Vanderbilt, Consuelo (1877–1964)

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Vanderbilt, Consuelo (1877–1964)

American heiress and duchess of Marlborough. Name variations: Consuelo Churchill. Born on March 2, 1877, in New York; died in 1964; only daughter and one of three children of William Kissam Vanderbilt I (1849–1920) and Alva (Smith) Vanderbilt, later Alva Smith Belmont (1853–1933); educated privately at home; married Charles Richard Spencer Churchill (1871–1934), 9th duke of Marlborough, on November 6, 1895 (separated 1905, divorced 1920); married (Louis) Jacques Balsan (1868–1956, a French lieutenant-colonel in the cavalry), on July 4, 1921; children: (first marriage) John Albert William (b. 1897); Ivor Charles (1898–1956).

Consuelo Vanderbilt, born in New York in 1877 into one of America's wealthiest families, was the only daughter and one of three children of William Kissam Vanderbilt I and Alva Smith Belmont . Dominated by a mother she could not please, Consuelo was a precocious, introverted child, says biographer James Brough, "in the habit of searching her infant soul for faults and judging herself inadequate." Impeccably educated and well traveled, Consuelo grew into a beautiful but melancholy young woman. In 1895, her mother arranged for her to wed the era's most eligible bachelor, Charles Richard John Spencer Churchill ("Sunny"), the 9th duke of Marlborough and a cousin and good friend of Winston Churchill. At the time Consuelo was deeply in love with Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy playboy lawyer, a fact she did not attempt to hide from Sunny. "I am sure that we shall both do our best to make the other happy, but there is something you must believe," Consuelo told Sunny on their wedding night. "Our marriage was my mother's idea, not mine. She insisted on it, even though there was another man who wanted me. She made me turn him away." Sunny barely looked up from the congratulatory telegrams he was reading. "Really? I take it he was an American. I don't see much point in discussing it any farther."

The couple settled into Blenheim Palace in England, where Consuelo gave birth to two sons, John and Ivor, and fulfilled her official duties as duchess of Marlborough. Gossip about the problems within the loveless marriage surfaced as early as 1901, and no one was surprised when the

couple separated after a decade together. It was at this time that Consuelo, anxious to find meaning in her life, became immersed in charity work, involving herself, writes biographer Brough, in "questions of sanitation affecting food supplies, milk, water, drains and ventilations, education of children, child and female labor, administration of relief to poor…. She corralled donors for the Young Women's Christian Association, and Sunderland House provided a center for a campaign to curb the traffic in women recruited as 'white slaves' for brothels overseas." Consuelo also supported women's suffrage (a cause her mother embraced fervently following the death of her second husband, Oliver Belmont) and the movement to improve the minimum wage for women factory workers. During World War I, she assisted the Red Cross and organized an employment service to help secure jobs for the 400,000 servants displaced when mansions were shut down or given over to the government.

Following her divorce from Churchill, on July 4, 1921, Consuelo married Jacques Balsan, a French lieutenant-colonel in the cavalry and a passionate balloonist. (She had her marriage to Churchill annulled in 1926, and married Balsan a second time in a Catholic ceremony.) The couple settled in France, dividing their time between Paris and a summer home on the Riviera. For a time, Consuelo gave up her many causes to oversee salons for a glittering set of writers, artists, diplomats and dignitaries, and when she grew restless, she renovated a château on the border of Normandy by the forest of Dreux. Slowly, she took up her charitable interests once more, this time focusing much of her attention on children. She began running a play school in the summer for the local children and later built a sanitarium on her property large enough to house 80 sick children. It was eventually expanded to include young tuberculosis patients.

At the outbreak of World War II, after learning that she was in danger of being captured as a hostage, Consuelo gave up her work with the Red Cross and returned to the United States, where she and Jacques lived in "quiet splendor," dividing their time between a home on New York's Sutton Place and another at Oyster Bay, on Long Island. In 1956, within two months of her husband's death, she also lost her estranged son Ivor, who died of a brain tumor. During her final years, Consuelo became close to her eldest grandchild Lady Sarah Consuelo Churchill , and it was to her that she left the bulk of her estate when she died in 1964. Income from family trusts were left to her remaining son and to Ivor's son Robert. Of the millions Consuelo had inherited from her father, only two million dollars remained.


Brough, James. Consuelo: Portrait of an American Heiress. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Vanderbilt, Consuelo (1877–1964)

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