The Gilded Age was nothing without Alva Vanderbilt—but the entire time, she was hiding the most tarnished secret of all.
Alva Vanderbilt Facts
1. She Was Privileged
She was a Gilded Age “queen,” but Alva Vanderbilt’s story is as dirty as they come.
Alva came into the world in 1853 in Mobile, Alabama. Her wealthy Southern family were always looking for ways to upgrade their image, and Alva grew up summering in Rhode Island and bonding with other high-ranking socialites like old-money beauty Consuelo Yznaga. Then one day, it all came crashing down.
2. Her Family Suffered A Downfall
By the time Alva was 17, she had seen the world and picked up an array of expensive tastes along the way. But then her perfect reality turned into an utter nightmare. In 1871, her mother passed, and the family fortune took a nosedive soon after. When the dust settled, Alva wasn’t just motherless, she was nearly penniless.
Yet a lack of funds wasn’t the only thing standing in Alva’s way.
3. She Had An Achilles Heel
As a young woman, Alva had to face a cruel truth. She was no beauty. Indeed, that’s probably putting it politely.
She was “homely” and “square-chinned,” and in a world where the two most powerful currencies for a woman were her beauty and her wealth, Alva was coming up short. But anyone who counted her out during this period was making a grave error—because Alva was also extremely cunning and ambitious.
Using these skills, she was about to complete one of the greatest social triumphs of her age.
4. She Charmed The Right Person
Alva may have lost her mother and her money, but she made darn sure to keep her well-connected socialite friends. One day, her old pal Consuelo Yznaga came through for her in a big way, introducing her to one William Kissam Vanderbilt, the rakish, gadabout grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Alva knew how to turn on her wit and charm—she never could rely on her looks, after all—and she immediately hooked in the laissez-faire rich boy with her confidence and smarts. Alva made sure things happened very fast from there.
5. She Became A Vanderbilt
In 1875, a New York City wedding officially turned Alva into a Vanderbilt. Three children—a daughter named Consuelo (after her friend) and two sons, Willie Jr and Harold—followed. She even got a massive stone mansion on Fifth Avenue, the Petit Chateau. But underneath the beautiful façade, trouble was brewing. Alva quickly found there was one thing missing in her new life.
6. New York Hated Her
The Vanderbilts could buy almost anything they wanted, but they couldn’t buy class. At the time, only a handful of old-money families sat on top of the New York social hierarchy, and they despised the “new money” crowd like the Vanderbilts for earning their wealth through industrial means, rather than through inheritance.
Alva, so used to engineering everything she wanted, chafed under their disapproval. It got personal fast.
7. She Made A Powerful Enemy
The symbolic head of these old New York families was the formidable Caroline Astor, who wasted no time snubbing Alva. Mrs Astor refused to call on Alva during the day, and in so doing announced to everyone that she didn’t think Alva and her upstart family were good enough for their attention, either.
But again: Alva was used to engineering what she wanted. She was about to put her cunning into overdrive.
8. She Planned The Party Of The Century
The ambitious Alva knew that if the Vanderbilts were ever going to get respect, it started with getting Caroline Astor on their side. So, she came up with a brilliant plan. First, Alva planned the ball of the century at her chateau, sending out 1,300 invitations and scheduling the soiree just after Lent—which was supposed to be the end of the social season—so that no one else would compete with her.
But that was just the setup. Alva then dealt the coup de gras.
9. She Got Revenge
Alva’s plans were so opulent, everyone who was anyone wanted to get into the upcoming “Vanderbilt Ball”—Caroline Astor and her family included. But this is where Alva’s plot really kicked into gear. See, Alva specifically didn’t invite Astor’s daughter Carrie. After all, Mrs Astor had never called on her, and it wasn’t polite to send invitations to strangers.
It was a stroke of genius, and it got Alva exactly what she wanted.
10. She Won The Game
This was the moment that broke Mrs Astor and old New York society in one fell swoop. Waving the white flag, Caroline Astor called on Alva Vanderbilt at last, symbolically ushering in the Vanderbilts and their ilk into the upper echelons of the elite. Astor would admit shortly after, “The time has come for the Vanderbilts”.
