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Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

From Women in European History

Consuelo as Duchess of Marlborough, from The Daily Mail Online


Critical Biography

by Dan Fang

Shakespeare's idiom “All that glitters is not gold” seems outdated by the time we reach the lifetime of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. In fact, upon every page of The Glitter and the Gold shine the jewels of upper-crust society—its personages, its mansions, its wits and humors along with its satin gowns. Even when this world crashes down—this world that is “closer to the eighteenth than to the twentieth century”—from the calamities of world wars, Balsan's life still seems more glamorous than most people's in the splendor of peace. What we would learn from The Glitter and the Gold is not, then, some cliché revealing of what lies beneath the gilt, for Balsan's society was gold through and through.

Are we to learn instead just who Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was? What is known about her fills up entire genealogical trees: Great-granddaughter of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad magnate of America's youth; wife of the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, high favorite of the royal family of England; wife again of Jacques Balsan, famed aviator, hero of WWI battlefields; cousin-in-law and lifelong friend of Winston Churchill. In fact, oftentimes her book reads like a Who's Who of High Society. What did this woman, deemed the most eligible bachelorette of the period, have to say for herself about herself? In one aspect, not a lot: She recalls vividly “the portraits of [her] friends,” but must rely on “meager notes of engagements” and “press cuttings of recorded events” to remember herself. In another way, much deeper than the words on the page, lies “the world of [her] youth which was so different from that of today”—not because we have lost the glitter of society or even “the complete acceptance of aristocratic privileges,” but because we have gained the ability to think of individuals as such, and not as auxiliary to the society at large. Consuelo Balsan's autobiography teaches us, first and foremost, how immensely daunting it is for a woman to write an autobiography when she is not allowed to dress for herself, decide for herself, or think for herself. Through her passion in activism, strength through divorce, and publishing her life in writing, Consuelo Balsan progresses from society girl to individual woman, from enduring oppression within conventions to achieving the utmost freedom she could have had under the restraints of her society.

Early Life

Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877—a fact that is nowhere to be found in her autobiography. She breaks with the convention of a long line of autobiographers who begin with themselves and starts her story instead with an apology: “it is humiliating to find that I remember very little of my childhood.”[1] She then moves to her progeny: “Watching my great-grandchild Serena Russell, at play, so sure of herself, even at the age of three, I wonder if, when she reaches my age, she also will have forgotten events that now appear important to her”[1]; and swerves to her ancestors, describing four generations of her immediate family in four pages. It is only surreptitiously that the narrative crawls back to Consuelo herself, and this happens only through description of her mother. “A born dictator,” describes Consuelo, “she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children.... [W]hen once I replied, 'I thought I was doing right,' she stated, 'I don't ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told.'”[2] It is not surprising that, with such a mother, Consuelo would be “reduced to imbecility”[2] and, moreover, reduced in self-hood. That she begins a story about herself with an apology—followed by every person in the family except herself—shows further the lack of self-consideration that haunts the upper-class female autobiographer, who writes as if “The gallery was hers, but the works within it represented, and had been rendered, by others more significant than herself.”[3] Consuelo, as were many female autobiographers who came from established and venerated families, was at once trying to tell about her life and trying to place herself in the Vanderbilt legend that includes persons no less renowned than the Commodore himself. Her life was thus limited in this way, as well—not only by societal class constrictions, but by respect for the traditions and status of her family.

One of the "works" of Consuelo's "gallery"—that is, the persons represented more than Consuelo herself, at last in the first half of the book—was her mother, Alva Erskine Smith. Alva symbolized a rather stronger (and less forgiving) version of the Angel of the House—the perfect woman whose “nature is loving and self-sacrificing; her responsibilities, domestic and maternal...she not only works hard at home but also provides continuity and moral strength in a rapidly changing society.”[4] Though Alva may not have been delicate to her husband or daughter—was, in fact, rather harsh to them—she nevertheless upheld self-sacrifice as a duty. Amanda Stuart, a biographer of both Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt, notes that, as a child, Alva had come very close to financial ruin in their teenage years; “By her own account,” says Stuart, “Alva took the only option open to her. She put herself on the marriage market” and salvaged her family from utter poverty, which was at all times a threat to even the most genteel households.[5] Thus acclimated to the use of her body and all that it symbolized in order to alter the prospects of her entire family, Alva accordingly sought an “ambitious” marriage for her own daughter. Because everything in Consuelo's youth—from the way she dressed to the flowers she received—marked whom and how well she was to marry, every bit of her life was controlled tightly by her mother. She was forced to wear “skirts [that] almost touched the ground, [for] it was considered immodest to wear them shorter. [Her] dresses had high, tight, whalebone collars. A corset laced [her] waist to the eighteen inches fashion decreed.”[6] The important thing to note is that Consuelo was never special in any way or abused in any manner; she was neither a saint nor a victim. In fact, she was merely the norm of the upper class, the strictest follower of high fashion—and it was this very conformity that shaped and formed her into something of an unusual character, though this happened much later in her life.

