Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877 – 1964), was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. Born in New York City, she was the only daughter and eldest child of New York railroad millionaire William Kissam Vanderbilt, and his first wife, budding suffragist, Alva Erskine Smith. By the time she she’d made her debut in 1895, she possessed $20 million (ca. $4 billion today). Her marriage to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough became an international emblem of the socially advantageous, but loveless, marriages common during the Gilded Age.
It was only a matter of time before their marriage was in name only. The Duke of Marlborough married Consuelo Vanderbilt so he could preserve the family seat Blenheim Palace. The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband’s handsome cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes’s parents), 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. 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.
Consuelo’s second marriage, 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 a younger brother of Etienne Balsan, who was an important early lover of Coco Chanel. Jacques Balsan died in 1956 at the age of 88.
During the second decade of the 20th Century she was a leading champion of women’s rights and child welfare causes.
Consuelo Balsan published her insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, 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.”
Consuelo Vanderbilt (From the USA Library of Congress Bain collection)
1899 – Consuelo Vanderbilt by Lafayette
1911 – Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough
Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough with her sons John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blanford (later 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Charles Spencer-Churchill by Rita Martin