And all that was because of Alva. But before she could rest on her laurels, her ball brought further trouble.
11. She Had A Monster Sister-In-Law
Alva may have conquered the great Caroline Astor, but that didn’t mean she was done feuding. In fact, since her marriage to William Vanderbilt, she’d had a bitter rivalry with her sister-in-law Alice, who was married to William’s brother. This spat was far more intimate than the Astor debacle.
Alice, snobbish to the point that she refused to even talk to her own chauffeurs, was determined to outshine Alva any way she could. The night of the Vanderbilt Ball, to Alva’s horror, she did.
12. She Was A Celebrity
The day of Alva’s ball on March 26, 1883, crowds of gawkers began gathering before the sun set, hoping to catch a glimpse of what New York high society was wearing that night. Accordingly, Alva’s lavish Venetian noble outfit was designed to turn heads, and she even posed with birds in photos to give it the complete effect. But when Alva saw her sister-in-law, her jaw must have dropped.
13. Her Sister One-Upped Her
Given that the Vanderbilt Ball was Alva’s idea and given her triumph over Mrs Astor, this night was supposed to be a personal victory lap. But Alva’s sister-in-law Alice was having none of that: She showed up and completely outdid Alva by dressing up as the new-fangled “Electric Light,” a costume the press went wild for.
Still, Alva and Alice kept their feud icily civil, if quietly cutting. Alva’s next problems were downright savage.
14. She Was A Horrible Mother
Alva had always been a smart, headstrong girl. Motherhood turned her into a monster. She ran her household with more than an iron fist, particularly controlling her daughter Consuelo in the most chilling of ways. For example, when Alva thought the girl was slouching too much, she made her wear a steel rod to perfect her posture. Except it gets worse than that.
15. She Hurt Her Daughter
Not content with this constant, invisible way of tormenting her daughter, Alva was also prone to physically harming Consuelo when the little girl didn’t do exactly as her mother said. Her weapon of choice, disturbingly enough, was a riding crop, and Alva would brandish it at the drop of a hat. But Alva liked to control her child mentally, too.
16. She Was Domineering
Alva barely allowed her daughter to have any opinions of her own—and when Consuelo got older and began to crave self-expression, Alva only tightened her grip. Alva always selected the girl’s clothing, and on one occasion when Consuelo objected, Alva snapped back, “I do the thinking. You do as you’re told”.
As it happened, this dynamic would plunge both women into a world of pain.
17. Her Ambition Knew No Bounds
By the 1890s, Alva had everything she could have ever dreamed of. She even made her husband buy several yachts for her—one of them appropriately named Alva—and garnered a reputation for constantly building one mansion or another. As one of her peers put it, “She loved nothing better than to be knee deep in mortar”.
And still, it wasn’t enough for Alva. She wanted more (she always wanted more), and when she looked at Consuelo, she knew exactly what that was.
18. Her Daughter Was Beautiful
Alva’s homely face had, to her detractors anyway, always recalled the merchant stock she and the rest of the Vanderbilts came from. But her daughter represented something else entirely. Consuelo had grown into a great beauty, with her oval face and high neck representing an aristocratic “slim, tight look” that was all the rage at the time.
But Alva didn’t see a mere pretty girl in Consuelo’s beauty; she saw a priceless opportunity to get more power via the marriage market. The way she did it was monstrous.
19. She Was Missing One Thing
Alva had climbed to the top of the New York food chain, but there was still something that eluded her: A noble title. Knowing what she had in her daughter’s dowry and face, Alva quickly decided Consuelo had to be a Duchess, at the very least.
In fact, it took her no time at all to manufacture an “organic” meeting between Consuelo and Charles Spencer-Churchill, the English Duke of Marlborough and the owner of the famous Blenheim estate. But Alva’s false fairy tale soon turned into a horror story.
20. She Made A Deal With The Devil
The Duke of Marlborough may have looked like the perfect son-in-law from the outside, but the deal Alva struck with him was rotten to the core. The Duke was on the verge of bankruptcy and agreed to marry Consuelo purely for financial considerations. In fact, he was in love with someone else the day he proposed.
