Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Newport Stories: Alice and Alva Vanderbilt

[Here is the fourth installment of a series of posts by Benjamin Railton that originally appeared on his blog AmericanStudies.]

Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics. As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!

Alva Vanderbilt, 1883.
At the same time that Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt were building The Breakers, Cornelius’s brother William and his wife Alva were completing their own Newport mansion, Marble House. Located just down the street from each other, these two Vanderbilt homes jointly exemplified and dominated late 19th-century Newport society, and it’s easy to see the two women as similarly parallel. Yet the two marriages ended in very different ways—Cornelius died suddenly in 1899, at the age of 56, and the widowed Alice lived 34 more years but never remarried; Alva controversially divorced William in 1895 and married the younger Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street into his home Belcourt Castle—and those events foreshadowed the two women’s increasingly divergent trajectories.

Both Alice and Alva would continue to play significant roles in Newport and New York society for their more than three remaining decades of life, but in dramatically different ways. Alice, known as the dowager Mrs. Vanderbilt, made her New York and Newport homes the social centers for which purpose they had been built, donated philanthropically to numerous causes (including endowing a building at Yale and one at Newport Hospital), and generally maintained her traditional, influential, powerful high society status. Alva, on the other hand, forged more pioneering and modern paths: her passion for architecture led her to become one of the first female members of the American Institute of Architects; her dissatisfaction with the highly traditional New York Academy of Music led her to co-found the Metropolitan Opera; and, most tellingly, she became one of the most active and ardent supporters of women’s suffrage, forming the Political Equality League, establishing the National Women’s Party, and working with Anna Shaw, Alice Paul, and other luminaries to help ensure the passage of the 19th Amendment.

From an early 21st-century perspective, Alva’s path seems the far more influential, impressive, and inspiring one; whatever we think of her architectural and musical endeavors (and they were certainly important), few 20th-century American achievements were more significant and lasting than women’s suffrage, and Alva’s efforts played a meaningful role in helping effect that change. But I think it would be a mistake to discount all that Alice did and accomplished in those thirty-plus years after her husband’s unexpected death, and the legacy that her efforts likewise left behind. Indeed, Alice’s independent and influential life offers an implicit but compelling argument for women’s social and political equality and for how much every American has to offer his or her society and era. Without the presences and contributions of both of these women, far more than just Newport society would have been impoverished.

Final Breakers story tomorrow,

P.S. What do you think?


Lisa Clark Diller said...

This is a fascinating comparison. Thanks for sharing. It strikes me that these sort of different legacies reflect different streams of priorities in our own time as well. We need both kinds of work--people who think longterm in themes of beauty and social justice, and people who work philanthropically or socially in separate paths. What amazing and very different women. Thanks for pairing them. I can only imagine what might have happened when they were in the same room....

AmericanStudier said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks so much for the comment, and I totally agree about the contemporary connections and needs. My guess is that Alice and Alva saw those complementary benefits sometimes; and sometimes, well, in-laws...

Thanks again,