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Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age Hardcover – January 3, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1875, the strong-willed Alva Smith married an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune in order to save her own family from further descent into genteel poverty. Twenty years later, she compelled her daughter Consuelo into a loveless marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, in order to provide her with a career rather than an empty life. Mother's and daughter's remarkably similar trajectories through life—difficult first marriages, happy second ones, social leadership, arts patronage, a shift into activism—were shaped by the opportunities wealth offered and the calculated use of marriage as a business transaction in their class and era. In her first book, Stuart uses a remarkable breadth of sources to follow her subjects to Newport, R.I.; India; late Victorian and Edwardian England; the heart of the women's movement; and the south of France at the outbreak of WWII She tells a riveting story but keeps her distance from her subjects, not offering final judgment on Alva's coercion of her daughter or allowing emotion to intrude on the deaths of major characters. Still, Alva and Consuelo emerge as unique and fascinating characters, and the details of their lives and times make a very entertaining read.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1895, on the eve of Consuelo Vanderbilt's marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, the New York World published a concise reference chart: the bride, at eighteen years old, weighed a hundred and sixteen and a half pounds, had "delicately arched" eyebrows and a nose that was "rather slightly retroussé," and was heir to a twenty-five-million-dollar estate. She had no interest in the groom, but a British aristocrat, albeit a poor one, held irresistible appeal for Alva, her socially ambitious mother. Stuart's history marshals an impressive trove of primary documents, from newspaper accounts (the Times had a reporter assigned to cover bridesmaids) to letters and autobiographical writings. But her account, while impeccably researched, lacks psychological acumen. We learn that Consuelo—who gave the Duke the descendants he needed, divorced, and remarried—is credited with coining the phrase "an heir and a spare," but it's hard to tell what it might have meant to her.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (January 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066214181
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066214184
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #230,633 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

83 of 92 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is an ambitious and fascinating book, but it is not without some major flaws. I would rate it four stars for the story, but only two for the writing.

Born into a prominent Southern family, Alva Erskine Smith was always ambitious, headstrong and rebellious. She spent the Civil War years in Europe, returning to New York City after the war. Unfortunately, her father suffered financial setbacks because of the war, and so it was important for Alva to marry into wealth. At this time, Commodore Vanderbilt was considered vulgar by society queen, Mrs. Astor, and excluded from NY society. Alva married the Commodore's wealthy grandson, William Kissam Vanderbilt. Soon, Alva convinced all the Vanderbilt's that they should use their money to become great patrons of the arts. She compared them to the Medici's of Florence, and encouraged them to create homes that were not only works of art, but showed good taste, culture, and the importance of the family. Soon, Mrs. Astor was knocking on their door. Her two great creations were the mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue in NYC and Marble House in Newport, RI.

Alva's other great work of art was her only daughter, Consuelo. Consuelo was a beautiful heiress and one of the most eligible girls at the time. Alva forced Consuelo to break a secret engagement to Winthrop Rutherfurd in order to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The marriage was orchestrated for a number of reasons, but mainly to provide acceptance to the newly divorced Alva and to provide Vanderbilt millions to the cash-strapped duke.

Unfortunately, Stuart had errors and mistakes too numerous to mention. First, there were research errors.
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43 of 49 people found the following review helpful By K. Maxwell on February 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is a dual biography of Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt. Alva Vanderbilt was one of the great society hostesses of the Gilded Age in New York. When her daughter Consuelo married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895 in New York it was a sensation and considered an amazing catch for the bride. It was only afterwards that stories started to filter out about a forced marriage by Alva.

This biography is well researched and supplies a lot of new information on both women. The author hasn't made the mistake of assuming everything the women wrote in their own memoirs was accurate and has double checked all her facts - which sometimes corrects errors previous published biographies of these ladies.

The book gives a good and detailed history as to the causes of both women's divorces and how both of them changed over the years with the times and how their interests changed - both of them coming to have a strong impact on social welfare and women's sufferage programs in both America and England. For a new look at these women's lives this book is a must - and is much more detailed than other biographies found in other books such as "The Vanderbilt Women" or more general histories on the Gilded Age. There's much more to these ladies than great architecture or parties even if they were social leaders of their times.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Ellis Bell VINE VOICE on January 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart gives her reader a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating women: Alva, the daughter of a less-than-400-family married into the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt clan and made them into what they became. She was a forcefully dynamic woman who encouraged her children to be independent, yet stifled them. Consuelo, on the other hand, emerges as a more sympathetic character; married to the Duke of Marlborough at age 18, she was forced to give up the man she loved so that her mother's ambitions could be realized.

The subject matter is fascinating, but I thought that the book was a little too dense at times; I thought that the author tried to bite off too much at once. Her original intent had been to make this book solely into a biography of Consuelo, but was misguidedly advised to include Alva as well. The result is that the book covers a large period of time and tends to wander a bit. Also, Consuelo's story covers about ¾ of the book, while Alva, who was probably a more interesting woman, is left in the background.

There were little things that I didn't like about this book as well. First there were too many French words that were left untranslated. Second the author goes into meticulous and I might even add sleep-inducing detail over every. Single. Little. Thing, which took away from my enjoyment of the book.

However, I truly enjoyed the subject matter. And I thought it was well-researched; it turns out that the mag rag Town Topics (an early precursor to the tabloid magazine) had a lot to say about the Vanderbilts, and believe it or not, sometimes their information was actually correct. I thought it was interesting, too, how society doyennes created the idea of a press agency, working the press according to their own agendas. It was kind of a Catch-22, in its own way.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on May 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I gave this 5 stars because it's an achievement for the author to put all this together. I enjoyed it all and learned a lot. There were times I couldn't put it down. I almost held back a star because sometimes I lost the forest for the trees. This cries out to be published as three solid volumes because two dynamic lives and several periods of history (US: post-Civil War, Gilded Age, Sufferage Movement/War and Europe: Victorian, Edwardian, Suffrage, War, Peace, War) are too much to be crammed into one book.

Mackenzie Stuart gives us a riviting description of how Alva took the less than 400 caliber Vanderbilt Family to the pinnacle of American social prominence through determination, further inherited $, architectually distinctive houses and great entertaining. Alva, perhaps understood society of her times all too well. The only career for a woman was the one that she had, so she made certain her daughter had the tools of the trade (thereby cementing her position as well). She groomed Consuelo through carefully supervised tutoring, backbraces for regal posture, hectoring and isolation for a role in the European aristocracy.

Untold is William K. Vanderbilt's family role, how Alva raised the sons or how Consuelo related to the male family members. I'd like a little more on Rutherford. The Lucy Mercer connection alone makes him more worthy than Alva's dimissive opinion. Did Alva bootstrap all the other Vanderbilts and the Smiths with her? How did they respond to society and the sequestering of Consuelo? Three volumes would allow for this.

Stuart Mackenzie's description of the Consuelo's welcome to rural feudal England of the 1890's is amazing.
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