On the glittering surface, Consuelo Vanderbilt looked like she had it all. The beautiful heiress to the massive Vanderbilt wealth, her future had shone like a diamond from the moment she was born. But this American princess and “million dollar duchess” didn’t get a happy ending—she got an utter nightmare.
In certain echelons of New York society—the upper ones—the birth of Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1877 was akin to the coming of a messiah. The eldest child and only daughter of the main Vanderbilt heir William and his wife Alva, Consuelo was all the hopes of the Gilded Age of America rolled into one.
As such, the little heiress heralded a generation of beautiful creatures with pearls on their necks and gold in their veins; she was even named after her mother’s childhood best friend, the famous socialite Consuelo Yznaga. But all that glitters is very much not gold. Consuelo’s family was already hiding shadowy secrets.
Consuelo’s mother Alva was one of the great battle-axes in history, and she was determined to force old money New York families like the Astors to accept the Vanderbilt name into their ranks, despite its “brutish” nouveau riche associations. A reasonable enough goal…except Alva was something of a true brute.
A Confederate loyalist, Alva was infamous in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama for being a spoiled little girl who enjoyed mistreating the slaves she and her family owned. And soon, the power-tripping Alva turned her gaze on her daughter.
Growing up a Vanderbilt was a hugely privileged position for Consuelo. But her privilege came with nightmarish punishments. From the beginning, Alva expected her daughter to be nothing short of perfect, and from a young age forced Consuelo to wear a steel rod along the length of her spine to “improve” her posture. That was far from all.
Not content to limit herself to her daughter’s looks, Alva also rigorously “corrected” Consuelo’s personality and behavior. If Consuelo said one word out of line, the matriarch was liable to whip the girl with a riding crop. Picking her own wardrobe was also seen as the height of rebellion; when Consuelo once complained about the clothes her mother had chosen for her, Alva snapped back, "I do the thinking, you do as you are told”.
And as Consuelo grew up, an enormous problem began developing.
Unfortunately for the poor girl, Consuelo was utterly beautiful as a young woman. With the “slim, tight” look that was all the rage in the Edwardian era, she was a small, elongated woman with dark eyes and a long, oval face with delicate features. As Peter Pan playwright J M Barrie once put it, "I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo…get into her carriage”.
Why was this beauty unfortunate? Because soon, Alva was using this as another weapon against her.
The sweet, stunning Consuelo was barely in her teen years when she began getting offers of marriage from almost every man who met her. Her mother’s reaction was chilling. The only suitor she even allowed Consuelo to consider was Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, a man Consuelo deeply disliked.
To the ambitious Alva, only a prince or a duke was good enough to marry her daughter and lift up the Vanderbilt dynasty—whether Consuelo liked them or not. And while Consuelo managed to escape Prince Francis’s proposal, she wouldn’t be so lucky with the next one. Still, there was something her mother didn’t know.
While Alva planned out her daughter’s titles and nuptials, Consuelo had a much different idea for a groom. During the course of her debutante season, she’d met and fallen in love with the handsome Winthrop Rutherfurd, a young man of similar—or even greater—New York social standing as the Vanderbilts.
Still, Rutherfurd was no prince and no duke, and Consuelo was terrified of her mother finding out about their love. So they carried on a courtship right under Alva’s nose, with Rutherfurd even sending Consuelo a single red rose on her 18th birthday. And then one day, they took it as far as they could.
Just after her birthday, Consuelo committed her biggest act of rebellion yet. She met Winthrop Rutherfurd for a bicycle ride along with her mother and some other friends in Riverside Park in Manhattan, but when they drew back from the rest of the crowd, Winthrop quickly and clandestinely proposed to Consuelo—and she accepted.
If it sounds like the lovers were in a hurry, it’s because they were. Something terrifying was looming.
The day that Winthrop Rutherfurd made Consuelo Vanderbilt his fiancée, the young girl was on the edge of heading out on a long European sojourn with her mother, ostensibly to broaden her horizons but really to catch her a husband with a title. Indeed, Consuelo was set to leave the very next day.