The Duke of Marlborough Weds Consuelo Vanderbilt by T. Dart Walker, from AllPosters.com

The Vanderbilt family, mainly goaded by Alva's experiences with poverty as a child, was never loath to show off its wealth. Consuelo's parents built and rebuilt mansions in Manhattan, summered in Paris, journeyed into Italy and India, and had and were received at parties with the highest of high society. It was at one such party in Bleheim, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and Consuelo's future residence, that Consuelo first met her future husband. She had resolved, in her young age, not to marry Marlborough but another man whom her mother deemed unworthy. In order that her daughter should not elope with him, Alva turned Consuelo's life into “that of a prisoner, with [herself] and [Consuelo's governess] as wardens.” “I was never out of their sight,” Consuelo continues; “Friends called but were told I was not at home. Locked behind those high walls—the porter had orders not to let me out unaccompanied—I had no chance of getting any word to my fiance.”[7] It is this violent suppression, not only emotionally but physically, that causes upper-class women to wish they were of the lower classes so that they could marry as they wished; it is this devilish oppression that caused Consuelo never to mention her first love's name, which we can only glean as “a certain Rutherfurd” from the margins of the family history. For all that, Consuelo was “brought up to obey,”[7] and in the end married Marlborough “cold and numb” and, rather than elaborating on her emotions—or lack thereof—she described her wedding dress.

Consuelo with Marlborough and their sons the Marquess of Blandford and Ivor, by John Singer Sargent, from Salme.org

The Duchess of Marlborough

Once the Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo discovered what she had previously surmised: “It seemed I was but to exchange one bondage for another.”[8] No longer under the yoke of her mother, she was now inculcated in the rules of British aristocracy. “An English lady,” Consuelo reports, “was hedged round with...boring restrictions” that ranged from not walking alone in Piccadilly to “it [is] better to occupy a box than a stall at the theater.... One must further be very careful not to be compromised, and at a ball one should not dance more than twice with the same man.”[9] Consuelo observed that her new husband, as well as his entire household, were wont to observe strictly the matters of rank—so much so that the butler did not light fires (that was the footman's job) and that the words “Your Grace” was pronounced with such “reverent unction” that clergymen would ask, “May I say grace, Your Grace?”[10]—both events that highly amused Consuelo.

It is, in fact, only through these little vignettes that we can somewhat glean Consuelo's personality; the next hundred or so pages of her autobiography seem more like the society pages of a newspaper rather than the narrative of a life. Consuelo does say, in her foreword, that she had to reconstruct her life through “notes of engagements” and “press cuttings of recorded events,” and this accounts in part for the lack of descriptions of herself. Yet she is never truly absent behind these glittering persons and events, and she succeeds in presenting to her readers “the world of her youth”[1] in her own experience. Within each of the myriad stories involving Ladies and Earls, Princes and Princesses, Czars and Czarinas, and patrons and artists lie Consuelo's personal views of the high society. Most of the times her views do not reveal much; for example, all she had said of meeting Queen Victoria was, “I discovered to my dismay that she was so small that I almost had to kneel to touch her outstretched hand with my lips.”[11] In select instances, however, her descriptions of others reveal more about herself. When depicting Lady Frances Balfour, Consuelo declares that “She held my [Consuelo's] views on women's suffrage, believing in the more conservative approach rather than in the distressing exhibitions of martyrdom which were shocking society.”[12] Ultimately, though, these revelatory sentences are far and few between, and we come to understand that, as Julia Bush declares in her study on upper-class women's autobiographies, “The autobiographers consistently claimed that their writings were an act of homage to past heroes and past times, and thus the performance of a duty towards posterity. As such they were an acceptable form of feminine service.” In writing The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Balsan's thoughts were first, duty to the bygone era, and only second, to a remembrance of the life she led. Since the lives of upper-class women in the Victorian period consisted of duty and service to society, moreover, the person that Consuelo was is further pushed to the background.