None of this mattered to Alva—she was desperate for that title, and the family set Consuelo up with a mind-boggling 77 million dollar dowry in today’s money to cinch the union. But before Alva’s ink was dry on the wedding invites, trouble struck.
21. Her Daughter Defied Her
When Alva set about turning Consuelo into the Duchess of Marlborough, she hadn’t counted on one thing. Consuelo, too, was already in love with someone else—an American named Winthrop Rutherfurd—and she wasn’t going to go down the aisle without a fight. Indeed, Consuelo even planned to run away with Rutherfurd…leading Alva to her most chilling act yet.
22. She Threatened To Kill A Man
Consuelo’s disobedience gob-smacked Alva, who wasn’t used to her daughter causing much of a fuss about anything—riding crop beatings will do that to you. Maybe that’s why she took it into overdrive. After finding out about Consuelo’s elopement plans, Alva locked the girl up in her room and made threats on Rutherfurd’s life, swearing to relent only when Consuelo agreed to the royal match.
This didn’t go the way she wanted.
23. She Played Wicked Games
Despite her mother’s horrifying insults and threats, Consuelo stood firm for quite some time. But then Alva played extremely dirty. She wasn’t going to let this slip of a girl beat her—when did she let anyone beat her?—and came up with her lowest blow of all. Preying on Consuelo’s filial attachment, Alva pretended she was quite literally dying from the stress of the situation.
This, at last, did Consuelo in, and the girl finally agreed to Alva’s match. But be careful what you wish for.
24. She Got Her Wedding
Alva’s machinations supposedly all paid off on November 6, 1895, when Consuelo married the Duke of Marlborough at long last. It hardly mattered that the girl was reportedly crying behind her veil for the entire ceremony; for now, Alva should have been satisfied. Only, she wasn’t.
The truth is, by the time the wedding finally rolled around, Alva was embroiled in her own scandal. And this one was big.
25. She Had A Scandalous Divorce
Just months before Alva watched her daughter become a Duchess, she made an announcement that sent shockwaves through society. She was divorcing William Vanderbilt. Now, not only was William the man who bankrolled Alva’s lavish lifestyle, but divorce also simply wasn’t “done” in New York in Alva’s day, and people began whispering up and down Manhattan.
The backlash was worse than she could have imagined.
26. Socialites Spurned Her
Following her split from William Vanderbilt, Alva went from the top dog in society to the bottom of the barrel. When she went to church the very next Sunday, all the women in the building “cut her,” essentially pretending she didn’t exist. It wasn’t just Sundays either; her invites to the biggest events also dried up—for the time being at least.
Then again, the reasons behind her divorce were doozies.
27. Her Marriage Was A Sham
Throughout Alva’s years as an ambitious society woman, her marriage had not thrived. She and her lackadaisical husband William had always been largely incompatible, yes, but that was really the least of it. The real problem? William Vanderbilt was, by almost all accounts, an enormous philanderer.
Most famously, William kept a long-term, much younger mistress, Nellie Neustretter, who was “notorious in Europe”. Only, it wasn’t just his unfaithfulness. It was how he went about it.
28. Her Husband Showed His True Colors
Alva Vanderbilt was no fool, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on with her unfaithful husband. William flaunted Nellie wherever he went, blatantly and casually disrespecting his wife in the process. Then when Alva eventually confronted him about the tryst, he reportedly didn’t even bother to deny it.
This was all enough to set Manhattan alight—except, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
29. Her Husband May Have Tricked Her
Some people at the time had a more disturbing interpretation of William’s infidelities than just your run-of-the-mill insatiable libido. They claimed that William was so desperate to get out of his marriage without courting the controversy of divorce paperwork, he merely hired a woman to pretend to be his mistress so Alva would divorce him.
Then again as we’ll see, there was one more terrible reason behind their breakup. Either way, William lived to regret it all. Alva’s revenge went so much further than a lawful split.
30. She Went Full Scorched Earth
For years, Alva had clawed Vanderbilts all the way up to the top of the food chain, smiling politely all the while. But once she decided to divorce William, the gloves came off. Alva quickly cut William completely out of her and her children’s lives. In fact, on the “perfect” wedding day when her daughter became a Duchess, Alva had dis-invited almost everyone from the Vanderbilt side of the family.
