One of the reasons I chose to go to England in early December was to visit Blenheim Palace, home at the turn of the twentieth century to Consuelo Vanderbilt of Newport. It seemed only fitting (but does one really need an excuse to go to London?) that I should do this bit of “research” as Marble House, her former Vanderbilt residence, was to be a Christmas post enlightened by excerpts of the families place in American commerce and society.
Consuelo was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the family’s fortune in steamships and the New York Central Railroad. And her uncle was Cornelius II, who built The Breakers. Both of her brothers William K. Jr., a prominent figure in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America, and Harold, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times, established their credentials early on.
But it was Consuelo who was chosen to firmly establish the family’s social credentials by securing an English aristocratic title. Her mother, Alva, was nothing if not persistent on the subject, rumor having it that she went so far as to lock her daughter in her room until she capitulated to an arranged marriage with the 9th Duke of Marlborough. They were married in 1895, after her dowry had been settled upon (worth almost $100 million in today’s money).
Consuelo’s was the most prominent and storied example during the Gilded Age of enterprising social ambition on the part of newly wealthy parents. Among the many American heiresses married off to British aristocracy, Consuelo’s title carried the highest ranking of these “Dollar Princesses,” but proved to be a loveless marriage common during the Gilded Age. Nonetheless, she reigned as the Duchess of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, noteworthy as the only non-royal palace in Britain. After ten years and two heirs, she and the Duke separated and were eventually divorced.
Marble House was built between 1888 and 1892 for William K. and Alva Vanderbilt and designed by leading architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt. This “Temple to the Arts”, as described by Alva, was a social and architectural landmark that set the pace for Newport’s subsequent transformation from a quiet summer colony of wooden houses to the legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. Among its many attributes is the 500,000 cubic feet of marble that provided the home’s moniker. Stunningly elegant throughout the year, it is breathtaking when dressed for Christmas. All images attest to this point, but the “small” ballroom (below) is my favorite, deliciously making sense of the saying that “more is never enough.”
And speaking of more…I wish you holidays full of delight, lots of things merry and everything bright. xB