Divorcée and Activist

After eleven years of marriage to Marlborough, Consuelo realized her utmost incompatibility with her husband; they were never hateful towards each other, but Consuelo admits that "life together had not brought [them] closer."[13] The couple had "contemplated divorce, but England the divorce laws then existing required a man to prove unfaithfulness in his wife" (of which Consuelo was not guilty); "a wife, however, had to prove physical cruelty as well, or else desertion and nonsupport. It was not until years later that a new legal code removed much of the stigma of divorce."[13] Neither Marlborough nor Consuelo could escape their society's reaction (sometimes as innocuous as a pitying look, sometimes fatally damaging to reputation and status), so they opted for separation. Even this official separation was a brave act, for "in Edwardian social circles divorce or separation was not recognized as a solution for marital discord. Husbands and wives who could not get on together went their separate ways and in the great houses in which they lived practiced a polite observance of the deference each owed the other."[13]

The bravery of separation (then divorce later) compounded the feminine self-assertion that Consuelo felt in her activism. It is not until the separation that Consuelo began to take hold of her own life more and more. She engaged in a multitude of philanthropic activities, some still as the Duchess of Marlborough (in separation) and some as a respected divorcée. She was elected as the first female member of the London County Council, which decided policies for the city, in part to push forward the platforms of the Women's Municipal party, to which she belonged; as a member, she made speeches for more attention to the poor and especially for “public health measures for the care of child life,”[14] and, “though [her] time on the Council was short [she] was able to obtain a playground for the children of North Southwark.”[15] She also established a “Children's Jewel Fund,” which women to donate their unused jewelry in order to provide care for poor mothers and children. As a divorcée—that is, neither a single woman who had to prepare for marriage, nor a married woman who had to fulfill all its duties—Consuelo Vanderbilt could find the time and the opportunity to deeply engage in activism. It is at this point, when her separation from constraints of marriage and her assertion of a strong role in communal reforms come together, that Consuelo's life took a turning-point from submission to self-assertion.

Consuelo with Winston Churchill, from npr.org

Despite the political activism, she was, unlike her mother, rather uninterested in women's suffrage, partly because she thought they were too violent and prejudiced, and partly because “[She] found female self-sufficiency somewhat ridiculous.”[16] For Balsan, and perhaps for many more European women, the female suffrage movement had to take the back burner in light of the first World War. Consuelo herself declares that “with the threat of a European war imminent, I found it difficult to focus my thoughts on women's suffrage”[16]—and neither can we blame her for this, as her mind strayed to her son in the military and German planes overhead. The women of England found strength to hold up the country in wartime; the upper-class women of England, especially, had a second duty—“the sense of obligation was couched explicitly as the noblesse oblige, often said to be typical of the attitudes of the privileged toward the rest of society, stated as the felt responsibility of the privileged to return some of their share to those considered less fortunate.”[17] The war, combined with the noblesse oblige, prompted Balsan and her companions to donate their homes “to the War Office as a nursing home”[18] and to organize and run military hospitals (220), while English Women at large formed a “Women's Emergency Corps,” which drew on women to service as “doctors, dispensers, trained nurses, interpreters...bus drivers and sportswomen...to assist in transport work,” as well as volunteers “collecting food, feeding Belgian refugees and making toys to supplant those formerly imported from Germany.”[19]