Undeterred, Winthrop promised to trail her to Europe and elope with her once they got back stateside. If only this is what happened.
Consuelo spent months soaking up European hospitality, going to tea party after tea party and meeting prince after duke. But she soon realized something had gone terribly wrong. After five months, her fiancé Winthrop still hadn’t shown up. Nor had he written, or called, or done anything to hold onto the promise they had made each other that day.
It was only much later that she found out the chilling truth.
Consuelo’s love Winthrop Rutherfurd had followed her to Europe, and had even called on where she was staying in Paris. But Consuelo hadn’t managed to fool her mother Alva, who cottoned on to what was going on and refused to admit Winthrop that day or any other. When he wrote frantic letters, she intercepted and destroyed them.
And after all that, Alva still had her cruelest card up her sleeve—and she was about to play it.
The entire time that they were in Europe, Alva had one man on her mind: Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough. The Dukes of Marlborough had a storied history, and Alva—who had secured Consuelo an introduction to the noble at a dinner party on their trip—was foaming at the bit for Consuelo to be a part of that history.
But the Duke of Marlborough was really a snake in the grass.
It wasn’t that Consuelo disliked Marlborough; it’s that she had almost no opinion of him at all. He was inoffensively and blandly handsome, and she thought he was somewhat smart and somewhat nice, but not much more. But the Duke had a dark side he was hiding from Consuelo. When he inherited his title two years before they met, he found out he was practically bankrupt.
In a twist on a historical theme, the duke was fortune-hunting her—and her mother Alva couldn’t be happier. She stopped at nothing to keep pushing them together.
After Consuelo’s Europe trip wrapped up, she might have thought she would finally be free to exhale. She wasn’t. Instead, Alva invited the Duke of Marlborough back to America to visit just a couple of months later. Consuelo was young, but she wasn’t dumb: She knew what her mother was up to, and she knew it spelled certain doom. But before she could do anything about it, her mother went to horrific new lows.
Sure that her daughter would try to make a break for it with Winthrop the minute the opportunity arose, Alva controlled Consuelo in a chilling way. She actually locked her up in her room, like a princess in a tower, and told any friends who visited that Consuelo wasn’t at home.
Isolated and utterly beaten down, Consuelo couldn’t even get in touch with Winthrop to tell him what was going on. She did, however, get one last tragic chance with him.
During this Rapunzel period, Alva did let Consuelo out to attend the best society balls, naturally. It was at one of these events that Consuelo happened to run into Winthrop at long last, and they shared a single dance together. It was all Winthrop needed. In a flurry, he told Consuelo he still loved her and wanted to elope. But before Consuelo could get a word out, disaster struck.
While Consuelo danced with Winthrop, her eagle-eyed mother watched from the sidelines. She quickly swooped in to separate the pair as soon as possible, foiling any plans they might have made. The fallout was unimaginable. When they got home from the ball that night, Alva demanded Consuelo see her in her private chambers, ready to give her daughter a piece of her mind.
But for once, Alva Vanderbilt got far more than she bargained for.
Certain of what her mother was going to say, the mild-mannered Consuelo finally put her foot down and stated her intention to marry Winthrop Rutherfurd. In a story with a happy ending, this would be where the heiress got her heart’s desire and married the man of her dreams despite her mother’s objections. But this is no fairy tale.
Instead of succumbing to her daughter’s will, Alva exploded with rage, insulting Consuelo and Winthrop alike for their stupidity. She also cast aspersions on Winthrop’s intentions, claiming he just wanted Consuelo for her money. Scariest of all, she vaguely threatened that she wouldn’t “hesitate to shoot a man if I thought he might ruin your life”.
The argument carried on for hours, and Consuelo left, depleted and exhausted, with no clear path forward. Except her mother was just getting started.
