Friday, April 20, 2012

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

Reading the delightful book To Marry An English Lord  (which I shall be reviewing soon) led me to research one of the heiresses mentioned, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Consuelo, an American beauty, had been groomed from childhood to marry into European nobility to satisfy her mother's social ambitions. As a teenager she was forced to marry the Duke of Marlborough, although she was secretly engaged to someone else, and wept behind her wedding veil. Later, her marriage to the Duke was annulled by the Catholic Church and Consuelo was able to licitly marry a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. Throughout her marital ups and downs, Consuelo found peace and consolation in extensive charitable works, particularly on behalf of needy women and children. To quote from a review of Consuelo's autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold:
Despite not playing a part in the Suffragettes movement, [Consuelo Vanderbuilt] Balsan achieved a level of independence for herself...Her acts of charity, though maternal and feminine at heart in their seraphic care and devotion to the weak, allowed Consuelo to infiltrate the political sphere as one of the first women (the very first in the London County Council)...The fact that her role on the London County Council only comprises three pages out of the entire book, however, shows a reserve against excessive self-indulgence, which, in turn, depicts Consuelo as a woman who felt just as much need to write of society itself as her own story; most important to her was not her special roles, but how those roles allowed her to reform the wrongs she saw around her....

After the struggle of marrying for a second time, she did not stop her charitable work. As merely one figure among many in the Vanderbilt family account, she was said to have “withdrawn” from society to “live tranquilly.”[23] Her new home in Paris, true, held many tranquil and happy moments, but it was not long before the “cosmopolitan parties” and “wide circle of friends” began to bore her. After five short years of being “blissfully happy,” she began to “miss the work [she] was accustomed to in England” and helped to establish a hospital for the French middle-class.[25] Much as she did in England, she worked in her fullest capacity as a fund-raiser; and much as she was as Duchess of Marlborough, Madame Balsan held sway as respected speaker and activist—the President of France, when asked to come to a fundraiser event, announced, “If Madame Balsan comes to ask me I may consent.”[26] At these events, however, she never forgot her duty as wife and hostess, and she was still the one to “find arrangements to entertain” all the visitors.

Both entertaining and charity work continued when the Balsans built a summer house in Saint Georges-Motel near Paris. In this little town, Consuelo arranged and built a sanatorium where lived “some eighty young children who were recuperating from operations or in need of preventive care.”[26] Each day, she visited every child and sat with them to comfort them as well as note their progress; and when World War II came, her primary activity was to evacuate the children. In a way, it is difficult to imagine this simple and caring woman as the same who hosted so many society parties in England; her parties in France became simpler, as well. Rather the aristocratic guests who ran in the same circles as the Duke of Marlborough, the Balsans' parties consisted mainly of artists and family friends—more notably, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Charlie Chaplin. The more political figures included merely the likes of Winston Churchill, who was family, and Lord Curzon and Lady Oxford, who were her friends and frequent guests in England. Though the circle of friends was wide and the parties many, they took on an informal feel; more common than five courses in the lush dining hall at Blenheim was a stroll around the village and a picnic luncheon on the lawn. Along with her husband and country, Consuelo changed the atmosphere in which she lived. (Read entire article.)

1 comment:

tubbs said...

Fascinating and Beautiful Woman.
I can remember seeing her photo in Life Magazine, taken in Newport. I was just a kid, and CvB an old grande dame. I thought she was beautiful even then.
I saw the John Singer Sargent painting when in an exhibit of English portraiture, in D.C. about 25 yrs ago. As an artist, he adored her. One of the most haunting images of her in my mind though, is the Charles Gibson ("Gibson Girl") cartoon depicting a beautiful young woman being dragged into a church on a leash, by her mother, with a syphillitic little gnome awaiting her at the altar. Many people recall seeing that young bride in tears in the back of (St.Thomas/5th Ave.?) the church before the ceremony.