The story of American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt’s ‘celebrity wedding’ in 1895 — and a very personal portrait that she kept until her death
On 6 November 1895 huge crowds gathered outside St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan. The commotion was such that the police were called in, with the strict instructions not to use their nightsticks due to the fact that most of those in attendance were girls from ‘good families’.
Those in the throng had come to witness the arrival of the bride and groom in the ultimate ‘celebrity wedding’: Consuelo Vanderbilt — young, beautiful, and one of the two wealthiest young women in the United States at the time, reputedly worth around $4 billion in today’s money — and Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough and the most eligible peer in Great Britain.
Consuelo’s marriage to the Duke had been arranged through the machinations of her socially striving mother, Alva, who had long hoped to secure an aristocratic match for her daughter. She had not settled on a particular aristocrat until the Vanderbilts visited Lord and Lady Lansdowne, who was the Duke of Marlborough’s aunt, in Calcutta in late 1893.
Passing through Paris on the way home from India in the spring of 1894, Consuelo made her European debut at a ball thrown by the Duc and Duchesse de Gramont. Within a month, she had received five marriage proposals from various European suitors. Her mother, however, had her sights fixed firmly on the Duke.
Alva Vanderbilt got her wish, and Consuelo and the Duke became engaged in September of 1895. Her mother leaked the news to the press right away. In fact, she continued to feed information to the papers about everything from Consuelo’s gown to the gold fastenings on her undergarments in order to build public excitement in the lead up to the wedding.
The crowds outside the church were testament to the success of her strategy, although when Consuelo and her father arrived late for the ceremony, it was obvious that the bride had been crying. A cartoon in the New York papers satirising the wedding showed Consuelo kneeling next to the Duke in her wedding gown with her hands handcuffed behind her back and attached to a chain being held by her mother.
This was the very definition of a mercenary marriage — both Consuelo and the Duke were in love with other people. Consuelo had, in fact, been secretly engaged to someone else before accepting the Duke’s proposal — she was persuaded to break the engagement by her mother, who claimed it had caused her to suffer a ‘near-fatal’ heart attack.
Consuelo found the Duke cold, snobbish and image-obsessed. His nickname, ‘Sunny’, was not given because it reflected his personality
In Alva Vanderbilt’s defence, her expectation was that the position of Duchess would be fulfilling for Consuelo because of the influence and prestige that came with it, the like of which she could never have in America. For her part, Consuelo was given little opportunity to express her own opinion on the matter.
The Duke’s motivation was primarily financial. Without Consuelo’s money his income would have been insufficient to maintain Blenheim Palace, let alone undertake the renovations he had in mind. The influx of Consuelo’s fortune allowed him to restore Blenheim to the glory that the great house still exhibits today.
Consuelo therefore became the most prominent of the ‘Dollar Princesses’ — heiresses from the United States who married into aristocratic families from Europe; families whose titles and grand homes belied the fact that their ‘fortunes’ had diminished over generations.
In marrying the Duke, Consuelo became the cousin of Winston Churchill, who would remain a dear friend and confidant to her throughout her life. In fact, Churchill had been heir to the Duke of Marlborough until Consuelo and the Duke had their first son in 1897, and freed him to pursue a career in politics.
Consuelo and the Duke had a second son in 1898 and she is said to have coined the phrase ‘an heir and a spare’. Consuelo was reasonably successful in English society and in her duties as a Duchess, but the simple truth was that she and the Duke were poorly matched in terms of temperament.
A quiet and serious man who had suffered an unhappy childhood, the Duke was devoted to the duty that he had inherited. Consuelo found him to be cold, snobbish, and image-obsessed. It is often said that the Duke’s nickname, ‘Sunny’, was not given because it reflected his personality, but was simply taken from his first courtesy title, the Earl of Sunderland.
By the time John Singer Sargent painted his famous portrait of their family in 1905 (below), the cracks had already long begun to show. Consuelo and the Duke separated in 1906.
Paul César Helleu’s portrait of Consuelo, offered in the 19th Century European Art sale in New York on 26 October, was executed during the artist’s visit to Blenheim Palace in the spring of 1900. The Duke was away fighting in the Boer War and this touching portrait illustrates an intimacy between Helleu and his sitter. The artist’s daughter believes that the Helleu and Consuelo probably had an affair between 1900 and 1901, which began around the same time as this portrait was created and continued after his return to Paris, where she visited him and sat for him again.
Helleu was cultured, sophisticated and witty, and was a friend to Consuelo during a lonely time in her life. His portrait is particularly important among the many that exist of Consuelo, because it is the most personal of them all.
His depiction of the 23-year-old Duchess, a ribbon emphasising the long neck for which she was so famous, staring off into the distance with a brightness and intelligence to her eyes, must be as close as we can get to knowing how Consuelo would have wanted to portray herself. In fact, she kept it with her for the remainder of her life, and it has remained with the family since her death.