Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan (formerly Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt; 2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964) was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. Her first marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough has become a well-known example of one of the advantageous, but loveless, marriages common during the Gilded Age. The Duke obtained a large dowry by the marriage, and reportedly told her just after the marriage that he married her in order to "save Blenheim" Palace, his ancestral home. Consuelo Vanderbilt and her friends were the inspiration for Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.
Although the teenage Consuelo was opposed to the marriage arranged by her mother, she became a popular and influential Duchess. For much of the marriage, the Marlboroughs lived separately and the marriage was finally annulled. She went on to marry a wealthy French aviator and continued her charitable endeavours.
Born in New York City, Consuelo Vanderbilt was the only daughter and eldest child of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, a Southern belle Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933, who later married Oliver Belmont) from Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of a cotton broker. Her Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Consuelo Yznaga (1853–1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World aristocracy and New World money 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 Vanderbilt was largely dominated by her mother, who was determined that her daughter would make a great marriage like that of her famous namesake. In her autobiography, Consuelo Vanderbilt 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. She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors, and learned foreign languages at an early age. Her mother was abusive and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions. When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva told her that "I do the thinking, you do as you are told."
Consuelo Vanderbilt was considered 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."
And she 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 she developed an instant aversion to him.
None of the others, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt, who wasdetermined 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.
With the help of Lady Paget, the wife of Sir Arthur Paget, and daughter of an socially ambitious widow of an American hotel entrepreneur, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the indebted, titled Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace.
Lady Paget, always short of money, soon became a sort of international marital agent, introducing eligible American heiresses to British noblemen.
Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd. 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. 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 at death's door that the malleable girl acquiesced. 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. The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected US$2.5 million (approximately US$75.2 million in 2019 dollars) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement. His purpose of marrying her was to restore his beloved Bleinheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Consuelo Vanderbilt married Charles Spencer-Churchill, The 9th Duke of Marlborough at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, on 6 November 1895.
After her marriage, Consuelo Vanderbilt's father built a mansion for her in London, Sunderland House in Curzon Street. The new Duchess of Marlborough was adored by the poor and less fortunate tenants on her husband's estate, whom she visited and to whom she provided assistance. She later became involved with other philanthropic projects and was particularly interested in those that affected mothers and children. She was also a social success with royalty and the aristocracy of Britain.
Consuelo Vanderbilt gave birth to two sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (who became 10th Duke of Marlborough) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.
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 with her husband's cousin, the Hon. Reginald Fellowes, 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.
The Marlboroughs separated in 1906.
Consuelo Vanderbilt and Charles Spencer-Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough divorced in 1921. Shortly afterwards, on 25 June 1921 The Duke of Marlborough married Gladys Deacon.
A few days later, on 4 July 1921, Consuelo Vanderbilt married Colonel Jacques Balsan, a textile manufacturing heir and a record-breaking pioneer French balloon, aircraft, and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers. Jacques Balsan was a younger brother of Etienne Balsan, who was an early lover of Coco Chanel.
On 19 August 1926, the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and The Duke of Marlborough was annulled, at the duke's request and with Consuelo's assent,
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, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who testified that the Vanderbilt–Marlborough marriage had been an act of unmistakable coercion. In later years, Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship.
After the annulment of her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan still maintained ties with favorite Churchill relatives, particularly Winston Churchill, cousin of The 9th Duke of Marlborough. He was a frequent visitor to her château, in Saint-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.
Records in Florida show that in 1932 Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan built a home in Manalapan, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. It was designed as a love nest by Maurice Fatio. The dream home of 26,000 square feet is called Casa Alva, in honor of her mother. Although Consuelo sold her home in 1957, it still exists.
The Duke of Marlborough and his new wife Gladys Deacon's marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. Gladys Deacon, famed for her Greek beauty became increasingly eccentric and evicted from Blenheim Palace.
On 30 June 1934, The Duke of Marlborough died of heart attack, at age 88.
Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan published her insightful but not entirely candid autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, 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 same paper called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."
Jacques Balsan died in New York on 4 November 1956 at the age of 88.
Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan died at Southampton, Long Island, New York, on 6 December 1964. She 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.
During World War I, Consuelo Vanderbilt worked as the chair of the Economic Relief Committee for the American Women's War Relief Fund.
During the inter-war period, she and Winaretta Singer-Polignac (the Princess de Polignac and Singer Sewing Machine heiress) worked together in the construction of a 360-bed hospital destined to provide medical care to middle class workers. The result of this effort is the Foch Hospital, located in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, France. The hospital also includes a school of nursing and is one of the top ranked hospitals in France, especially for renal transplants. It has remained true to its origins and stayed a private not-for-profit institution that still serves the Paris community. It is managed by the Fondation médicale Franco-américaine du Mont-Valérien, commonly called Foundation Foch.