From Alva Vanderbilt Belmont to Doris Duke, Women Assert Independence
by Karen Rubin
The narrative of the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, typically revolves around the Captains of Industry who amassed unimaginable wealth and power for themselves and built these incredible monuments to their wealth and prestige and used them as staging areas for deals-making and to forge relationships.
During my recent visit, though, I became captivated by the story of the Women of Newport, especially since this year marks the 90th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, and Newport – specifically, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont’s Marble House, is at the epicenter.
As I toured The Breakers and The Elms, and contemplated how a few could accumulate such vast wealth as to spend the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to build a “summer cottage” that would be used a few weeks of the year, and learned of the regimented social status of women, it occurs to me that that ending the progressive income tax also put a chink in social structures that supported an American Aristocracy, created the opening for Women’s Suffrage (see “Newport’s Gilded Age Mansions Provide Narrative to Women’s Rights Movement”.)
By the time I got to Marble House, I am primed to appreciate Alva Vanderbilt’s triumph and supreme act of defiance as a woman using whatever weapon she could muster to break free. The only weapon presented to her in that day was the control she exerted over the building of Marble House – at a phenomenal cost – and in managing it. She used Marble House as an instrument to test her power and a weapon, and then, later in life, very literally as a platform for the movement.
I become introduced to Alva Vanderbilt as a major historical figure, only once I enter Marble House, and I assemble the clues to who she was.
No Gilded Lily she, Alva’s strong personality comes through.. as you tour this house – every detail screams for assertion of women’s rights, though it was not until much later, that she shifts from Socialite to Social Reformer.
She convinced her husband, William Kissam Vanderbilt, to let her take charge of the building of the house, between 1888-1892, at a cost of $11 million (probably $200 million in today’s money) but only on the condition that he give it to her outright. He made it a present for her 39th birthday.
Just as The Breakers reflected how Cornelius Vanderbilt II saw himself, Marble House reflects Alva Vanderbilt.
The first room you visit, a parlor off the center hall, is completed gilded and manifests images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power.
In the library, Alva Vanderbilt wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.
“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”
She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”
Her bedroom – enormous compared to the one she built for her husband – is like for a fairytale princess, with a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.
In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.
You get some sense of Alva Vanderbilt as a mother – the austere dining room with the stiff chairs (granted, they were priceless antiques), where she would lunch with her children every day and they would speak French (she spent a lot of her childhood in France, where her family lived during the Civil War after leaving Alabama).
“Our dining room is melancholy,” Consuelo says.
You see Consuelo’s bedroom, done in gold and fit for the princess she was raised to become, but contrast that to her brothers’ bedrooms, which were plain and small.
Alva went beyond domineering. You see the table at which Consuelo would be sat to practice her lessons, wearing a brace so that she would have to keep her neck stretched – a practice equivalent to the Chinese binding their daughters feet to make them more attractive to a husband. Consuelo was raised to marry a European prince or duke, and though Consuelo was secretly engaged to a man she loved, her mother would have none of it, and arranged for her to be married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough (a cousin to Winston Churchill).
“He gained $10 million and Alva gained a duchess for a daughter,” we learn.
For Alva “the only way [for a woman to] achieve independence, social privilege and economic power” was through marriage.
“I was brought up to obey,” Consuelo tells us.
“We were pawns in her game.” She adds that she sees “My life as a prisoner with mother and governess as guards.” But she also says, charitably, “Mother saw herself as artist.”
Here in Consuelo’s room, you learn that it was common among this burgeoning class of American heiresses (“Dollar Princesses,” they were called) to be married off to European royalty, to get the position to match their wealth, and ultimately, independence. (Her cousin, Gladys, became a Hungarian countess in 1908.).
You see the headline from the newspaper story of the grand party Alva arranged for the engagement – and her sublime success in getting Newport Society to forget and forgive the scandal of her divorce, that same year.
The Boston Globe, Sunday, Sept. 1, 1895, gushed, “Lady Alva Throws Open Marble Palace. Newport Society Ignores the Family Troubles. All Invited Attended Her Grand Ball. Duke of Marlborough is Lion of the Hour. The “180” Are Most Assiduous in Proffering Attentions.”
The New York Times swooned, “NEWPORT’S BIGGEST WEEK; Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Ball a Most Sumptuous and Brilliant Affair. AN ABUNDANCE OF TITLED VISITORS Newport Thinks the Duke of Marlborough is Nice and Affable — Private Theatricals to be the Event of the Week.”