Even when the war ended, Consuelo carried on philanthropic work, for “little by little” it had “absorbed [her]”[20]; rather than caring for the wounded and refugees, her work turned towards “the welfare of women and children and the extension of prenatal as well as postnatal care for them.”[20] Though it had been argued that upper-class Victorian women were not just Angels in the House, there was yet a strong presence of Angels out of the House—those who carried on maternal and wifely duties beyond the four walls of their own homes. The Angels out of the House, who were nurses and, like Balsan, charity workers, “did not challenge the leadership of men, but [they] did define [their] own distinctive tasks, ministering to the needs of the world at large through philanthropy or social service.”[4] Even so, Balsan at times, in a manner unknown even to herself, struggled against the constraints placed upon women of the Victorian upper class. It is true that these Angels often worked out of the home, but they did so by ministering, not politicking. The Angel of the House did not run for political office and certainly never concerned herself with money[21]; yet Balsan was Honorary Treasurer of the Medical School for Women, member of the London County Council, and speaker at political rallies. Despite not playing a part in the Suffragettes movement, Balsan achieved a level of independence for herself and of participation in a male-dominated society that was unimaginable in previous centuries. Her acts of charity, though maternal and feminine at heart in their seraphic care and devotion to the weak, allowed Consuelo to infiltrate the political sphere as one of the first women (the very first in the London County Council) in an overwhelmingly masculine sphere. The fact that her role on the London County Council only comprises three pages out of the entire book, however, shows a reserve against excessive self-indulgence, which, in turn, depicts Consuelo as a woman who felt just as much need to write of society itself as her own story; most important to her was not her special roles, but how those roles allowed her to reform the wrongs she saw around her.

Consuelo circa 1910, from wikipedia.org

Mrs. Balsan

Finally, in the years after the first World War, "it was now possible for a woman to divorce her husband for desertion" rather than needing the backing of adultery and abuse. The widowing of women and the destruction of longstanding ideas of honor and tradition had caused "the stain of shame [to fade] to a gentler hue; society, now less censorious, no longer ostracized a divorcée."[22] Thus it was that, in 1921, Consuelo Balsan achieved something even more unimaginable for upper-class women of the time: she married someone for love. While the Balsan family was decently a part of the upper class circle, Jacques was merely a self-made man, at most a Colonel, neither landed gentry nor titled aristocrat. Their marriage was, at first, not even recognized by the Catholic Church, to which all the Balsans belonged. In order that Jacques' family could receive her, Consuelo had to testify before the Catholic Court that her marriage with Marlborough was not voluntary and therefore should be annulled. Her testament in the Catholic Court ran, “The arrogance of the Duke's character created in me a sentiment of hostility. He seemed to despise anything that was not British, and therefore my feelings were hurt”[23]; in her own narrative, however, Consuelo states that it “pained her”[24] to paint both Marlborough and her mother (who enforced the marriage) in such a bad light. Here we see the true spirit of Consuelo—neither perfectly undaunted nor perfectly submissive, but a conflation of upper-class conformity and individual will.

After the struggle of marrying for a second time, she did not stop her charitable work. As merely one figure among many in the Vanderbilt family account, she was said to have “withdrawn” from society to “live tranquilly.”[23] Her new home in Paris, true, held many tranquil and happy moments, but it was not long before the “cosmopolitan parties” and “wide circle of friends” began to bore her. After five short years of being “blissfully happy,” she began to “miss the work [she] was accustomed to in England” and helped to establish a hospital for the French middle-class.[25] Much as she did in England, she worked in her fullest capacity as a fund-raiser; and much as she was as Duchess of Marlborough, Madame Balsan held sway as respected speaker and activist—the President of France, when asked to come to a fundraiser event, announced, “If Madame Balsan comes to ask me I may consent.”[26] At these events, however, she never forgot her duty as wife and hostess, and she was still the one to “find arrangements to entertain” all the visitors.

Both entertaining and charity work continued when the Balsans built a summer house in Saint Georges-Motel near Paris. In this little town, Consuelo arranged and built a sanatorium where lived “some eighty young children who were recuperating from operations or in need of preventive care.”[26] Each day, she visited every child and sat with them to comfort them as well as note their progress; and when World War II came, her primary activity was to evacuate the children. In a way, it is difficult to imagine this simple and caring woman as the same who hosted so many society parties in England; her parties in France became simpler, as well. Rather the aristocratic guests who ran in the same circles as the Duke of Marlborough, the Balsans' parties consisted mainly of artists and family friends—more notably, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Charlie Chaplin. The more political figures included merely the likes of Winston Churchill, who was family, and Lord Curzon and Lady Oxford, who were her friends and frequent guests in England. Though the circle of friends was wide and the parties many, they took on an informal feel; more common than five courses in the lush dining hall at Bleheim was a stroll around the village and a picnic luncheon on the lawn. Along with her husband and country, Consuelo changed the atmosphere in which she lived. No longer was the restrictions and “vague verbiage” of British aristocracy—Consuelo now basked in the French freedom that was both “gay” and “cosmopolitan."[27] (See Dinner Parties for more on the gatherings of European High Society.)