When Consuelo woke up the next morning, it was to gut-wrenching news. Her defiance of her mother had caused Alva to have a heart attack, and the matriarch was currently clinging to life in her bedroom. Consuelo begged to see her, but her mother’s emissary instead insisted, referring to last night’s fight, “I warn you there will be catastrophe if you persist”.
Guilt-stricken, Consuelo made a fateful decision.
Consuelo couldn’t bear the thought of causing fatal stress to her mother, not even if it allowed her to keep Winthrop Rutherfurd. So instead of holding her ground, the still-teenaged girl asked the emissary to inform Winthrop that she couldn’t marry him, and that she'd canceled their engagement. It must have been heartbreaking. It was about to get so much worse.
In the wake of her canceled engagement, Consuelo was almost completely alone. Winthrop left town, her friends had long stopped calling—and her mother twisted the blade in further. Almost as soon as she heard about her daughter’s broken engagement, Alva “miraculously” recovered from her deathbed, though not enough to treat Consuelo with any warmth in the coming weeks.
Alva had gradually stripped Consuelo of all her independence. Now she went in for the kill.
Starting in late August of 1895, Alva Vanderbilt accepted the Duke of Marlborough as her guest as she had always planned and began drumming up publicity for the marriage between her daughter and a British peer. Soon, Consuelo was going everywhere with the duke, with Alva giving lavish balls to show her daughter off to both him and society.
Everyone expected an engagement at any moment. When it finally came, it was a high-society tragedy.
In the end, not even the day of Consuelo’s engagement to a duke was worthy of a fairy tale. The duke proposed to her in her family cottage, but he was more like a dutiful cadet than a passionate lover. And the worst was yet to come. When Consuelo reported her engagement to her younger brothers, she couldn’t keep anguished tears out of her eyes.
Still, she was about to find out just how awful things could get.
Consuelo viewed her upcoming nuptials like a funeral march—but the preparations themselves were just as nightmarish. As soon as the engagement hit the papers, the press crudely characterized Consuelo as yet another “million dollar duchess,” American heiresses who traded their wealth for a European title.
One publication even printed a cartoon with the heading “The Duke’s Return from the Land of Dollars,” with Marlborough sailing Consuelo back to Britain atop a heap of money. As if that humiliation weren’t enough, the Duke’s true feelings soon became obvious.
As plans for the massive, extravagant, and expensive wedding coalesced, Consuelo and her mother held a rehearsal to make sure everyone in the wedding party knew exactly what to do on the big day. But Consuelo’s fiancé dealt her a cruel snub.
The duke decided he didn’t need to attend the rehearsal, especially since he thought the American custom was “vulgar”. He did, however, make sure to show up to the settlement meeting the very next day, where he finalized Consuelo’s 3-million-dollar dowry. And that was just what was going on in public. Behind the scenes, everything was falling apart.
The year of Consuelo’s engagement was also the year the Vanderbilt family publicly imploded. Just months before the duke proposed, Consuelo’s mother Alva had filed for divorce from her father William Vanderbilt—and the reasons were utterly scandalous. For one, William had long kept a mistress, Nellie Neustretter, and Alva was fed up. But that was just the polite interpretation.
While Consuelo’s tycoon father William was no saint in the boardroom or the bedroom, there was a much naughtier secret at play. In truth, Alva had known about his mistress Nellie Neustretter for years. Instead, some said that the real problem was Alva’s own infidelity; she had started up an affair with her husband’s best friend, Oliver Belmont, and was now openly courting him.
Oh, and there was one more truly damning detail.
When the infamous Vanderbilt divorce officially went through, high society couldn’t help gossiping about what was going on. They simply didn’t believe Alva would have given up her hard-won position for Oliver Belmont or anyone else. This leads to the uncomfortable truth: The true urgency for the divorce was a betrayal of the first order.
The last straw, reportedly, was when Willie struck up an affair with none other than Consuelo’s namesake, Alva’s best friend Consuelo Yznaga. So yes, our poor, naive Consuelo was being forced into marriage by a family who didn’t know matrimonial happiness in the slightest. How do you think it’s going to go?
