Alva Erskine Belmont

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Alva Erskine Belmont (Smith)

Also Known As: "vanderbilt"
Birthplace: Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama, United States
Death: January 26, 1933 (80)
Paris, Paris, Île-de-France, France
Place of Burial: Bronx County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Murray Forbes Smith and Phebe Ann Smith
Wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, I and U.S. Rep. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont
Mother of Consuelo Vanderbilt; William Kissam Vanderbilt II and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt
Sister of Mary Virginia Tiffany; Alice Smith; Desha Smith; Armide Vogel Smith; Murray Forbes Smith and 1 other

Managed by: Carol Ann Selis
Last Updated:

About Alva Erskine Belmont

Alva Erskine Belmont Vanderbilt (Smith)

Alva Belmont, née Alva Erskine Smith, and also known as Alva Vanderbilt from 1875-1896, was a prominent multi-millionaire American socialite and a major figure in the women's suffrage movement. Known for having an aristocratic manner that antagonized many people, she was also noted for her energy, intelligence, strong opinions, and willingness to challenge convention. She was married first to William Kissam Vanderbilt, with whom she had three children, and secondly to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Early Life

Alva Erskine Smith was born on January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama to Murray Forbes Smith, a commission merchant, and Phoebe Ann Desha. Murray Smith was the son of George Smith and Delia Forbes of Dumfries, Virginia. Phoebe Desha was the daughter of US Representative Robert Desha and Eleanor Shelby, both originally from Sumner County, Tennessee.

Alva was one of six children. Two of her sisters, Alice and Eleanor, both died as children before she was born. Her brother, Murray Forbes Smith, Jr. died in 1857 and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile. Two other sisters, Armide Vogel Smith and Mary Virginia "Jennie" Smith, were her only siblings to survive into adulthood. Jennie first married the brother of Alva's childhood best friend, Consuelo Yznaga. Following a divorce from Fernando Yznaga in 1886, Jennie remarried to William George Tiffany.

As a child, Alva summered with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island and accompanied them on European vacations. In 1857 the Smiths left Mobile and relocated to New York City, where they briefly settled in Madison Square. When Murray went to Liverpool, England, to conduct his business, her mother, Phoebe Smith, moved to Paris where Alva attended a private boarding school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. After the Civil War, the Smith family returned to New York, where her mother died in 1869.


First marriage

At a party for one of William Henry Vanderbilt's daughters, Smith's best friend, Consuelo Yznaga, introduced her to William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. On April 20, 1875, William and Alva were married at Calvary Church in New York City.

The couple would have three children. Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, followed by William Kissam Vanderbilt II on March 2, 1878, and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt on July 6, 1884. Alva would maneuver Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on November 6, 1895. The marriage would be annulled much later, at the Duke's request and Consuelo's assent, on August 19, 1926. The annulment was fully supported by Alva, who testified that she had forced Consuelo into the marriage. By this time Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship. Consuelo went on to marry Jacques Balsan, a French aeronautics pioneer. William Kissam II would become president of the New York Central Railroad Company on his father's death in 1920. Harold Stirling graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910, then joined his father at the New York Central Railroad Company. He remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family in the New York Central Railroad after his brother's death, serving as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954.

Second marriage

Alva Vanderbilt shocked society in March 1895 when she divorced her husband, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a large financial settlement said to be in excess of $10 million, in addition to several estates. She already owned Marble House outright. The grounds for divorce were allegations of William's adultery, although there were some who believed that William had hired a woman to pretend to be his mistress so that Alva would divorce him.

Alva remarried Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a man five years her junior and one of her ex-husband's old friends, on January 11, 1896. Oliver had been a friend of the Vanderbilts since the late 1880s and like William was a great fan of yachting and horseraces. He had accompanied them on at least two long voyages aboard their yacht the Alva. Scholars have written that it seems to have been obvious to many that he and Alva were attracted to one another upon their return from one such voyage in 1889. He was the son of August Belmont, a successful Jewish investment banker for the Rothschild family, and Caroline Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Oliver died suddenly in 1908, upon which Alva took on the new cause of the women's suffrage movement after hearing a lecture by Ida Husted Harper.

