Consuelo Balsan

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Consuelo Balsan (Vanderbilt)

Also Known As: "Spencer-Churchill / Duchess of Marlborough"
Birthplace: New York, NY, USA
Death: Died in New York City, NY
Place of Burial: St Martin Churchyard, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England
Immediate Family:

Daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith
Wife of Jacques Balsan
Ex-wife of Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough
Mother of John Spencer-Churchill, 10th Duke of Marlborough; Ivor Charles Spencer-Churchill and <private> Spencer-Churchill
Sister of William Kissam Vanderbilt II and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Consuelo Balsan

The Duchess of Marlborough, American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt wearing an extravagant, thick pearl choker, accompanied by several longer necklaces, typical of that era. (from a photograph, 1902

Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964) was married to one of the Dukes of Marlborough (that made her the Duchess of Marlborough) and was Winston Churchill's cousin by marriage. When they were married the duke was 23. November 6, 1895 at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in the most prestigious Gilded Age wedding. Her father gave the Duke $2.5 million, which he sorely needed to make repairs on Blenheim Palace.


Consuelo Vanderbilt (1876–1964), Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (1898–1956)

Giovanni Boldini -- Italian-French portrait painter


The Met

Oil on canvas

221.6 x 170.2 cm (87 1/4 x 67 in.)

Gift of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, 1946 (47.71)

Jpeg: Friend of the JSS Gallery


From: Dale Headington

<We stlon>

Date: Sun, 27 Oct 2002

You have a comment underneath about the complexities of the Vanderbilts [since deleted]. The following brief note may help clarify the relations.

Consuelo Duchess of Marlborough (1877-1964) [this painting] was the daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt I and sister of William Kissam Vanderbilt II, whose first wife was Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt [off site] (1875-1935). They were the parents of Muriel and Consuelo Vanderbilt (the two girls in the double portrait) [off site]. Hence you were quite correct, the girls were Consuelo Marlborough's neices. Gladys Deacon (1881-1977) was the second wife of the Duke of Marlborough after he and Consuelo were divorced. Edith Suyvesent Dresser Vanderbilt (1873-1958) was the wife of George Washington Vanderbilt, youngest brother to William Kissam Vanderbilt I (Consuelo's father) and therefore uncle to William Kissam Vanderbilt II and Consuelo Marlborough.


Consuelo Balsan (formerly, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt) (2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964), was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family, as well as an English aristocrat. She was seen as the ultimate marital prize of the Gilded Age. Her marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough was an international emblem for socially advantageous marriages.

Born in New York City, she was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, a Mobile, Alabama belle and budding suffragist, Alva Erskine Smith (1853-1933, later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont). Her Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Maria Consuelo Yznaga Clement (1858-1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Victor Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, Alva, who was determined that Consuelo would make a great marriage like that of her famous namesake, even though she lacked a good pedigree. In those days, there were many weddings of European aristocrats with American heiresses. For the nobles of the Old World, such unions were shameful, but useful in financial terms; the nobility looked upon the Americans who married into their caste as intruders, unworthy of their new position.

In her biography, Consuelo Vanderbilt later described how she was required to wear a steel rod, which ran down her spine and fastened around her waist and over her shoulders, to improve her posture.[1] She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors and learned foreign languages at an early age.[2] Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions.[3] When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva Vanderbilt told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told."[4]

Like her godmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt also attracted numerous title-bearing suitors anxious to trade social position for cash. Her mother reportedly received at least five proposals for her hand. Consuelo was allowed to consider the proposal of just one of the men, Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg, but Consuelo developed an instant aversion to him.[5] None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt, herself a daughter of a mere merchant. Luckily, as opposed to more than a few contemporary heiresses in search of her particular prince charming, Consuelo Vanderbilt was a great beauty, with a face compelling enough to cause the playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write, "I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage."[6] Oxford undergraduate Guy Fortescue later described how he and his friends were captivated by her "piquante oval face perched upon a long slender neck, her enormous dark eyes fringed with curling lashes, her dimples, and her tiny teeth when she smiled.[7] She came to embody the "slim, tight look" that was in vogue during the Edwardian era

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family in New York society, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the land-rich, money-poor Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Lady Paget (née Mary "Minnie" Stevens), the daughter of Mrs. Paran Stevens, the socially ambitious widow of an American hotel entrepreneur who had successfully obtained admittance to the exclusive New York society of the fabled "Four Hundred". Lady Paget, always short of money, soon became a sort of international marital agent, introducing eligible American heiresses to British noblemen.[9]

Unfortunately Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd.[10] Her mother cajoled, wheedled, begged, and then, ultimately, ordered her daughter to marry Marlborough. When Consuelo – a docile teenager whose only notable characteristic at the time was abject obedience to her fearsome mother – made plans to elope, she was locked in her room as Alva threatened to murder Rutherfurd.[11] Still, she refused. It was only when Alva Vanderbilt claimed that her health was being seriously and irretrievably undermined by Consuelo's stubbornness and appeared to be on death's door did the gullible girl acquiesce.[12] Alva made an astonishing recovery from her entirely phantom illness, and when the wedding took place, Consuelo stood at the altar reportedly weeping behind her veil.[13] The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected $2.5 million (approximately $75 million today) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was married at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, New York, on 6 November 1895, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871-1934)[15]. They had two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (who became 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.[16]

The new duchess was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, to whom she visited and provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children.[17] She was also a social success with royalty and the aristocracy of Britain.[18] However, given the ill-fitting match between the duke and his wife, it was only a matter of time before their marriage was in name only. The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband's handsome cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes[19] (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents)[20], while the duke fell under the spell of Gladys Marie Deacon, an eccentric American of little money but, like Consuelo, dazzling to look at and of considerable intellect.[21] The Marlboroughs separated in 1906, divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and Consuelo's assent, on 19 August 1926.

Though largely embarked upon as a way to facilitate the Anglican duke's desire to convert to Roman Catholicism, the annulment, to the surprise of many, also was fully supported by the former duchess's mother, who testified that the Vanderbilt–Marlborough marriage had been an act of unmistakable coercion. "I forced my daughter to marry the Duke," Alva Belmont told an investigator, adding: "I have always had absolute power over my daughter." In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.

[edit] Second marriage and later life

Consuelo's second marriage, on 4 July 1921, was to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, airplane, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Also a textile manufacturing heir, Balsan was a younger brother of Etienne Balsan, who was an important early lover of Coco Chanel. Jacques Balsan died in 1956 at the age of 88.

After the annulment, she still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill. He was a frequent visitor to her château, in St. Georges Motel, a small commune near Dreux about 50 miles from Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s, where he completed his last painting before the war.

The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Balsan's insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, was published in 1953; it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston, an American writer who was an art critic for The New York Times. A reviewer in the New York Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."

She died at Southampton, Long Island, New York on 6 December 1964, and was buried alongside her younger son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, in the churchyard at St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England, near her former home, Blenheim Palace.

[edit] Titles

1877-1895: Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt

1895-1921: Her Grace The Duchess of Marlborough

1921: Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough

1921-1964: Mme. Jacques Balsan

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Consuelo Balsan's Timeline

March 2, 1877
New York, NY, USA
September 18, 1897
Age 20
London, Middlesex, England
October 14, 1898
Age 21
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England
December 6, 1964
Age 87
New York City, NY
St Martin Churchyard, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England