Tales from the Gothic Room

By Robert Plunket January 1, 2010

Lovers of Gothic art will find much to delight them in the Ringling Museum’s new exhibit, Gothic Art in the Gilded Age. The show, encompassing more than 300 items including medieval and Renaissance paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics and more, reflects both museum founder John Ringling’s passion for fine art and objects and his desire to join the exalted company of these works’ previous owners: the prestigious Vanderbilt family. For the scion of an immigrant family that made its fortune in the rough-and-tumble world of the circus, there must have been some sense of validation—of arriving—in acquiring the Vanderbilt possessions and pedigree, just as there was in his acquisition of the paneled rooms from New York’s Astor mansion, which he had reassembled in his Sarasota museum.

The story of the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling collection is told in a catalogue that documents every single one of the exhibit’s items—some of which came almost as a surprise to curator Virginia Brilliant once she began prowling the Ringling vaults. In fact, Brilliant says, “This exhibition is actually a huge step in documenting a large section of the Ringling collection.” And the installation of the show is based faithfully on the way this assemblage would have been displayed in a private mansion of the time, rather than in a typical museum setting.

But amid the priceless religious paintings and intricately worked chalices that were the glory of their age lies another story. These are the relics of the Vanderbilts, the richest family of their day, famous for their outrageous ambition and opulent style. And these delicate Madonnas were eyewitnesses to the greatest Vanderbilt adventure of them all—the engagement of the beautiful heiress, Consuelo, to the Duke of Marlborough.

Perhaps no other story so epitomizes the Gilded Age—the young American heiress maneuvered into a marriage with a European aristocrat. Henry James used the plot over and over. In fact, he based his career on it. So did Edith Wharton. And here is the prototype, the original, far more over the top than any of its fictionalized versions could ever hope to be.

As in any good novel, the best part goes not to the young would-be lovers. It’s really the story of the mother and her ambition. The mother in this case is the remarkable Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Raised in a well-to-do, socially secure family, she was a tomboy who always had to get her own way. She loved a challenge; and during her long life (she died in 1933) she more than met enough, against odds that would have discouraged any other mere mortal.

Her first accomplishment was to turn the Vanderbilt family into the powerful and prestigious clan that we remember them as today. When Alva married William K. Vanderbilt in 1875, the Vanderbilts were looked upon as the ultimate parvenus— fabulously rich, certainly, but rough around the edges and not refined enough for the best society. Alva changed all that. When her husband’s father died and she suddenly found herself married to one of the richest men on earth, she went to work. Her first accomplishment was to build a series of houses that so dazzled the world of society that any prohibitions against the family simply vanished.

Each home had a dual purpose. It was an announcement of the arrival of the family. But it was also a perfectly designed stage for their future ambitions.

Alva’s first masterpiece was 660 Fifth Ave., designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the great Beaux Arts architect who built many of the palaces of the robber barons. It was French Renaissance in style, largely because of Alva’s love for the country where she had spent several key years of her childhood.

“Alva expressed her aristocratic aspirations through her houses,” Brilliant says. She was involved in every stage of planning and construction, and the interiors were carefully put together with her excellent taste in mind. And when the collection of exquisite medieval objects belonging to the mysterious art dealer Emile Gavet came on the market in Paris in 1889, Alva moved quickly to purchase half the collection. Among its masterpieces: a gilded bronze called The Deposition of Christ, dating from around 1570 to 1585; an oval-cased verge watch of gilded copper, brass, silver, iron and steel from the second quarter of the 17th century; and a verge pendant watch in the form of a cross by Pierre Duhamel dating from the third quarter of the 17th century.

The collection may have been originally intended for the Fifth Avenue house, but it was not installed there. When Alva built Marble House in the fashionable resort of Newport, R.I., a special room was designed to display it. The Gothic Room was 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, with a ceiling that rose 20 feet above the parquet floor. On each wall and on the rare and costly furniture from the medieval period were placed the glories of the Gavet collection. It is this spectacular space that the Ringling is re-creating in its Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Gallery, along with the atmospheric fin-de-siècle salon of Emile Gavet.

