stood at the altar reportedly weeping behind her veil.[13] The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected US$2.5 million (approximately US$67 million in 2010 dollars) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement.[14]

Consuelo about 1910.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was married at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, New York, on 6 November 1895, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871–1934).[15] They had two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (who became 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.[16]

The new duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, to whom she visited and provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children.[17] She was also a social success with royalty and the aristocracy of Britain.[18] However, given the ill-fitting match between the duke and his wife, it was only a matter of time before their marriage was in name only. The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband's handsome cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes[19] (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents),[20] while the duke fell under the spell of Gladys Marie Deacon, an eccentric American of little money but, like Consuelo, dazzling to look at and of considerable intellect.[21] The Marlboroughs separated in 1906, divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and Consuelo's assent, on 19 August 1926.[22]

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, also was fully supported by the former duchess'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 Belmont told an investigator, adding: "I have always had absolute power over my daughter."[22] In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.

Second marriage and later life

Consuelo's second marriage, on 4 July 1921, was to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, airplane, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Also a textile manufacturing heir, Balsan was a younger brother of Etienne Balsan, who was an important early lover of Coco Chanel.[23] Jacques Balsan died in 1956 at the age of 88.[24]

After the annulment with the Duke of Marlborough, she still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill (who was himself the son of an American mother). He was a frequent visitor to her château, in St. Georges Motel, a small commune near Dreux about 50 miles from Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s, where he completed his last painting before the war.[1]

Local history records in Florida show that in 1932 Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan built a home in Manalapan, just south of Palm Beach. It was designed as a love nest by Maurice Fatio. The dream home is called Casa Alva, in honor of her mother. Although Mrs Balsan sold her home in 1957, it still exists. Many believe that Churchill polished his famous Iron Curtain Speech in that house as he visited his cousin's wife on his way to Fulton, Mo., to deliver an address at Westminster College. (

The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Balsan's insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, was published in 1953; it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times. A reviewer in the New York Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."[25]

She died at Southampton, Long Island, New York on 6 December 1964, and was buried alongside her younger son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, in the churchyard at St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England, near her former home, Blenheim Palace.[26]


  • 1877–1895: Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt
  • 1895–1921: Her Grace The Duchess of Marlborough
  • 1921: Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough
  • 1921–1964: Mme Jacques Balsan



  1. ^ Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Harper Perennial, 2005, ISBN 978-0-06-093825-3, p. 69
  2. ^ Stuart, p. 70
  3. ^ Stuart, pp. 69–70
  4. ^ Stuart, p. 84
  5. ^ Stuart, p. 101
  6. ^ Stuart, p. 493
  7. ^ a b Stuart, p. 209
  8. ^ "The Glitter and the Gold" by Madame Consuelo Balsan
  9. ^ Stuart, pp. 102–103, 116–117
  10. ^ Stuart, pp. 112–115
  11. ^ Stuart, p. 120
  12. ^ Stuart, p. 121
  13. ^ Stuart, p. 145-146
  14. ^ Stuart, p. 135
  15. ^ Stuart, pp. 146–147
  16. ^ Stuart, p. 222, 224
  17. ^ Stuart, p. 203
  18. ^ Stuart, pp. 212–213
  19. ^ Reginald Fellowes is possibly Hon. Reginald Ailwyn Fellowes (1884–1953), banker cousin of Winston Churchill and the Duke, who married on 9 August 1919 the heiress Marguerite Séverine Philippine Decazes de Glücksbierg (29 April 1890-13 December 1962) as her second husband.
  20. ^ Stuart, p. 359
  21. ^ Stuart, pp. 252–254
  22. ^ a b Stuart, pp. 412–425
  23. ^ Stuart, pp. 391–392, 464
  24. ^ Stuart, p. 496
  25. ^ Stuart, 486–494
  26. ^ Stuart, p. 501

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