While William walked Consuelo down the aisle to keep up appearances, it was just that—an appearance. Alva insisted he get out of the church as soon as he did his duty. And she was just warming up.
31. She Had A Wandering Eye Too
William should have thought twice before spurning Alva—and she got back at her ex tenfold. See, William had a close friend named Oliver Belmont, an American banker who frequently accompanied the Vanderbilts on their yacht trips and pleasure tours. He and Alva got along so well, rumors they were having an affair had circulated for nearly a decade. The details were juicy.
32. She Had A Scandalous Affair
According to people in the know, Alva’s relationship with Belmont started all the way back in 1888, after a yacht trip on her seafaring baby, Alva. From that point on, “blind items” began appearing in newspapers about the pair, with one rumor even suggesting that William Vanderbilt came home one day to discover his friend Oliver hiding in the family closet.
It was a serious breach of etiquette for Alva—because while her husband might be able to do whatever he wanted, she was supposed to remain chaste. But William’s reaction to this wasn’t what you’d expect.
33. Her Husband Was A Cold Man
Alva’s affair with Oliver Belmont may have been a cry for help—a way of getting back at William Vanderbilt for his own affairs, yes, but also of getting his attention in her increasingly chilly marriage. If so, she was sorely disappointed: William seemed almost happy at her straying, and easily shrugged off the rumors. After all, it was justification for his own extramarital activities.
Of course, Alva’s shock announcement of a divorce changed all that. And less than a year after they officially split, Alva twisted the knife in.
34. She Got A New Man
In January 1896, Alva completed her revenge on the Vanderbilt family. She had already won a significant settlement and several enormous assets in her divorce, and now she won herself a replacement husband. Just a handful of weeks after Consuelo became a bride, Alva followed her daughter down the aisle and tied the knot with Oliver Belmont.
It was as much a triumph as her Vanderbilt Ball had been, but she was also stepping into a new potential nightmare.
35. Her New Husband Had A Checkered Past
Whether or not Alva knew it, her new husband wasn’t exactly an upgrade from William Vanderbilt. Oh sure, he had almost as much money, but he also had similar, er, “character” issues. An abusive lush who preferred absinthe to childrearing, Belmont’s first marriage began with physical altercations and ended with him abandoning his wife and child.
Still, their marriage wasn’t what anyone thought it would be.
36. Her Husband Had A Secret Side
Soon after her marriage to Oliver Belmont, Alva underwent a shocking change. With William Vanderbilt, at least at the beginning, Alva played the conservative society wife to a tee. But Belmont was quite a progressive for his day, and ran a liberal magazine called Verdict. Alva followed suit, slowly loosening up her previously more rigid beliefs.
As we’ll see, this had huge consequences—but before that, Alva had to deal with a different kind of family drama.
37. Her Plan Didn’t Work Out
In 1906, one of Alva’s many houses of cards came tumbling down. The marriage Alva had brokered between Consuelo and the Duke of Marlborough had been crashing and burning since the beginning, and that year it finally exploded. After infidelities on both sides and a fundamental incompatibility at their foundation, the pair officially separated.
By all rights, Alva should have been furious. Something else happened entirely.
38. She Made Amends With Her Daughter
Just as Alva’s own marriage shocked New York society, Consuelo’s split from her Duke floored the British people—and caused a mountain of legal drama to go with it. To help facilitate the split, Consuelo asked her mother to testify in court to the unsuitability of the match. To everyone’s shock, Alva agreed. Still, no one was prepared for her testimony.
39. She Confessed Her Sins
When it was Alva’s time to testify, her confession left jaws on the floor. The Iron Lady of Midtown Manhattan admitted not only that she had coerced her daughter into marrying the Duke of Marlborough, but also that she had been wrong to do it. As she told the investigator mournfully, “I have always had absolute power over my daughter”.
It seemed like a change really was coming over the former Mrs Vanderbilt. But a change was coming for her, too.
40. Her Husband Got Dangerously Ill
Alva and Oliver Belmont were two of the most vigorous members of the New York elite, and most people likely thought they would reign over their domains forever. But in 1908, that assumption splintered into a million pieces. That summer, Oliver was struck with a horrific bout of appendicitis. The end was swift and brutal.