Marble House was the first of the Newport mansions to turn away from the American rustic feeling of shingled, seaside cottages and take its cues from the time-honored splendor of European castles. It was a perfect reflection of Alva’s mind at the moment. She was getting closer and closer to her next goal—the amalgamation of the Vanderbilts with the nobility of Europe. It was the ultimate social peak to climb.

And Alva had a spectacular resource at her hands—her daughter, Consuelo. The teen-ager was not only rich—perhaps the richest heiress in the world—she was beautiful. With a long, graceful neck, a slightly turned-up nose, and big doe-like eyes, she was the biggest catch the international marriage market had ever seen.

One thing Alva insisted she did not want for her daughter was an American husband of her own class. She had seen the robber barons firsthand. She had even married one. And she viewed them as tyrannical men who controlled their wives, condemning them to endlessly frivolous social activity while they ran the world and were always off somewhere with their latest mistresses.

In 1893 Alva and Consuelo were in India, passing through on their yacht, Valiant. During their stay Alva was entertained by Lady Lansdowne, the Vicereine, and learned the interesting fact that the Vicereine’s nephew was the new 23-year-old Duke of Marlborough, heir to one of the most prestigious dukedoms in England and master of Blenheim Palace, a lavish and celebrated home of more than 200 rooms done in the English Baroque style.

But there was a problem. The duchy produced very little income. The only solution, it seemed, was an infusion of capital . . .

Alva and Consuelo traveled on to England. There, at a carefully arranged dinner party, the 17-year-old heiress met the Duke. “I thought him good-looking and intelligent,” Consuelo later reported. There were discreet discussions. But nothing was firm. The two women returned to Newport and Marble House.

In the days before movies and television, before popular music and the great sports figures, the public on both sides of the Atlantic depended upon the super-rich to provide the vicarious glamour that brightens drab lives. The great media stars of the day were the American millionaires and their families, plus the British aristocracy. They were the household names of their time. Their adventures, rivalries and scandals were breathlessly reported by the ever-growing popular press.

While her society rivals kept a haughty distance from the early tabloids, Mrs. Vanderbilt realized their power to influence and mold public opinion. And in 1894 and ’95 she had much to mold. She was divorcing her husband, an almost unheard-of maneuver that would take the utmost care and tact for her to emerge with her social power intact. She already had a second marriage planned, to her wealthy Newport neighbor, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, an older roué of Jewish descent. But all these issues paled when it was announced that Alva would be giving a ball at Marble House in August, and that the guest of honor would be the Duke of Marlborough, on his first visit to the United States.

From the moment he stepped off the ship in New York, all eyes were on the Duke as he toured the city and then proceeded up to Newport. Once he settled into the guest suite at Marble House, he attended fêtes, played tennis and went for carriage rides with Consuelo. The press was beside itself with speculation.

Was a marriage planned? When would it be announced? How embarrassing and humiliating it would be to have everything fizzle out after such a frenzy of speculation.

The young girl at the center of it all was the most enigmatic piece of the puzzle. Carefully cosseted, always chaperoned, educated at home by governesses and tutors, Consuelo had a secret that even the press didn’t know about: She was secretly engaged to Winthrop Rutherford, a New Yorker of impeccable lineage, who, as exalted as he was, had a fatal flaw—he was not a duke. Thus the drama enacted that summer at Marble House had a side hidden from the press: the battle of wills between mother and daughter over who would get Consuelo’s hand—and her money. There were screaming fights, physical collapses, doctors being hastily summoned. Rutherford, perhaps sensing he was no match for Alva, finally backed off, leaving Consuelo to her fate. (Rutherford later married Lucy Mercer, FDR’s mistress and the love of the president’s life; she was with FDR when he died in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945.)