Building Programs

During Alva Belmont's lifetime she built, helped design, and owned many mansions. At one point she owned nine. She was a friend and frequent patron of Richard Morris Hunt and was one of the first female members of the American Institute of Architects. Following the death of Hunt, she frequently utilized the services of the architectural firm of Hunt & Hunt, formed by the partnership of Richard Morris Hunt's sons Richard and Joseph.

As a young newlywed, Alva Vanderbilt worked from 1878 to 1882 with Richard Morris Hunt to design a French Renaissance style chateau, known as the Petit Chateau, for her family at 660 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A contemporary of Vanderbilt's was quoted as saying that "she loved nothing better than to be knee deep in mortar." She held a masquerade ball that cost $3 million to open the Fifth Avenue château. It was demolished in 1929.

In 1878 Hunt began work on their Queen Anne style retreat on Long Island, Idle Hour. It would be added to almost continuously until 1889 and burned in 1899. William K. Vanderbilt had a new fireproof mansion rebuilt on the estate and it is now the home of Dowling College.

Hunt was again hired to design the neoclassical style Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, as William K. Vanderbilt's 39th birthday present and summer "cottage" retreat for Alva. Built from 1888 to 1892, the house was a social landmark that helped spark the transformation of Newport from a relatively relaxed summer colony of wooden houses to the now legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. It was reported to cost $11 million. Marble House was staffed with 36 servants, including butlers, maids, coachmen, and footmen. It was built next door to Caroline Astor's much simpler Beechwood estate.

After her divorce from Vanderbilt and subsequent remarriage to Oliver Belmont, she began extensive renovations to Belmont's sixty-room Newport mansion, Belcourt Castle. The entire first floor was composed of carriage space and a multitude of stables for Belmont's prized horses. Eager to reshape and redesign Belcourt, Alva made changes that transformed the interiors of the mansion into a blend of French and English Gothic and Renaissance styles.

In 1899 she and Oliver bought the corner of 477 Madison Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan. The mansion became known as the Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont House. The neoclassical three-story townhouse, designed by Hunt & Hunt, had a limestone facade and interior rooms in an eclectic mix of styles. Construction was still underway when Oliver Belmont died, when Alva announced that she would build an addition that was an exact reproduction of the Gothic Room in Belcourt Castle, to house her late husband's collection of medieval and early Renaissance armor. The room, dubbed The Armory, measured 85 by 24 feet (26 by 7.3 m) and was the largest room in the house. She and her youngest son, Harold, moved into the house in 1909. The Armory would later be used as a lecture hall for women suffragists. She sold the townhouse in 1923.

Prior to the construction of their new Manhattan mansion, the Belmonts had another neoclassical mansion, Brookholt, built in 1897 in East Meadow on Long Island. It was designed by Hunt & Hunt. Oliver Belmont died there in 1908. For a short period, she operated the estate as a training school for female farmers. She sold Brookholt in 1915. The house was later destroyed by fire in 1934.

Following Oliver Belmont's death, Belmont commissioned a family mausoleum to be built in Woodlawn Cemetery. Again designed by Hunt & Hunt, it was an exacting replica of the original Chapel of Saint Hubert on the grounds of the Château d'Amboise. It took several years, but construction was completed in 1913.

Belmont's last new mansion in the United States was built on Long Island's North Shore. This one, Beacon Towers, has been described by scholars as a pure Gothic fantasy. It was also designed by Hunt & Hunt and was built from 1917–18 in Sands Point. In 1925 Belmont closed the castle permanently, it was sold to William Randolph Hearst in 1927. He partially remodeled it and then sold it in 1942. It was demolished in 1945. It is thought by some literary scholars to have been part of the inspiration for the home of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Belmont retired to France in 1923. She had a townhouse in Paris and a villa on the Riviera. She also purchased the 15th-century Château d'Augerville in Augerville-la-Rivière, Loiret, in the summer of 1926 and restored it as her primary residence. It had been one of the inspirations for her châteauesque-style 660 Fifth Avenue house and legend had it that the chateau had once belonged to Jacques Cœur, who had left it to his daughter. Consuelo wrote that she thought these two things had inspired her mother to buy the estate. Belmont did a great deal of restoration and renovation during her ownership. She had the river flowing through the estate widened because she said, as Consuelo later wrote, "This river is not wide enough." She brought in paving stones from Versailles to cover the previously sand-paved great forecourt between the house and the village. She also built a massive concrete Neo-Gothic portal gate separating the chateau and village. Other changes included replacement of the wrought iron staircases and moving the kitchens to the basement. She also added a bowling alley in one of the houses on the estate. After her death in 1933, the chateau was left to Consuelo, who sold it to a Swiss company in the winter of 1937.


