Alva Vanderbilt Belmont

Inducted: 2003
Born: 1853
Died: 1932

Alva V. Belmont was an American multi-millionaire socialite and women’s suffrage activist. She was noted for her energy, intelligence, strong opinions, and willingness to challenge convention. She was born on January 17, 1853, at 201 Government Street in Mobile, Alabama to Murray Forbes Smith, a merchant, and Phoebe Smith. Her father was the son of George Smith and Delia Forbes of Dumfries, Virginia, and her mother, Phoebe, was the daughter of U.S. Representative Robert Desha.

Growing up, Alva was the middle child of five children and was labeled as an “impossible.” When she was four years old, her brother passed away, and she remembered family friends making horrible remarks to her parents about how it was more tragic that her brother died than a sister who had died the previous year. Alva never forgot this incident, as it was an awakening to what male privilege and the patriarchal social system entailed. Due to this incident, she became compassionate about the devaluation of girls. She started hanging out with boys more and discovered they had much more freedom to express themselves than girls. This fueled Belmont to rebel as a child and pushed her even more to refuse to conform to the expectations that a traditional woman had. By the time Alva was an adult, she had grown a reputation for being bossy and demanding but continued to act this way to challenge the social convention.

Two sisters, Armida Vogel Smith and Mary Virginia “Jennie” Smith were her only siblings to survive into adulthood. As a child, Alva summered with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island, and accompanied them on European vacations. In 1859, the Smiths left Mobile and relocated to New York City, where they briefly settled in Madison Square. When Murray went to England to conduct his business, Phoebe Smith, moved to Paris, where Alva attended a private boarding school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Following the Civil War, the Smith family returned to New York, where Phoebe died in 1871. At a party for one of William Henry Vanderbilt’s daughters, Smith’s best friend, Consuelo Yznaga, introduced her to William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. On April 20, 1875, William and Alva were married at Calvary Church in New York City.

Determined to bring the Vanderbilt family the social status that she felt it deserved, Alva Vanderbilt christened the Fifth Avenue chateau–situated at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57th through 58th Street, occupying an entire city block—in March 1883 with a costume ball for 1000 guests. The New York World speculated that Alva’s party cost more than a quarter of a million dollars, more than $5 million in today’s dollars.

An oft-repeated story tells that Vanderbilt felt she had been snubbed by Caroline Astor, queen of “The 400” elite of New York society, so she purposely neglected to send an invitation to her housewarming ball to Astor’s popular daughter, Carrie. Supposedly, this forced Astor to call on Alva to secure an invitation to the ball for her daughter. Astor did pay a social call on Vanderbilt, and she and her daughter were guests at the ball, effectively bestowing on the Vanderbilt family society’s official acceptance. Vanderbilt and Astor were observed at the ball in animated conversation. “We have no right to exclude those whom this great country has brought forward,” Astor conceded, “The time has come for the Vanderbilts.” The ball served as a catalyst to raise the bar on society entertainment in New York to heights of extravagance and expense that had not been previously seen.

In 1886, after her husband inherited $65 million from his father’s estate, Alva set her sights on owning a yacht. William commissioned Harlan and Hollingsworth of Wilmington, Delaware, to build the Alva for $500,000. While J.P. Morgan’s yacht Corsair was 165 feet long, Mrs. Astor’s Nourmahal measured 233 feet, and Alva’s father-in-law’s North Star was 270 feet, Alva and William’s new yacht was the largest private yacht in the world at 285 feet long. The Vanderbilts subsequently toured the Caribbean and Europe on the Alva in the highest fashion. Alva wanted a “summer cottage” in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island. William Vanderbilt commissioned Richard Morris Hunt, and the elaborate Marble House was built next door to Mrs. Astor’s Beechwood.