Alva’s ball in honor of the Duke was the high point of the summer season. Marble House shone as never before. The servants were dressed in the style of Louis XIV, and the gardens were illuminated with tiny globes. Lotus flowers floated in the fountains, orchids graced the table, and tiny humming birds swarmed among the flowers. Three different orchestras played. Supper was served at midnight, followed by breakfast at 3 a.m.

But there was no announcement of an engagement. The Duke continued his stay, obstinately refusing to be rushed. August turned to September, and the speculation reached a fever pitch. Alva was forced to issue a statement that “Miss Vanderbilt is not engaged to the Duke of Marlborough.” Finally, the night before he was scheduled to leave, the Duke led Consuelo into the Gothic Room. There, with the Madonnas and saints as silent witnesses, he asked her to marry him.

Alva gave a self-aggrandizing answer when defending her battle campaign to marry off Consuelo. It was not mere glory and prestige that she wanted for her daughter. It was a useful life. If her daughter married an American such as Rutherford, she would be condemned to the vapid frivolity of the women who made up America’s upper class. But if she married a British duke, she would have an official position in life. She would be an important part of state occasions. She would lead philanthropies and lend her time and efforts to improving the lot of the poor.

Oddly enough, there turned out to be a great deal of truth in this remark, for that’s exactly what Consuelo did. An intelligent young woman who had, against all odds, developed a social conscience, she took to her new life with a maturity far beyond her years. She not only opened bazaars but began to campaign for the care of children and for prison reform. Queen Victoria doted on her; and her husband’s cousin, the young Winston Churchill, became one of her closest friends.

But the marriage itself was unhappy from the beginning. The Duke spent his honeymoon reading telegrams of congratulation, never looking her way. After her second son was born (it was Consuelo who coined the famous phrase “an heir and a spare”), she and the Duke began to lead separate lives.

After her marriage to Oliver Belmont, Alva became one of the frivolous society leaders she railed against. Gone was her feisty spirit, her obsession to build something bigger and better. Then, in 1908, Belmont died. Alva journeyed to England to seek comfort from her daughter, and one afternoon, at a meeting she attended with the Duchess to discuss issues facing women, she experienced an epiphany. It was to have far-reaching consequences.

Back in those days women had not yet obtained the right to vote, and the struggle for women’s suffrage was one of America’s first great civil rights issues. In England, where women were also fighting for the vote, Consuelo had already become associated with members of the struggle. Now her mother hurried home, ready to join in. Alva had finally found her issue: the rights of women, starting with but certainly not limited to the right to vote.

Now Marble House was filled with women, leaders of the new movement. Alva’s influence was enormous. She had the money, the celebrity and a naturally combative attitude, of course, but she was also an astute organizer and politician. She developed many of the classic components of a civil rights campaign that are still in use today. She was a genius at using publicity, she advocated diversity and inclusion, and when a choice had to be made between a cautious approach and a more militant one, she always chose the more militant. Now the Gothic Room served a different purpose: It was an attraction to bring in the crowds at suffragette rallies held at Marble House.

World War I prompted the passage of voting legislation, and when Alva died in Paris in 1933 she was eulogized for her contributions to women’s rights. Consuelo had divorced the Duke by then. She later married a Frenchman, Jacques Balsan. They led an idyllic life in their homes in Paris, on the Riviera, Long Island and in Palm Beach. Perhaps no other figure in international society received the superlatives that Consuelo did when she passed away in 1964. She was the kindest, the most elegant, the most ladylike, the most charming. The current Duke of Marlborough is her great-grandson.

And what of the saints and Madonnas, the relics of the drama of the Vanderbilts? Alva, through art dealer Joseph Duveen (from whom John Ringling often purchased works of art individually and in bulk), sold them to Ringling as an entire collection in 1926. He placed some of them on display in Cà d’Zan; the rest were put in storage. Now they are back together in their full glory, centerpieces for what may well be the most fascinating exhibit the Ringling has done in years. In April they will journey back to Newport and be placed for a while in their original locations in the original Gothic Room—full circle for these exquisite talismans of both the Gothic and the Gilded Age. z

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