Belmont, Alva Smith (1853–1933)

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Belmont, Alva Smith (1853–1933)

American social reformer and socialite. Name variations: Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont; Mrs. Oliver Belmont; Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt; Alva E. Belmont; Alva Murray Smith. Born Alva Erskine (or Ertskin) Smith on January 17, 1853, in Mobile, Alabama; died on January 26, 1933, in Paris, France; educated in France; married William Kissam Vanderbilt I (1849–1920), in 1875 (divorced 1895); married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (d. 1908), in January 1896; children: (first marriage)Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877–1964), duchess of Marlborough; William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878–1944); Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884–1970).

Born into southern aristocracy in 1853, Alva Smith Belmont was educated in France, where the family had moved after the Civil War devastated the American South. They later returned to New York, where Belmont made her society debut and, in April 1875, married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius. Despite their vast wealth, the Vanderbilts were excluded from the cream of New York Society, then dominated by the Astor and McAllister families. Craving acceptance, the new Mrs. Vanderbilt set out to make her mark, commissioning Richard M. Hunt to build a family mansion on Fifth Avenue. She followed with houses on Long Island and in Newport, the latter "cottage" reportedly costing $9 million with furnishings. She also lit up the social calendar of 1883 with the most extravagant entertainment ever seen in New York—a masquerade ball for 1,200 guests.

After securing her place in the coveted "Four Hundred," New York's most elite of the elite, Alva then stunned her new society friends by charging her rich husband with adultery and filing for a divorce. The ensuing scandal was reinforced by gossip regarding her own involvement with Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, the son of a prominent banker, who was a few years her junior. A year after her divorce, she married Belmont in a civil ceremony, her only recourse at the time. Following his death eight years later, Alva Belmont found a new direction for her life.

Focusing energy on the cause of women's rights, in 1909 she lent her support to the striking garment workers, organizing meetings and encouraging wealthy friends to boycott non-union dress manufacturers. With personal visits to jails, she provided bail for a number of union strikers, an act that initially met with skepticism coming from such an unlikely source. That same year, she paid for the Fifth Avenue offices of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and subsequently financed a speaking tour by English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst . Belmont co-authored a feminist operetta, Melinda and Her Sisters, and staged it at the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1916. Starring Marie Dressler , the production brought in $8,000. With the women's vote finally secured, Belmont, who authored the slogan "Pray to God. She will help you," was elected president of the National Woman's Party, a post she held from 1921 to the end of her life.

Alva Belmont spent her later years in France, continuing to represent American women's interests at international conferences. She renewed an interest in architecture which had first surfaced with the building of the Vanderbilt mansions, and in the 1930s and '40s she became a noted architectural designer, restoring a 15th-century castle, among other projects. In honor of her achievements, she was one of the first women ever elected to the American Institute of Architects. Alva Smith Belmont died in Paris on January 26, 1933, a few days after her 80th birthday.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Belmont, Alva Smith (1853–1933)

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