“By far the crowning feature of the week was Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s ball at Marble House Wednesday evening it was an occasion of splendor long to be remembered by those who beheld it. Certainly it was the most sumptuous Newport has seen. There were a few cottagers, whom Mrs Vanderbilt does not know, who did not receive invitations, but to all others except those with whom she may not be on friendly terms, she sent her cards.”
But it ends happily (sort of) for Consuelo: following her mother’s lead, after 28 years of marriage, she finally gets an annulment from the Duke (he got $2.5 million a year), and finally was free to marry for love.
In an exhibit in the cellar (just off the gift shop), there are photos and panels that give a fuller biography. I could easily spend an hour more.
Born in 1853 in Mobile, Alabama, Alva Erskine Smith, came from a moderately wealthy family. Her family went to France to live during the Civil War.
With her fiery red hair, she must have been a real pistol. At 22, Alva was the first of her circle to marry a Vanderbilt and, 20 years later, the first to divorce one . For a woman of any social status to divorce was a glaring defiance of convention.
Vanderbilt “wanted a separation but I longed to be a pioneer, a female knight, to be an example,” she says.
The commentary continues, “She left the richest family …. survived scandal of divorce and retained her social position.”
Just a year later, in 1896, she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (the son of August Belmont, a Hessian Jew who became fabulously wealthy, for whom the Belmont Stakes and Belmont Racetrack are named, and Commodore Matthew Galbraith Perry’s daughter, the famous Commodore commanded the naval expedition that opened Japan in 1853-54).
After spending four years and a fortune building Marble House, Alva spent just three summers there; after she divorced, she moved across the street to Belcourt. It suggests her love for Belmont – that house is much, much more modest. She used Marble House as a closet.
But after Belmont died, in 1908, the Socialite emerged as a Social Reformer. Alva seems to have found her true calling.
She threw herself into the movement to win Women’s Suffrage. It must have crystallized for her that while once she saw marriage into wealth as the means for a woman to achieve power and independence, now she says, “The ballot means power.”
She reopened Marble House, where she staged rallies for Women’s Suffrage, and was the single biggest financier for the movement.
There is a photo from a suffrage rally she held in 1909. “The citadel of Society opened to all. Shop girls at $5 ticket could tour house; $1 to hear the speech on lawn.”
She added a Chinese Tea House on Marble House’s seaside cliffs, where she hosted rallies. She gave a big party in which everyone dressed in Chinese costume – she came as the Empress of China.
“Belmont was an important strategist and officer for the suffrage movement,” I subsequently learn. “She brought her experience with picket lines and arrests from the 1909-10 shirtwaist workers’ strikes in New York. In December 1917, following the November “Night of Terror” at Occoquan Workhouse, Belmont chaired a mass meeting at Belasco Theatre, attended by thousands, at which the newly released prisoners were honored for their service to liberty. She was a member of the executive boards of both the CU and NWP (1914-20). However, the degree to which those organizations were dependent on Belmont’s largesse sometimes posed uncomfortable questions regarding her power over the organizations’ policies.” (Alva Belmont. (2010). Biography.com. Retrieved Aug 23 2010 from www.biography.com/articles/Alva-Belmont-9206429)
Alva even partnered with songwriter and columnist Elsa Maxwell to write a light-hearted, one-act operetta entitled Melinda and Her Sisters to convince New York and Newport high society that the time had come to grant women equal rights. The play was performed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1916, and was re-staged by the Newport Preservation Society at Marble House in 2003.
In 1921, Alva was elected President of the National Woman’s Party, and was the founder of the Political Equality League. She is credited with the original advice, “Pray to God. She will help you.”
She also would say, “The Country is going to the dogs …Why not give it to the cats for awhile.”
In August, the Newport Preservation Society which operates Marble House as a museum, celebrated the 90th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont’s role.
“Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a rebel right from childhood, and despite becoming one of the leaders of Newport and New York high society, she never lost her independent spirit,” said Newport Preservation Society CEO and Executive Director Trudy Coxe. “Alva used her position in society to raise money and lobby for the right of women to vote, so she would be very proud to see her beloved Marble House hosting this celebration.”
“Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a force who championed the cause for the 19th Amendment’s passage. Imagine what our lives would be like today if the passage had not been won,” said Deborah L. Perry, Executive Director of YWCA Northern Rhode Island.
“We sometimes forget that Newport in the 19th century was a stage for more than just social entertainment, but was also a backdrop for many dramas of national consequence,” said Pieter Roos, Executive Director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, founded by Doris Duke. “Alva used Newport’s glamour and prestige to advance one of the most important social movements of the era, and this event will highlight that for contemporary audiences.”
