The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own Words

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9781250017185: The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own Words

A new edition of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan's memoir―the story of the "real" Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey

Consuelo Vanderbilt was young, beautiful, and heir to a vast fortune. She was also in love with an American suitor when her mother chose instead for her to marry an English Duke. She sailed to England as the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895 and took up residence in her new home―Blenheim Palace. She was the real American heiress who lived long before Downton Abbey's Lady Grantham arrived.

Mme. Balsan is an unsnobbish and amused observer of the intricate hierarchy both upstairs and downstairs and a revealing witness to the glittering balls, huge weekend parties, and major state occasions she attended or hosted chronicling her encounters with every important figure of the day―from Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Tsar Nicholas and the young Winston Churchill.

The Glitter and the Gold is a richly enjoyable memoir is a revealing portrait of a golden age now being celebrated every week behind the doors of Downton Abbey.

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About the Author:

CONSEULO VANDERBILT BALSAN was born in 1877. She became the Duchess of Marlborough on her marriage in 1895. She died in 1964.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Glitter and the Gold, The
1 The World of My Youth IN TRYING to recount events that have influenced my life, it is humiliating to find that I remember very little of my childhood. Watching my great-grandchild Serena Russell at play, so sure of herself, even at the age of three, I wonder if, when she reaches my age, she also will have forgotten events that now appear important to her. That we are both in America - she the child of my granddaughter Sarah Spencer-Churchill, who married an American, and I the wife of a Frenchman - is due to World War II, and to events little anticipated at the turn of the century when I left my native land. Memories of myself at Serena's age recall a picture painted by Carolus Duran of a little girl against a tall red curtain. She is wearing a red velvet dress with a square décolleté outlined with Venetian lace. A cloud of dark hair surrounds a small oval face, out of which enormous dark eyes (much bigger than they were) look out from under arched brows. A pert little nose and dimples accentuate the mischievous smile. There is something vital and disturbing in that small figure tightly grasping a bunch of roses in each fist. 'You were un vrai petit diable, and only kept still when I played the organ in my studio!' Carolus Duran exclaimed, when again he painted me, this time at seventeen. The second portrait was a very different affair from the first, for the red curtain which had become his traditional background was at my mother's request replaced by a classic landscape in the English eighteenth-century style, and I am seen a tall figure in white descending a flight of steps. For my mother, having decided, in the fashion not uncommon at the time, to marry me either to the man who did become my husband or to his cousin- generously allowing me the choice of alternatives - wished my portrait to bear comparison with those of preceding duchesses who had been painted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and Lawrence. In that proud and lovely line I still stand over the mantelpiece of one of the state-rooms at Blenheim Palace, with a slightly disdainful and remote look as if very far away in thought. It is well that my Aunt Florence Twombly, now ninety-eight, could remember not only the street but also the number of the house where I was born, for my birth had never been officially recorded. This information was required when I took back my American citizenship after the French armistice in World War II. It was in one of those ugly brownstone houses somewhere in the forties, which was then the fashionable district of New York, that I first saw the light of day. My father's family was Dutch and had its origin in the Bilt - that northern point of Holland whence comes our name. It was about the year 1650 that the first member of the family came to the New Netherlands, and succeeding generations lived in the vicinity of New Amsterdam, as New York City was then called. In the first part of the nineteenth century my great-grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt founded the family fortune, moved from New Dorp, Staten Island, to New York and changed the spelling of our name from van der Bilt to its American version. In later years I met a Professor van der Bilt who taught at a Dutch University. He told me that there was only one family bearing our name in Holland, and in looking through his family archives he had become convinced that the Dutch and American branches had descended from a common ancestor. In the Patriciat, a book that is the Dutch equivalent of the British Landed Gentry, the Professor pointed out our coat of arms, the three acorns, and the names Gertrude, Cornelius and William, which repeatedly figure in our family Bible. My grandfather, William H. Vanderbilt, had, considering his numerous philanthropic gifts, an unmerited reputation for indifference to the welfare of others. It was, as is often the case, founded on a remark shorn of its context. This is the version of the 'public be damned' story that was given me by a friend of the family. Mr.Vanderbilt was on a business trip and, after a long and arduous day, had gone to his private car for a rest. A swarm of reporters arrived asking to come on board for an