Class and Leisureat America's First ResortNewport, Rhode Island1870-1914

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont

Alva Vanderbilt BelmontAlva Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933) was one of America's leading socialites during the Gilded Age.

Born Alva Erskine Smith in Mobile, Alabama, Alva infiltrated the ranks of Old New York society through persistent networking and display of the vast wealth of her husband, William K. Vanderbilt.

In an effort to equate themselves with New York's old-monied families, William K. and Alva Vanderbilt purchased a Bellevue Avenue estate in Newport, Rhode Island, next door to Beechwood, the home of society matron Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.

The Vanderbilts hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a palace modeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Estimated at $11 million, Marble House featured 500,000 cubic feet of white marble.

Alva insisted that Marble House be accurately modeled after a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century palace. The Vanderbilts brought in Italian stonecutters from Europe to work on the exterior. J. Allard and Sons of Paris decorated the gold ballroom, where the Vanderbilts entertained guests. The summer staff at Marble House consisted of 36 butlers, maids, coachmen, and footmen, who wore maroon livery.

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt shrewdly earned the Vanderbilts a spot on Mrs. Astor's coveted "Four Hundred" social list. Alva organized a masquerade ball in New York during the winter season but did not invite the Astors' daughter Caroline. Mrs. Astor acquiesced and called on the Vanderbilts in return for an invitation to the Vanderbilt ball. In so doing, Mrs. Astor allowed the newly monied Vanderbilts into the upper echelon of society.

Eager to establish ties with English nobility, Alva arranged a marriage for their daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, to the Ninth Duke of Marlborough. The marriage was an unhappy one and was annulled in the 1920s. Their son, William K. Vanderbilt Jr., was an avid auto racer. Their son, Harold Vanderbilt, was an accomplished yachtsman.

William K. and Alva Vanderbilt divorced in 1895. Alva married Oliver H. P. Belmont and moved to Belcourt Castle at the end of Bellevue Avenue.

In later years, Alva became a leader in the fight for women's suffrage. She founded the Political Equality League in 1909. She held the International Woman's Suffrage Convention at Marble House in 1914. In 1921, she became president of the National Women's Party.

Alva was interested in architectural design and became a member of the American Institute of Architects. She spent her later years in France and died in Paris in 1933.

Harold Vanderbilt assisted the Preservation Society of Newport County in purchasing Marble House and opening it as a museum.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001