Time for another entry in my Not the Nineteenth Century series!
In January I told you about a lady named Mrs. Fish who, along with two friends, was one of the premier leaders of fashionable New York society in the early 20th century. Today we will meet the second member of that triumvirate.
Alva Smith was not a native New Yorker but a southern girl, born in Alabama in 1853. Her family summered in Newport, RI while it was still a bastion of the old New England aristocracy, and spent the Civil War years in France, where little Alva attended school and acquired a fondness for all things French. However, the war was not kind to her father’s business prospects, and when the family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, it was in such reduced circumstances that the family nearly had to take in boarders to make ends meet. The death of her mother in 1869, when Alva was sixteen, turned her into “mother” to her two younger sisters, and she decided that it would be up to her to restore the family fortunes and take care of her sisters by marrying well. And what Alva decided upon usually took place: she was an extraordinarily tenacious person, as well as being both intelligent and spirited.
Alva accordingly restored the family fortunes by marrying the extremely wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of “Commodore” Vanderbilt, in 1875. She and “Willy K” had three children—Consuelo, William junior, and Harold. But her husband had his own interests, and Alva eventually turned to two things: social climbing, and building.
The Vanderbilts were “new money”, and as such not in the inner circle of society reigned over by Mrs. Caroline Astor (a.k.a. “the” Mrs. Astor). Alva changed this by building an enormous family home on 5th Avenue and then holding what promised to be the most glittering ball of the season…and not inviting Mrs. Astor or her daughter, who was pining to attend. Wanting to please her daughter, Mrs. Astor consented to call on Mrs. Vanderbilt…and after that, Alva’s place in society was guaranteed.
In 1895, after building several enormous houses with her husband’s money, including the astonishing Marble House in Newport (pictured above) and multiple mansions on Long Island, Alva sued him for divorce and promptly married one of her ex-husband’s best friends, Oliver Belmont. That same year she maneuvered and browbeat her daughter Consuelo into marrying the Duke of Marlborough (they too would have an unhappy marriage ending in divorce), and embarked happily on renovating and rebuilding her new husband’s homes and building them a new New York mansion. With the retirement of her former nemesis, Mrs. Astor, from the social scene, she moved into place with Mamie Fish and Tess Oelrichs as the leaders of New York society.
But the loss of her second husband in 1909 left Alva at somewhat loose ends…until she decided to pursue her growing interest in women’s suffrage. With her usual energy Alva embraced the suffrage movement and poured money and effort into working to secure the vote for women. She helped found several suffrage groups as well as what would today be called political action groups, and was co-founder of the National Women’s Party, of which she remained president for her lifetime. She even held a suffrage conference at Marble House, much to the bemusement of her society friends, and had a special set of china imprinted with the slogan "Votes for Women" made for the occasion.
After the First World War Alva spent an increasing amount of time in her beloved France, especially after Consuelo received her divorce and remarried a French war hero and aviation expert. She continued to build, remodeling a 15th century chateau, right until her death in 1933.
What do you think of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont? I don’t get the impression that she was probably the easiest person to live with (as her daughter and first husband might attest), but she was certainly a pioneer and a powerful woman ahead of her time.