interview. Mr. Vanderbilt sent word he was tired and did not wish to give an interview, but would receive one representative of the Press for a few minutes. A young man arrived saying, 'Mr. Vanderbilt, your public demands an interview!' This made Mr. Vanderbilt laugh, and he answered, 'Oh, my public be damned.' In due course the young man left and next morning his article appeared in the paper with a large headline reading, 'Vanderbilt says, "The Public be damned." ' That he was not so black as painted I have from a cousin to whom my grandmother after her husband's death said, 'Your grandfather never said an unkind word to me during all the years we were married.' In 'The House of Vanderbilt'1 by Frank Crowninshield, I find a reference to my grandmother in which he says, 'She was an amazing woman who brought up her children to become people of the greatest cultivation and taste. She had been born Maria Louisa Kissam, the daughter of a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Kissams were an old and distinguished family, Mrs. Vanderbilt's father having descended from the Benjamin Kissam who, in 1786, married Cornelia Roosevelt, the daughter of the patriarchal Isaac, and the President's great-great-grandfather.' Of my grandmother's eight children my father, W. K., as he was known to his friends, was the second son. I remember my grandmother very well, and our visits to her in the big house on Fifth Avenue directly opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral where she lived. She was a lovely old lady, gracious and sweet as old ladies should be. All her grandchildren - we were, I think, twenty-six - loved her. After my grandfather's death in 1885 she lived alone with her youngest son, George. Uncle George was quite different from my other uncles and aunts. With his dark hair and eyes, he might have been a Spaniard. He had a narrow sensitive face, and artistic and literary tastes. After my grandmother's death in 1896 he createdBiltmore, a great estate in North Carolina where he built model houses and fostered village industries. My father's eldest brother Uncle Corneil, as we called him, was a stern and serious person, or so we thought. He was not gay like my father and Uncle Fred. Of my four aunts I loved my Aunt Emily Sloane best, for, like my father, she was of a joyous nature and had the look of happy expectancy one sees on the faces of those who love life. She and my Aunt Florence were always perfectly dressed, and, with their slight figures and quiet distinction, reminded me of Jane Austen's charmingly prim ladies. Some time before her death I went to see Aunt Emily. She was sitting at a window overlooking Central Park. It struck me that her days must have been very long, now that she was widowed and that the bridge game she loved was no longer possible because of her failing memory. But when I sympathised with her, she folded her hands and softly smiling answered - 'I have such lovely thoughts to keep me company,' and when I crept away, fearing to disturb them, I heard her murmuring, as if conversing with ghosts of the past. She lived to be over ninety. At her memorial service the Rector of St. Bartholomew's in New York paid a well-deserved tribute to her lovely character and generous charity. My maternal grandfather, Murray Forbes Smith, was descended from the Stirlings, and both my mother's given names - Alva Erskine - are Stirling names. The Scotch tradition of large families is borne out in two volumes on the Stirlings in America. This prolific family overflowed from Virginia into the more southern states and produced several governors and people of importance. All this accentuated in my mother a pride in her Southern birth and a certain disdain for the mercenary spirit of the North. Her father, who owned plantations near Mobile, was ruined by the liberation of the slaves and, after the Civil War, moved to Paris. There my mother's eldest sister made her début at one of the last balls given at the Tuileries by Napoleon III. My mother and I used to attribute our love for France to a Huguenot ancestor who escaped to America after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Indeed we were happier in France than in any other country, and, following the example of an aunt and a great-aunt, we both returned to live there. Why my parents ever married remains a mystery to me. They were both delightful, charming and intelligent people, but wholly unsuited to each other. My father, although deep in his business interests, found life a happy adventure. His gentle nature hated strife. I still feel pain at the thought of the unkind messages I was made the bearer of when, in the months that preceded their parting, my mother no longer spoke to him. The purport of those messages I no longer remember - they were, I believe, concerned with the divorce she desired and with her wishes and decrees regarding custody of the children and arrangements for the future. My father had a generous and unselfish nature; his pleasure was to see people happy and he enjoyed the company of his children and friends, but my mother - for reasons I can but ascribe to a towering ambition - opposed these carefree views with all the force of her strong personality. Her combative nature rejoiced in conquests. She loved a fight. A born dictator, she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children. If she admitted another point of view she never conceded it; we were pawns in her game to be moved as her wishes decreed. I remember once objecting to her taste in the clothes she selected for me. With a harshness hardly warranted by so innocent an observation, she informed me that I had no taste and that my opinions were not worth listening to. She brooked no contradiction, and when once I replied, 'I thought I was doing right,' she