Consuelo at her weekend home in Surrey, 1919. She separated from Marlborough in 1906 and divorced him in 1921. From The New York Times

Consuelo Balsan's narrative ends shortly after the couple escaped from occupied France to America. (It is interesting to note here that it was his military and her aristocratic connections that facilitated that emigration.) The Glitter and the Gold was much criticized as a “ghost-written” collection of false stories. As Stuart notes, however, Consuelo made it clear that she would “not accept a 'ghost'” and that “the strength of feeling with which she tells...her life story is the most convincing argument against those who have suggested it was all made up.”[5] The very strength and reality of her autobiography, like many autobiographies of the time, shows the increasing importance that upper-class women feel about themselves—not just as beautiful accessories to luxurious husbands and homes, but persons who deserved to have their stories told. Like the religious confessions of old or the fictional heroines in the last centuries, Victorian upper-class autobiographies created a new genre in which women could assert themselves. As Bush states, "The act of written composition for publication was in itself an act of self-assertion. Women writers who appeared intimidated by the male autobiographical tradition were nevertheless buoyed up by the example of their friends, by their pride in their own life histories, and in many cases, by a consciousness of the advancing position of their sex as the twentieth century unfolded. It is far from coincidental that the women who published were all self-confident and successful, despite their self-deprecating stance."[3]

Indeed, Consuelo was trying to tell a story of neither the privileged aristocrat nor the victimized woman. Her story is told with wit and with honesty of opinion because that is the only way she could tell it with fairness. If she enjoyed her sumptuous life in the upper class, it is balanced by the suffering she endured under the rules of this same class. If she felt the need to "pay homage" by painting the portraits of others, the paints she used were sparkling with her personal opinions and humors; and if she despised the overbearing control of her mother and her first husband, this is countered by the happy and purposeful life she found for herself. Ultimately, her story is one of true personhood rather than class or gender struggle. It is a story of a woman who was both privileged and damned, who could only achieve a middle ground by making the best of her life—and through this, she overcame the Victorian stereotypes that ruled over her for much of her life and achieved independence as a modern woman who was yet in the centre of her community. By doing this, she joined a tradition—a new tradition, not of the Vanderbilt family, but of women who were stepping outside of their prescribed circles everywhere, working to improve the wider community around themselves. Though she was born in New York and a descendant of an American railroad magnate, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan thus made her mark as a woman in European history.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 6.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bush, Julia. “Lady Lives? Upper Class Women's Autobiographies and the Politics of Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.” Literature & History. 10.2 (2001): 42-62. EBSCOhost. 26 April 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.uchicago.edu>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. “Law.” The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883: Volume 2, Social Issues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. 3-55.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie. Consuelo & Alva: Love and Power in the Gilded Age. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.
  6. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 26.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 46.
  8. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 36.
  9. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 74.
  10. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 75.
  11. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 109.
  12. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 197.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 187.
  14. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 226.
  15. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 229.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 218.
  17. Ostrander, Susan A. “Upper Class Women: The Feminine Side of Privilege.” Qualitative Sociology. 3.1 (1980): 23-44. EBSCOhost. 26 April 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.uchicago.edu>.
  18. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 223.
  19. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 221.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 225.
  21. Peterson, M. Jeanne. “No Angels in the House: The Victorian Myth and the Paget Women.” American Historical Review. 89.3 (1984):677-709. EBSCOhost. 26 April 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.uchicago.edu>.
  22. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 235.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Andrews, Wayne. “The House of Vanderbilt Enters Society.” The Vanderbilt Legend: The Story of the Vanderbilt Family, 1794-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941. 241-321.
  24. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 242.
  25. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 251.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 253.
  27. Balsan, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 246.

Annotated Bibliography for Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

Created Spring 2009

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