On November 6, 1895, Consuelo’s nightmare finally became a reality. Laced into a wedding gown her mother had chosen before her engagement and walking beside bridesmaids her mother had hand-picked, Consuelo entered the church to marry the man her mother had insisted on.
As she walked down the aisle with her father—who Alva only allowed to come for the sake of appearances before he left immediately after—the crowd turned to face her. When they saw her, some of them must have started whispering.
During her perfect wedding, in front of some of the most influential people in the world, it was patently obvious that Consuelo had been crying. Even worse, she had to stifle mournful sobs throughout the ceremony. To the world outside of that church, though, the marriage still looked like a triumph. It only took the honeymoon for it all to fall apart.
Before marrying the duke, Consuelo knew she didn’t and probably couldn’t love him. That tore her up enough—but on their honeymoon, a sinking feeling overwhelmed her. As they traveled out for their vacation to Europe, Consuelo watched her new husband preen at all the congratulatory letters he was getting from other members of the nobility, including from Queen Victoria herself.
She not only realized her husband was a shallow man, but that she was now a duchess, and subject to all the snobbery of the aristocracy that would put old money New York to shame. But if she thought that was the worst thing she’d find out on her honeymoon, she was very, very wrong.
Consuelo’s honeymoon had barely started before the Duke of Marlborough made a stunning confession to her. First, he outright admitted, with characteristic bloodlessness, that he’d only married her to “save Blenheim,” his ancestral home. That would have been painful on its own to hear, but the Duke followed it up with a much crueler insult.
Besides basically telling her that she amounted only to a big bank account, Consuelo’s new husband revealed his real feelings. He claimed that not only had he married her for her money, but he was also fully in love with another woman and had no intention of developing any kind of romance between the two of them—except, that is, to produce an heir.
By the time Consuelo’s honeymoon wrapped up and she arrived at Blenheim Palace, she was a thoroughly broken woman. It was only a matter of time before it spiraled.
Terrified his American wife was going to come off ignorant and coarse, Consuelo’s husband had spent most of their honeymoon drilling her on his Spencer-Churchill family tree, as well as on other people of importance and rank in society. As it turned out, Consuelo nailed it: She arrived in England as the toast of the town, and commoners and aristocrats alike fell in love with her. But it wasn’t all good news.
Even Consuelo’s arrival at her new home was an enormous disappointment. The Duke of Marlborough hadn’t been kidding when he said Blenheim needed saving. Over the years, the bankrupted dynasty had had to sell off masses of furnishings and possessions, so that now the stately home was only a husk. And then there were Consuelo’s unpleasant “duties”.
For Consuelo, one of the worst parts of being a wife was sharing her marriage bed with a man whom she didn’t love, and who felt utterly indifferent—if not outright scornful—toward her. Nonetheless, she was the Duchess of Marlborough now, and she laid back and thought of America.
Soon enough, she gave birth to a son, John Spencer-Churchill. Her duty done, Consuelo might have settled into a quiet, unassuming life. Instead, the exact opposite happened.
It all started, perhaps, with a high society invitation. Gladys Deacon, the newest young American heiress on the market, secured herself an invite to Blenheim one day and became fast friends with both the Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo. But Gladys had a reputation as something of a wild child, and things escalated fast.
Gladys and Consuelo may have been friends, but that didn’t stop the socialite from stabbing Consuelo right in the back. It wasn’t long before Gladys had completely supplanted Consuelo at Blenheim, and she and the duke struck up a torrid affair that lasted over a decade. As for Consuelo’s feelings on the matter? Well, they weren’t what you think.
As it happened, Consuelo wasn’t exactly bothered by her husband taking up with another woman, even if that woman was her friend. That’s because she was far from faithful herself—and one of her first lovers was scandalous. After their agonizing will-they, wont-they back and forth, she eventually did hook up with Winthrop Rutherfurd shortly after her marriage.