Determined to bring the Vanderbilt family the social status that she felt they deserved, Vanderbilt christened the Fifth Avenue chateau in March 1883 with a masquerade ball for 1000 guests, costing a reported $3 million. An oft-repeated story tells that Vanderbilt felt she had been snubbed by Caroline Astor, queen of "The 400" elite of New York society, so she purposely neglected to send an invitation to Astor's popular daughter, Carrie. Supposedly, this forced Astor to come calling, in order to secure an invitation to the ball for her daughter. This story is probably apocryphal, but Astor did in fact pay a social call on Vanderbilt and she and her daughter were guests at the ball, effectively giving the Vanderbilt family society's official acceptance (Vanderbilt and Astor were observed at the ball in animated conversation). The chief effect of the ball was to raise the bar on society entertainments in New York to heights of extravagance and expense that had not been previously seen.

Unable to get an opera box at the Academy of Music, whose directors were loath to admit members of newly wealthy families into their circle, she was among those people instrumental in founding the Metropolitan Opera Association, based at the Metropolitan Opera House. The Metropolitan Opera long outlasted the Academy.

Women's Suffrage

Drawn further into the suffrage movement by Anna Shaw, Belmont donated large sums to the movement, both in the United Kingdom and United States. In 1909, she founded the Political Equality League to get votes for suffrage-supporting New York State politicians, and wrote articles for newspapers. She gave strong support to labor in the 1909-1910 New York shirtwaist makers strike. She paid the bail of picketers who had been arrested and funded a large rally in the city's Hippodrome, which she addressed along with Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1909 she joined this organization and was named an alternate delegate from New York to the International Women's Suffrage Association meeting in London. There Belmont observed the commitment of Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers, who would influence the depth and the form of her own personal commitment to the cause. On her return to the United States, she paid for office space on Fifth Avenue that allowed the relocation of NAWSA offices to New York, and she funded its National Press Bureau. At the same time, she formed her own Political Equality League to seek broad support for suffrage in neighborhoods throughout the city, and, as its president, led its division of the 1912 Women's Votes Parade.

By this time, organized suffrage activity was centered on educated, middle-class white women, who were often reluctant to accept immigrants, African Americans, and the working class into their ranks. Belmont's Political Equality League only partially broke with this tradition. She established its first "suffrage settlement house" in Harlem, and she included African American women and immigrants in weekend retreats at Beacon Towers, her Gothic style castle in Sands Point. However, she also contributed to the Southern Woman Suffrage Conference, which refused to admit African Americans.

The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), organized by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, separated from the NAWSA in 1913. Belmont then merged the Political Equality League into the CU. Now committed to securing the passage of the 19th Amendment, she convened a "Conference of Great Women" at Marble House in the summer of 1914. Belmont's daughter Consuelo, who promoted suffrage and prison reform in England, addressed the gathering, which was followed by the CU's first national meeting. Belmont served on the executive committee of the CU from 1914 to 1916.

In 1915 Belmont chaired the women voters' convention at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The following year, she and Paul established the National Woman's Party from the membership of the CU and organized the first picketing ever to take place before the White House, in January 1917. She was elected president of the National Woman's Party, an office she held until her death. The National Woman's Party continued to lobby for new initiatives from the Washington, D.C. headquarters that Belmont had purchased in 1929 for the group, now the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum.

Later Life and Death

From the early 1920s onward, she lived in France most of the time in order to be near her daughter Consuelo. She restored the 16th century Château d'Augerville and used it as a residence. With Paul, she formed the International Advisory Council of the National Woman's Party and the Auxiliary of American Women abroad. She suffered a stroke in the spring of 1932 that left her partially paralyzed, and she died in Paris of bronchial and heart ailments on January 26, 1933. Her funeral at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City featured all female pallbearers and a large contingent of suffragists. She is interred with Oliver Belmont in the Belmont Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.


"Just pray to God. She will help you."
"First marry for money, then marry for love."

Husband: William Kissam Vanderbilt 1849-1920

William K. a railroad executive and philanthropist, of Idle Hour, Oakdale, William H. Vanderbilt's son, born 12 December 1849, New Dorp, Staten Island, Richmond Co., New York, died 22 July 1920, Paris, France.