41. She Was Alone Again
Almost before anyone could realize it, Alva’s second husband was dead. True to form, Alva had him buried in the enormous Belmont Mausoleum in Woodlawn cemetery—but no amount of pomp and circumstance could change the fact that she was a single woman alone in the world for the first time in decades. Only, Alva had one more surprise left in her.
42. She Became A Suffragette
Shortly after Oliver’s passing, Alva underwent her most incredible transformation yet. In a move that went against the grain of almost everything she had accomplished so far, the middle-aged Alva became one of the most prominent voices in the emerging women’s suffrage movement. But this period of her life also brought a new shine to an old relationship.
43. She Turned Into A Good Mother
Since testifying on Consuelo’s behalf during the girl’s divorce, Alva had grown much closer to her daughter. Indeed, Consuelo also helped Alva in much of her suffragette work, and the mellower matriarch now enjoyed many calm, intimate years with the girl she had once cowed into marriage.
That said, the aftereffects of Alva’s early parenting style echoed throughout the family in disturbing ways.
44. Her Family Had A Curse
Call it the Vanderbilt curse, but very few of Alva’s brood made happy marriages. Her eldest son and heir, William Vanderbilt II, made what was supposed to be a brilliant match with leading socialite Virginia Graham Fair—but after 10 years and three children together, they too split up. However, by the 1930s, that wasn’t the only thing about the Vanderbilts taking a dip.
45. She Watched Her Empire Start To Crumble
Alva’s heyday coincided with some of the greatest heights the Vanderbilt family ever reached, both personally and financially. Yet she also lived to see the beginnings of its downfall. In 1920, her ex-husband William Vanderbilt passed, and less than a decade after that, the railroad money that had sustained the family for years began to show signs of dwindling.
Alva, it turned out, was dwindling too.
46. She Suffered A Horrific Ailment
In 1932, the indomitable Alva met an enemy she couldn’t fight. The frailty of age came for her, and she suffered a debilitating stroke that spring. The consequences were terrible. It left her partially paralyzed, but she still managed to fight it out for half a year. In January of 1933, she finally passed at the age of 80. Still, she went out in style.
47. She Knew How To Make An Exit
In classic Alva fashion, she even made her funeral a suffragette statement. For her last wishes, she demanded that, after a church ceremony in the middle of New York City, an all-female cadre of pallbearers take her to her final resting place beside her second husband in the Belmont Mausoleum. But like so many of her victories, it was a hollow one.
48. Her Grandson Followed Her To The Grave
Alva didn’t live to see the last and possibly greatest tragedy of her immediate family—but she only missed it by a hair. The very same year that she passed, her grandson William Vanderbilt III perished in a violent car accident when he was only 26 years old. In many ways, it was the first tolling of the death knell for the family.
By the 1940s, the dwindling Vanderbilt wealth started freefalling, and by the 21st century, their dominance was a thing of the past. That past, though, still held the dark secrets that Alva took to her grave.
49. Her Family Money Was Dirty
Although she ended up at the top of the New York food chain, Alva Vanderbilt’s beginnings were about as far from the Northeastern elite as you could get. We know by now she grew up filthy rich, but there was a huge emphasis on the “filthy”. Her family made their money in cotton, off the backs of enslaved African Americans.
Somehow, though, this wasn’t the worst of it.
50. She Was Cruel At The Core
Alva had always been a domineering figure, and it turns out this personality trait showed itself very early on. Alva freely admitted at one point that when she was a child growing up in Alabama pre-Abolition, she “enjoyed” hurting the children of the people her family kept captive on the property.
Suddenly, her turn toward equality for women is a whole lot more disturbing.
51. Her Best Friend Dealt Her The Ultimate Betrayal
Alva’s divorce was the split heard around the world, but it wasn’t until much later people guessed at the real reason their marriage dissolved. There was a betrayal much closer to home. According to the rumors, William Vanderbilt hadn’t stopped at Nellie Neustretter in his infidelities—he also went and seduced Alva’s childhood best friend Consuelo Yznaga.
If true, maybe it’s no wonder that Alva hit a wall in her marriage and filed for divorce.