And oh boy, did this have consequences.
In 1898, Consuelo gave birth to another son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, fully completing her duty by providing her husband with—as she often wryly quipped—“an heir and a spare”. Except there was just one incredibly shocking thing.
Many believed Ivor was actually Winthrop Rutherfurd’s son, given that the boy had very little resemblance to either the duke or his older brother. Yet like so many of Consuelo’s romances, her dalliance with her old lover was going to go up in flames.
For a brief time, it looked like Consuelo was going to get her happy ever after at last with Rutherfurd; around the time of Ivor’s conception, Rutherfurd experienced a fit of passion and proposed that they elope together. Consuelo knew just what to do. She rushed to her husband and confessed everything, hoping now she could finally be free.
Instead, all she got was more hurt and disappointment.
At first, Consuelo’s announcement to Marlborough seemed to be successful, and the duke—indifferent to the bitter end—even allowed her to visit Rutherfurd again to decide what she really wanted to do. The very next day, Consuelo rushed to the arms of her lover, hopeful that her whole future was before her. Instead, Rutherfurd dealt her a heartless betrayal.
When Consuelo got to Rutherfurd’s that day, he spoke some of the harshest words in the history of love. In the interim between proposing and Consuelo visiting, he had apparently gotten a major case of buyer’s remorse and presented her with one of the worst excuses for not marrying her. Apparently, he felt “too attached to her” to elope.
No, it made absolutely no sense. All the same, Rutherfurd wouldn’t budge, and Consuelo had to go back to Marlborough with her tail between her legs. Still, when it comes to Consuelo’s bedroom life, that’s just the beginning.
Consuelo may not have had much attraction to her husband, but she certainly seemed to like his family line. Once, while Marlborough was away fighting in the Boer War, Consuelo took up with his cousin Freddie Guest—who was, in fact, staying at Blenheim as a guest. And when the duke finally got home from battle, Consuelo had another nasty surprise in store.
By this point, Consuelo had given up on ever fully escaping her marriage, so she had to fall back on merely hurting her husband any way she knew how. When the duke arrived home from the conflict, she coolly informed him that she had been sleeping with his cousin, and that she never wanted to see him in her bedroom ever again.
Somehow, though, it gets more twisted.
Consuelo actually had affairs with no fewer than three of the Duke of Marlborough’s cousins over the course of her marriage, to the shock and horror of the respectable Spencer-Churchill family. In some ways, this very particular promiscuity was a continued cry for help from the dank cell of her loveless marriage. But it also put her in incredibly horrible positions.
One of the naughty Spencer-Churchill cousins was Charles, Viscount Castlereagh, and he was more of a piece of work than the Duke of Marlborough himself. Charles was such a rake that he would often send Consuelo love letters with missives to his other girlfriends attached, along with a request that she kindly forward them along.
Nonetheless, there was one cousin of her husband’s that Consuelo really got along with.
When Consuelo married into the Spencer-Churchill family, she inadvertently changed the course of history. That’s because before she had an heir with the Duke of Marlborough, none other than his cousin Winston Churchill was next in line to inherit Blenheim. As such, the birth of Consuelo’s first son helped free Winston to go into politics—something he was apparently very grateful for, and the pair became fast friends.
But that friendship was about to endure a horrible shock.
In 1906, Consuelo Vanderbilt stunned the world. That year, she and her husband could finally take no more and publicly separated—and if her mother’s American divorce set society atwitter, Consuelo’s split from a British peer caused even more of a scandal. It had been a decade of utter misery for them both, but it still wasn’t the “done” thing in the aristocracy.
Little did England know, Consuelo had more scandals up her sleeve.
A separation was one thing, but Consuelo and the duke wanted to go whole hog and file for divorce. It was a grueling battle that required years in and out of courtrooms, even with both parties very sure they were doing what was best for them. In fact, it was in one of those courtrooms that Consuelo’s mother Alva made a heartbreaking confession.