Rough Point & Doris Duke’s Individualism
My Newport odyssey through the Women’s Movement culminates with the visit to Doris Duke’s Rough Point, which is operated by the Newport Restoration Foundation, which she founded.
Doris Duke, who would have been a child when Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was holding her Suffrage Rallies, was stunning for her independence, her intelligence, her accomplishment.
In this house, the image of Doris Duke – a manipulated, flighty rich girl – falls away entirely.
Visiting Rough Point is a window into her personality, her biography.
Rough Point is far more than a house – the collection of art and artifacts makes it one of the great museums in the world – but it is testament to the woman she became.
The house is one of the great mansions – in originally built in 1891 by architects Peabody & Stearne for Frederick W. Vanderbilt.
Doris Duke’s Father, who made his fortune at the American Tobacco Company and in electricity, was the third owner, and had an architect extensively remodel the house from its dark Victorian elements to a more sunny, livable home.
He died in 1925, just three years after acquiring the house, and left the bulk of his fortune to his 13-year old daughter, Doris. There is a portrait of Doris at 12 years old – her step mother was not much older than she.
Beginning in the 1930s, Doris made Rough Point her primary residence – and more.
We see the house as it was in 1992, when she last stayed here; she died in 1993.
Doris Duke filled the house with antiques collected from Europe, Asia, the Middle East – they are exquisite and rare, each one extraordinarily significant and on par with the greatest museum collections in the world, and they say so much about who she was and what she valued.
You cannot help being awestruck at what she collected in her life (in fact, she purchased the Whitehorne House, downtown, as a museum of American decorative arts).
Here you see Russian Empress Catherine the Great’s end tables – not just end tables of the period, but her actual end tables, with her monogram in Cyrillic; you see the last portrait Gainesborough painted, Sir Anthony Van Dyke – Newport painting, Earl of Newport, Van Dyke painting of Charles II at age 12, rare tapestries from the 1500s, Ming porcelain from the 1300s, Ming Dynasty wine jar, 1400s, the Music Room done in Louis XVI, XV, and XIV (writing desk). She turned the ballroom into a music room, covered the walls with 18th century handpainted wallpaper from china.
The house truly became her own in the 1930s – she took over her mother’s bedroom. It is the “Oh My God” bedroom – done completely in purple and yellow with mother-of-pearl everywhere.
Doris Duke was very much maligned by rumors – but visiting here, you come away with a different picture.
“There are rumors of what she did here.”
Camels, for instance.
The docent who leads the tour tells us that Duke got the camels from an Arab sheik who threw them in to seal the deal on a private jet he wanted to sell her. It worked.
The camels lived did not have free run of the house, as some suggested (though her dogs did – remarkable in itself when you contemplate the precious antiques and art). But she took them into the solarium during a hurricane. They got a look at themselves in a mirror, and charged, leaving a crack.
The commentary here contradicts the image of her as being unhappy, reclusive, taken advantage of by the butler, but focuses, instead, on her independence.
Duke guarded her privacy – but was not a recluse. She did what she wanted – jetted about.
She also managed to quadruple the fortune her father left her, and was a great philanthropist for the arts, for health-issues, and for preservation.
The 2010 exhibit Doris Duke’s Extraordinary Vision: Saving 18th Century Newport explores her passion for preservation.
She single-handedly is responsible for preserving Newport’s colonial-era houses that would have been knocked down and redeveloped, as well as sparking a preservation movement that saved the great mansions and spurred a Renaissance out of the ashes a dying city.
Rough Point has only been open to the public for the past 6 years, and is only open May through November (adult hour-long guided tour, $25; children 12 and under free; tour Rough Point and Whitehorne House for a $30 combination ticket)
Rough Point, 680 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 401-847-8344, Newport Restoration Foundation, Newport, Rhode Island, 401-849-7300www.newportrestoration.org
For information about visiting The Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, Chepstow, The Elms, Green Animals Topiary Garden, Hunter House, Isaac Bell House, Kingscote, Marble House, and Rosecliff, contact The Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 401-847-1000, www.NewportMansions.org. The Preservation Society offers a variety of ticket packages (tickets.newportmansions.org) to fit your schedule and interests, as well as tickets for special tours offered at various times during the year. Youth tickets are valid for children 6-17. Children under 6 are admitted free. No reservations are required except where specifically noted. Tickets have no expiration date and may be used at any time.
For information and help arranging a visit, contact Newport & Bristol County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-976-5122, www.gonewport.com
Vanderbilt Hall: Newport’s Boutique Hotel Makes You Feel Like a Million
Friday, 27 August, 2010
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