The story of a well-born late-Victorian woman who became still more so by a pragmatic marriage, “The Glitter and the Gold” might seem like entirely unessential reading in our own time. That would be a sad miscalculation – if one perhaps typical of the solipsistic, self-centered age in which we live.
The memoir of Consuelo Vanderbilt – daughter of William Vanderbilt and the redoubtable Alva; first the British Duchess of Marlborough, then the wife of French aviator Jacques Balsan – seems oddly more compelling now, 60 years after it was first released, than ever.
TV fans looking for a touch of “Downton Abbey” may flock to these pages; readers of Julian Fellowes or Daisy Goodwin might stumble into them, in search of a similar experience. With luck they will realize what they’ve found: a forgotten treasure.
This fascinating book, which has drifted into and out of public attention since it appeared in 1952, is now back in a new edition that allows readers to plunge once more into the rarefied world inhabited by the Vanderbilts and the European aristocracy they mingled with, in the twilight of the Victorian period and beginnings of the 20th century.
Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Consuelo – named for her godmother, a Cuban-American socialite of the period – as a pampered lightweight who never had a bad day. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was a woman raised by a martinet of a mother (Alva made her daughter wear steel rods attached to her spine to improve her posture; Alva chose Consuelo’s husband for her) and married off to a man, the Duke of Marlborough, who was wedding her for her money – the Vanderbilt railroad millions. Her story is nearly mythic in its pure crystallization of the society marriages of the day between wealthy American girls and fortune-hunting European men (see much of the work of Henry James, for instance, on this topic). Indeed, Consuelo’s life story has made her fodder for fiction since she was a girl.
Not only did these things happen to her; they happened publicly, and in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. We like to think the 20th and 21st centuries are the only ones to publicize humiliation. Far from it.
Notice that the title of Consuelo’s memoir (which some say was partly ghost-written) separates the “glitter” and the “gold” into distinct categories. She knew they weren’t the same.
Consuelo certainly had plenty to write about: a firsthand seat at events of international import, such as the funeral of Queen Victoria; a proximity to figures, including the young Winston Churchill, who would become important to history.
This memoir is fun, too. Where else can you read a female life-story – of this time, or any other – that contains lines like these, totally lacking in self-consciousness: “On September 18, 1897, my first son was born. We had taken Spencer House, overlooking Green Park, for the event. It was fitting that Churchills should be born there, since they were descendants of the Spencer family.”
We don’t all have houses “taken” for the birth of our children, but there are lessons to be gleaned from Consuelo’s memoir, nonetheless.
Among them: the way that vast sums of money attract and repel others; the price of publicity and celebrity; the true values that hold up over time. The thoughts of this unusual woman on these topics, and others, are well worth the time the book requires.
Even after six decades.
The Glitter and the Gold
By Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
St. Martin’s Press
290 pages, $26.
Charity Vogel is a News staff reporter.