Monday, January 17, 2011

The Marble Maiden

Magnet # 441:  Marble House Photo

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

When most women turn thirty-nine, they're probably impressed if their husbands buy them some expensive jewelry or perfume, and I guess some are lucky if they get any present at all.  But, let's face it, the Vanderbilts aren't most women.  So when Alva Vanderbilt reached that particular age on this day in 1892, she received perhaps the gift of the century from her husband, railroad magnate William Kissam Vanderbilt.  He presented her with Marble House, the most opulent mansion on Newport, Rhode Island's Bellevue Avenue.  It reportedly cost him $11 million dollars to create the residence, of which over half went to paying for the marble alone.  I'm not sure if he could find a ribbon large enough to wrap around it, though.

The Gilded Age high society certainly produced some colorful characters, but I'm not sure if any were a match for the woman who finished life as Alva Erksine Belmont.  She was born Alva Smith on this day in 1853 to a moderately wealthy merchant family in Mobile, Alabama.  She was the youngest in her family, and by the time she was born, all but one of her siblings had died.  As she grew up, Alva spent some of her summers in Newport, Rhode Island, a place that would become very important to her as an adult, and was educated at a private boarding school in Paris.  Her family eventually moved to New York City, where her lifelong friend introduced her to William Kissam Vanderbilt, one of the heirs of the Vanderbilt empire.  They wed in 1875 and Alva set out to improve the status of the Vanderbilt family, elevating it higher than it had ever previously reached.  She commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design a palatial home for them on Fifth Avenue using the French Renaissance style and threw a masquerade ball that supposedly cost three million dollars in honor of its completion.  Not only did the event mark the Vanderbilt's official acceptance into high society, it also set the standards of elite parties to a new, far more extravagant level.  Hunt also designed two more homes for the couple, their retreat on Long Island and, of course, Marble House.  They had three children together, and their single daughter, Consuelo, may have received the most attention from their mother.  Alva was hard on her, forcing her to wear a steel rod to improve her posture and even using a riding crop to whip her.  But with years of plotting, she was able to make her daughter a duchess, marrying her off to a British royal and cousin of Winston Churchill who had fallen on hard times.  Their marriage didn't last and neither did Alva's.  In 1895, she decided to divorce her husband, citing adultery as the cause, to set an example that other women could follow.  In those times, no women who had risen in society so far as she had would dare end her marriage.  Her actions may have shocked her circle, but Alva would not remain single.  Less than a year later, she wed Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a divorcee who had been a bachelor for quite some time and owned a mansion just down the street from Marble House.  Later in life, Alva became devoted to the cause of women's suffrage, paying the bail of picketers who were arrested, hosting fundraising events at her home, and ascending to president of the National Women's Party.  She also became much closer to Consuleo, patching up what had once been a rocky relationship.  In 1932, she was partially paralyzed after a stroke and she passed away the next year.  Her funeral featured only female pallbearers and many suffragists were in attendance.  Alva was buried beside her second husband in a mausoleum designed by - who else - Richard Morris Hunt that is a replica of France's Chapel of St. Hubert.  Even in death, she retains a sense of the opulence that defined so much of her life.

Alva Vanderbilt may be gone, but her legend lives on at Marble House, which is generally considered to be the most opulent mansion on Newport's Bellevue Avenue, home to some of the country's grandest Gilded Age residences.  In fact, its construction there helped transform the area from a quiet, humble summer retreat to a gathering place for the cream of society.  I toured it last year during my visit to New England and I must say, I was blown away by its magnificence.  Its Gold Room is a ballroom that's actually covered in gold and walking into it is almost overwhelming.  And, as its name implies, there is marble everywhere, in all sorts of colors.  Alva was one of the first socialites to design rooms around historical and cultural themes, and Marble House has features such as a Gothic Room, a Rococo Library, a Louis XVI bedroom, and a separate Chinese teahouse.  Some may say it's a little much and is perhaps even be over the top, but this is one place that's worth seeing in person.  It's so rare that such an incredible home as Marble House can be constructed and later opened to the public, and it's worth having a glimpse of what millions of dollars and the best designers in the world can create.  It's a taste of what it might have been like to live the life Alva Vanderbilt with its many difficulties, scandals, and triumphs.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Marble House a number of years ago and your description of it and details about Alva Vanderbilt brought back images of the visit we made.