stated, 'I don't ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told,' which reduced me to imbecility. Her dynamic energy and her quick mind, together with her varied interests, made her a delightful companion. But the bane of her life and of those who shared it was a violent temper that, like a tempest, at times engulfed us all. One of her earliest ambitions was to become a leader of New York society. To this end she gave a fancy dress ball for the opening of her new house, 660 Fifth Avenue, on March 26, 1883. In contemporary newspapers I have read how eagerly invitations to this party were sought after. It proved to be, they said, the most magnificent entertainment yet given in a private house in America. My parents, gorgeous in medieval costumes, received the élite of what then was New York society. My godmother, who as Consuelo Yznaga had been my mother's bridesmaid, was our house guest and the ball was given in her honour. She was then Viscountess Mandeville and soon after, when her husband succeeded to the dukedom, became Duchess of Manchester. Beautiful, witty, gay and gifted, with the ability to play by ear any melody she had heard, she delighted us with her charm. Her lovely twin daughters who died so tragically young and her son Kimbolton spent that winter with us. Kim had early acquired the sense of importance a title is apt to confer, and one day when the postman left a letter for Viscount Mandeville with the comment, 'How I would like to see a real live lord,' he was astonished to see a diminutive figure in a sailor suit approach him exclaiming, 'Then look at me.' Now firmly established as a social leader, my mother, wishing still further to dominate her world, assumed the prerogatives of an arbiter elegantiarum, instructing her contemporaries both in the fine arts and the art of living. Ransacking the antique shops of Europe, she returned with pictures and furniture to adorn the mansions it became her passion to build. She thus set a fashion for period houses, which at that date were little known in the United States. Once she was successfully installed in the three homes she had built, her restless energy must, I imagine, have turned to other projects. It was perhaps then that plans for my future were born. Courage was one of her prominent characteristics - a courage that was physical as well as spiritual. I shall never forget an incident when I had occasion to realise how intrepid and quick were her reactions. It took place at Idlehour, our home on Long Island. One day when I, aged nine, was out driving, my pony started to run away with me, making straight for a water hydrant. My cart would undoubtedly have been overturned; but without the slightest hesitation my mother, who was standing near-by, threw herself between the hydrant and the racing pony and seized his bridle, thus preventing a serious accident. Reminiscences relating to one's childhood are apt to be tinged with a self-conscious pity, which in my generation might be considered justified, for we were the last to be subjected to a harshparental discipline. In my youth, children were to be seen but not heard; implicit obedience was an obligation from which one could not conscientiously escape. Indeed, we suffered a severe and rigorous upbringing. Corporal punishment for minor delinquencies was frequently administered with a riding-whip. I have a vivid memory of the last such lashing my legs received as I stood while my mother wielded her crop. Being the elder, I had the privilege of the first taste of the whip - Willie followed. We had, my brother and I, been sailing in our boat on a pond. Our governess, Fraulein Wedekind, wished to bring us home, but, lost in the pleasure of the sport, we paid no attention to her calls. At length, as we neared the bank, she caught us and, imprudently straddling the water with one leg on shore, she tried to stop us. Alas, how could one prevent the wicked impulse to give a sudden shove with an oar, setting the boat free and seating Fraulein in the water? It seemed very funny at the time, but as we neared home, our governess trailing her wet skirts straight up to our mother, the incident lost its charm. I bore these punishments stoically, but such repressive measures bred inhibitions and even now I can trace their effects. It is a melancholy fact that childhood, so short when compared with the average span of life, should exert such a strong and permanent influence on character that no amount of self-training afterwards can ever completely counter it. How different is the child's education today! Prejudiced as I am by my own experience, I still think that, although my mother's standard was too severe, it was preferable to the complete lack of discipline I see in many homes today. Punishments, which were private affairs, were more easily borne than ridicule suffered in public. I remember an occasion when, dressed in a period costume designed by my mother - for it was her wish that I should stand out from others, hallmarked like precious silver - I suffered the agonies of shame that the ridicule of adults can cause children. Then again I was particularly sensitive about my nose, for it had an upward curve which my mother and her friends discussed with complete disregard for my feelings. Since nothing could be done to guide its misguided progress, there seemed to be no point in stressing my misfortune. I developed an inferioritycomplex and became conscious not only of physical defects but also of faults that with gentler treatment might have been less painfully corrected. Introspection and heart-searching caused hypersensitiveness and a quick temper to cloud an otherwise amiable disposition. My brother Willie was my junior by eighteen months. He had inherited my ...

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