He was chairman of board of directors of Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad 1883-1903, president of New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railway 1882-87. He received $60 million upon his father death. He was a yachtsman, he owned and sailed the Defender in the international yacht races with England 1895. His yacht were the Tarantula 1902, Tarantula 1912.

The Alva, named for William K. Vanderbilt's wife had a crew of 52 men 1892


He also helped establish the Vanderbilt Clinic. His wife Alva Erskine Smith was born on January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of a cotton planter Murray Forbes Smith. Her mother was the granddaughter of General Robert Deeha of Tennessee. She was educated in France and attained the social graces and accomplishments of a proper young lady in European society, with friends among the nobility, including her very best friend Consuelo Yznaga, who married a British Lord, and for whom her only daughter was named. In 1874 she married William Kissam Vanderbilt. He and his wife, Alva, began construction of the most beautiful private home in the world, at Oakdale, New York, which was named Idle Hour. Alva taught the Vanderbilt family how to spend their fortune by building mansions and palaces to live in the style of European royalty. Alva and William K. had three children, Consuelo, William Kissam, Jr., and Harold S. They divorced and she married equestrian Oliver H. P. Belmont. In 1903, William K. married Mrs. Ann Harriman Rutherford Sands. On April 12, 1899 Idle Hour was consumed by fire.

William Vanderbilt mentioned in the record of William Vanderbilt and Alva Smith Name William Vanderbilt Event Type Marriage Event Date 20 Apr 1875 Event Place Manhattan, New York, New York, United States Event Place (Original) Manhattan, New York Gender Male Age 25 Birth Year (Estimated) 1850 Birthplace Staten Island, NY Father's Name William Henryt Vanderbilt Mother's Name Maria Louoiea Kissam Spouse's Name Alva Smith Spouse's Gender Female Spouse's Age 22 Spouse's Birth Year (Estimated) 1853 Spouse's Birthplace Mobile, Alabama Spouse's Father's Name Murray Forbes Smith Spouse's Mother's Name Phoebe Ann De Sha Citing this Record "New York, New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1940," database, FamilySearch ( : 20 March 2015), William Vanderbilt and Alva Smith, 20 Apr 1875; citing Marriage, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York City Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,562,053.

Suffragette. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, she was the daughter of a successful cotton merchant and plantation owner. Her parents were ruined at the outbreak of the Civil War and fled to Paris, France with their five children. When they returned to the United States after the war, her mother ran a New York City, New York boarding house and her father brokered cotton to support their family in genteel poverty. Her best friend from her childhood in Mobile, Consuelo Yznaga (later Viscountess Mandeville), introduced her to handsome, wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva determined to marry him, which she did in 1875. They were of opposite temperaments and the marriage was unhappy. Alva had three children, Consuelo, William II, and Harold Vanderbilt. Fiery-tempered and ferociously ambitious, she forced her daughter Consuelo to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, for which the impoverished duke received more than $2.5 million (an astronomical sum in 1895). Although the marriage made Consuelo miserable, she and her mother reconciled later and Consuelo was at her mother's bedside when she died at her Parisian townhouse and escorted her mother's body home for burial. Alva divorced Vanderbilt and married Oliver H. P. Belmont in 1896. Belmont, whose father had founded an international banking fortune, had been her husband's best friend. After her second husband's death, Alva embraced the Suffragist movement, donating both funds and leadership. An amazingly profligate spender, she constructed and fantastically decorated more than a dozen grand residences, the most famous of which may be Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island (which she sold in 1932 for the Depression-era price of $100,000, less than one-hundredth of the $11 million it had cost in 1892). Inscription: Alva Erskine Stirling Belmont Maintained by: Find A Grave Record added: Oct 21, 1998

Find A Grave Memorial# 3711

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Alva Erskine Belmont's Timeline

January 17, 1853
Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama, United States
March 2, 1877
Manhattan, New York, New York County, New York, United States
March 2, 1878
Manhattan, New York, New York County, New York, United States
July 6, 1884
Oakdale, Suffolk County, New York, United States
January 26, 1933
Age 80
Paris, Paris, Île-de-France, France
Woodlawn Cemetery (Plot Whitewood Plot Sections 133 134. GPS (lat/lon) 40.8868 -73.87681), Bronx County, New York, United States