At $2 million to build, with another $9 million spent on its furnishings…it was inspired by the Sun King’s Grand Trianon at Versailles. Two sweeps of drive rose towards its portico, held by four Doric columns the height of the entire two-storey house; its fifty rooms needed a staff of thirty-six servants. The hall and staircase were built of yellow marble, the dining room of red; the walls of the Gold Room were covered in gold leaf applied by hand. (131)
The Marble House, completed in 1892 as the Vanderbilt family’s summer “cottage” at Newport, takes conspicuous consumption to a new level. These were the times when a ball could cost $3000 per guest and gentlemen had yachts with ballrooms, wine cellars and Turkish baths. We’re always talking about the gap between rich and poor these days, but we’re amateurs compared to the wealthy Americans of the late nineteenth century. At least, I suppose, they created plenty of employment, with a single gentleman needing as many as 50 servants.
It wasn’t only this enormous wealth than made American heiresses so attractive to impoverished English aristocrats. They were well-educated (often speaking several languages), lively and entertaining, stylish and superlatively well-dressed – the antithesis of most of the English girls on the upper-class marriage market. But why should the Americans have wanted to marry into the depressing life of the English aristocracy, with long periods spent in freezing country houses (“cold, run-down, ill-kept and draughty”) in a rigid, hierarchical society, when there were plenty of eligible rich men in America who knew how to live it up, and where there were such luxuries as hot baths and central heating? According to Anne de Courcy, it had everything to do with the ambitions of their mothers, nouveau-riche women known as “Bouncers”, who had been unable to break into the Knickerbocker aristocracy. If you wanted to get into the Astor circle, a Duke for a son-in-law would certainly do it. The unfortunate Consuelo Vanderbilt, forced to marry the Duke of Marlborough, was just one sacrificial lamb on the altar of mother’s ambition.
This is a fascinating read, not only about the marriage industry, but about the society of the times and the fabled American spirit of enterprise and risk-taking. And who would have guessed it – Alva Vanderbilt, who exchanged her daughter’s happiness for a position at the top of the social heap, ended her life as a campaigner for female suffrage.