Birthday: March 2, 1877
Died At Age: 87
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
Born in: Manhattan, New York City
Famous as: Socialite
Spouse/Ex-: Jacques Balsan (m. 1921–1956), Charles Spencer-Churchill (9th Duke of Marlborough), Charles Spencer-Churchill (9th Duke of Marlborough) (m. 1895–1921), Jacques Balsan (m. 1921–1956)
father: William Kissam Vanderbilt
mother: Alva Erskine Smith
Died on: December 6, 1964
City: New York City
U.S. State: New Yorkers
Consuelo Vanderbilt was an American socialite from the Vanderbilt family who became the Duchess of Marlborough following her marriage to Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While she was with the Duke for just over a decade, she is best known for their loveless but socially advantageous marriage. The most prominent of the American 'Dollar Princesses', she was brought up under the strict discipline of her mother, Alva Vanderbilt, to entice eligible men from European aristocratic families in an attempt to trade money for status. After being separated from her husband, Consuelo Vanderbilt became one of the first aristocratic women to legally obtain a divorce, and later married Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a pioneering French aviator who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Consuelo remained close friends with Winston Churchill, the first cousin of her first husband, even after she was divorced.
Childhood & Early Life
Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, in Manhattan, New York, United States, to railroad millionaire William Kissam Vanderbilt and his first wife Alva Erskine Smith. She was named after her godmother, half-Cuban and half-American socialite Consuelo Yznaga who, one year ago, had the socially advantageous marriage to George, Viscount Mandeville.
Her socially striving mother, in the hopes of securing an aristocratic match for her daughter, forced her to wear a steel rod to improve posture, and whipped her with a riding crop for slight disobedience. She was educated at home by governesses and tutors and learned several foreign languages early on.
Her mother became interested in Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, after visiting his aunt, Lady Lansdowne, in Kolkata, India in late 1893. On their way home, the Vanderbilts stopped in Paris where Consuelo attended her first European ball, thrown by the Duke and Duchess of Gramont, which attracted the attention of at least five suitors.
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Through matchmaker Lady Paget, Consuelo Vanderbilt's mother engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the indebted Duke, despite the fact that she was secretly engaged to American socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd. When she attempted to elope, Alva locked her and threatened to murder Rutherfurd, and eventually feigned illness to coerce her into giving consent to the marriage.
Consuelo and the Duke, who were engaged in September 1895, were married on November 6, 1895, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City and settled in the mansion her father built for her in London. They had two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, who inherited the Dukedom, and Ivor Charles Spencer-Churchill.
Eleven years after their marriage, she realized that "life together had not brought [them] closer", but as divorce in England was a complicated option, they separated in 1906. They eventually legally divorced in 1921, after divorce laws were updated, and later she also agreed to her former husband's request for annulment in August 1926.
After her divorce was finalized, Consuelo married French aviator and industrialist Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan on July 4, 1921, even though the marriage was not initially recognized by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, her mother not only fully supported her, but also told an investigator, "I forced my daughter to marry the duke", making it possible for her to ask for annulment of her first marriage.
Consuelo Vanderbilt and Colonel Balsan escaped from occupied France to America during the Second World War and settled in New York, where her husband died in 1956 – the same year she lost her younger son.
Consuelo Vanderbilt died at Southampton, Long Island, New York, on December 6, 1964, and was buried alongside Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill in the churchyard at St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England.
Her autobiography, 'The Glitter and the Gold', ghostwritten by 'The New York Times' art critic Stuart Preston, was published in 1953 and was termed "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance". While some criticized it as a ghostwritten "collection of false stories", she strongly defended "the strength of feeling with which she tells...her life story".
As the Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt often provided assistance to poor tenants on her husband's estate and later became involved in many philanthropic projects. She worked as the chair of the Economic Relief Committee for the American Women's War Relief Fund during World War I.
Following her second marriage, she and Winaretta Singer, the Princess de Polignac, helped in the construction of a 360-bed hospital for the French middle-class, which is now the Foch Hospital. She also arranged and built a sanatorium in their summer house in Saint Georges-Motel near Paris, where she personally attended to about 80 children in need of preventive care.
Following Consuelo Vanderbilt's first marriage, a cartoon appeared in New York papers depicting a handcuffed Consuelo kneeling next to the Duke in her wedding gown as she is held in chains by her mother.