Rarely do stories show the full extent of someone’s life. The events that cushion the spaces between years, the hardships that push journeys ahead, and every happy moment that makes the days, weeks, months, and years worth it, novels tend to only focus on one of those moments. Never all of them together, that is, until the novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper.
Published February 2016, 2019, American Duchess received respectable reviews. But, has yet to be the talk of the town the book deserves, or more to the fact, Consuelo Vanderbilt was never the talk of the town that she deserved to be either.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2nd, 1877 to William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith. As the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the owner and architect of the New York Central railroad, and a political family from Tennessee that was nearly decimated by The Civil War, it was Consuelo’s heavy birthright to marry well and to be great.
A potential, her strict mother, guaranteed she would meet. By forcing Consuelo’s unwilling hand in matrimony to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill. Alva Belmont was a feminist fighter, renowned by Barack Obama for her later in life work for women’s suffrage, she revolutionized the role of elite, married women in society, but as a mother, she earned no accommodations. She ruled Consuelo, not parented. During her parent’s separation, Alva imprisoned Consuelo. Keeping her locked-in and watched-over, Consuelo was unable to correspond with her father, let alone anyone that Alva did not approve of.
Marrying Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill was a mutually beneficial alliance for the families. The Spencer-Churchill clan was somewhat on the outs of English aristocracy and financially choked by their own architectural interests. And the Vanderbilt name, for all of its money and influence, couldn’t forge an elite legacy for themselves without such a marriage.
However beneficials to the families the matrimony was, individually, Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill was by far, the greatest benefactor. It was through Consuelo’s soft-manners, American ideology, and philanthropic heart that the Spencer-Churchill family was brushed into the good graces of the crown and hearts of the lower-class community. Consuelo visited the towns that surrounded Blenheim, the palace of the Spencer-Churchill family, to donate time and food to the poorer communities. For awhile, she was known as ‘Saint Consuelo,” although many of her good deeds were worn unconvincingly by her husband.
After many years of an unhappy marriage together, Consuelo moved to London. In hopes of redefining herself, her identity, and her independence. While in London, Consuelo continued her philanthropic work for children and mothers of lower-income households. She also found love, the details of which can be discovered by reading on into her story.
But to touch broadly on the things survived and thrived in Consuelo’s life: two world wars, two marriages, two children, countless houses, one assassination attempt, one kidnapping attempt, an aging disability, and an entire world shifting into a new decade, a new world, the twentieth century.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely forgotten if not for Kate Harper’s book. Hopefully she can now take her place in history textbooks and stories told to young girls and as a figure head for the philanthropy and influence expected from those more privileged. This is the story of Cinderella that saved herself.