Since Consuelo’s separation from the duke, her domineering mother Alva had made a strange, late-in-life pivot. She had transformed into, of all things, a vehement suffragette. While this was more than a little ironic given her childhood owning slaves and her motherhood controlling her daughter, it did seem to provoke twinges of feminist guilt in the matriarch, and she showed it by testifying in Consuelo’s divorce.
On the stand, Alva confessed that "I have always had absolute power over my daughter” and she admitted she “forced” Consuelo into the union, begging the judge to grant the divorce for a marriage that had so obviously happened under duress. It worked: In 1921, Consuelo became a free woman—and she wasted no time enjoying that freedom.
Mere weeks after her divorce came through, Consuelo had a huge deja-vu. On July 4, 1921, before the ink on her divorce papers was dry, she married again. Her second husband was the dashing French pilot and man about town Jacques Balsan, who was her lover in the days leading up to her official divorce. In fact, she and Balsan went way back.
Heartwarmingly enough, Balsam had been in love with Consuelo since her debutante days; he’d fallen in love with her when he first saw her just before her 18th birthday. The less heartwarming part? A decade older than Consuelo, Balsam had been nearing his 30s at the time he first ogled the teenager.
Even so, it’s hard to argue with the results; the next period of Consuelo’s life was everything she deserved and more.
Later in her life, Consuelo wrote (with the help of a ghostwriter) her autobiography The Glitter and the Gold, where her life with the Duke of Marlborough was “the glitter,” with all its hollow opulence, and her time with Balsan was the true “gold”. They were blissfully happy together, with Balsan doting on his wife. As for Consuelo’s ex-husband, well…he wasn’t so lucky.
While Consuelo had been no saint throughout the course of her marriage, the Duke of Marlborough certainly hadn’t treated her properly, either. Eventually, karma came for him. He too married his mistress, Gladys Deacon, just weeks after the divorce. But unlike Consuelo, his second marriage was far from blissful. It was a total nightmare.
Consuelo’s rival Gladys Deacon was incredibly captivating, but she was also incredibly narcissistic. Shortly after becoming the official lady of the house at Consuelo’s old home of Blenheim, Gladys painted a huge mural of her own sparkling green eyes on the front hall ceiling. And really, this was just a tiny sign of the deranged acts to come.
By the time Consuelo and her second husband Jacques Balsan were happily entering middle age, the duke and Gladys were doing nothing but tormenting each other. Gladys not only bred “Blenheim Spaniels”—a hobby her husband detested—just to spite the duke, she also reportedly kept a gun in her bedroom to prevent him from ever entering (this kind of thing seemed to happen to Marlborough a lot).
Eventually, the duke evicted Gladys from the premises and passed in 1934, utterly estranged from his second wife.
Consuelo’s relationship with the Duke of Marlborough didn’t last, but her friendship with his cousin Winston Churchill surprisingly managed to pass the test of time. Churchill frequently visited Consuelo in her chateau near Paris into the 1930s. But for all her mid-life happiness, the next decades brought final tragedies to Consuelo’s story.
In 1956, Consuelo got devastating news. Her youngest son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, developed a brain tumor, and his health quickly went downhill. Doctors weren’t able to operate on it, so Consuelo had to watch as her baby deteriorated and then passed that September at just 57 years old. And the hands of fate had even more cruelties to dish out.
1956 was a horrific year for Consuelo. Not only did her son pass that fall, but in November of that year, her beloved husband Jacques Balsan—now frail and 88 years old—also passed. In the span of two months, Consuelo had lost two of the people she loved the most, and she was well and truly alone for the first time in her life.
Consuelo spent her remaining years living like a ghost of a bygone age—which, in all honesty, she was. Living out the next decade in Long Island, New York, she followed her husband and son into the grave on December 6, 1964, passing at the age of 87. With her went some of the last living memories of the Gilded Age of America.
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