The Astors and the Vanderbilts were the heroes of the Gilded Age, amassing fortunes envied by sovereigns of Europe. They had lined New York’s Fifth Avenue, now the center of world finance, with their palaces. And they had built these “cottages” for a few weeks of play each summer. Their riches assured, they now pursued the ancient and glorious titles of the English aristocracy. Their daughters were to become “their ladyships.” So, a procession of English aristocracy, often desperate for the money they needed to maintain their enormous estates, made their way to the United States to court these “dollar princesses.”

Consuelo Vanderbilt was to become among the first of them when Alva maneuvered her into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, on November 6, 1895. Stories in the New York press claimed that Consuelo cried throughout the service. The marriage was annulled much later, at the Duke’s request and with Consuelo’s permission, in May 1921. The annulment was fully supported by Alva, who testified that she had forced Consuelo into the marriage.

Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, more straightforward relationship by this time. Consuelo later successfully married Jacques Balsan, a French aeronautics pioneer. He took part in aviation experiments with the Wright brothers and, in 1910, constructed his own small plane. During World War I, he helped organize the Lafayette Escadrille and oversaw the aerial reconnaissance of the first Battle of the Marne site. In 1918, he went to London as chief of the French Air Force mission. During World War II, he joined the Free French forces in London, taking part in the operations that liberated southern France.

Alva and William had two other children: William Kisam and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. William became the New York Central Railroad Company president on his father’s death in 1920. Harold graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910 and joined his father at the New York Central Railroad Company. He remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family in the New York Central Railroad after his brother’s death, serving as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954. Harold reached the pinnacle of yacht racing in 1930 by defending the America’s Cup with his yacht, Enterprise. His wife Gertrude became the first woman to serve as a crew member in an America’s Cup race that year.

Alva Vanderbilt shocked society in March 1895 when she divorced her husband, who had long been unfaithful, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a sizeable financial settlement said to be more than $10 million, in addition to several estates. She already owned Marble House outright. Alva remarried on January 11, 1896, to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, one of her ex-husband’s old friends. Oliver had been a friend of the Vanderbilts since the late 1880s and, like William, was a great fan of yachting and horseraces. He had accompanied them on at least two long voyages aboard the Alva. Stories have been written that it was evident to many that he and Alva were attracted to one another upon their return from one such voyage in 1889. He was the son of August Belmont, a successful Jewish investment banker for the Rothschild family, and Caroline Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Upon Oliver’s sudden death in 1908, Alva took on the new cause of the women’s suffrage movement after hearing a lecture by Ida Husted Harper.

In 1908, Alva was visiting London and was inspired by The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU was founded in 1903 by Manchester labor activist Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU tactics were to approach women’s rights in a militant way. They believed that approaching women’s rights this way would further provoke the discussion of the issue. The WSPU members attended many political rallies and fought public officials about the issue of suffrage. Alva witnessed women marching through the streets of London with inspiring banners and flaming torches. She identified with these women because she was “a born rebel” who, since childhood, deeply resented women’s place in society.

Once Alva returned home, she began taking tactics she learned from London and applied them to women’s suffrage in America. In 1909, she joined the most prominent organization for women’s suffrage, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in America (NAWSA). Alva became a leading figure in the movement due to her accessibility to gathering large crowds with her buildings. Belmont was able to donate the Armory House in New York for suffrage speakers and was also able to use the Marble House for public fundraising. Alva used the Marble House for public figures to come and give suffrage lectures, which helped gain attraction from over 1,100 people. In addition, Alva also built a large room on 477 Madison Avenue in New York to serve as a lecture hall for suffragists.

By the end of 1909, Alva was able to move the NAWSA headquarters from New York to Ohio because she believed it was more of a practical location for political action. While in Ohio, Alva also extended her support and money to other movements, such as the workers’ rights movement. She opened an agricultural training school specifically for women to help them get into the working job field. While simultaneously opening her school, she was building new clubs back in New York. Alva established eleven suffrage clubs in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Long Island. These clubs organized suffrage meetings and offered public speaking classes, music programs, and reading rooms to various women. With the success of her clubs, Alva began publishing a weekly column in the society section of the Chicago Sunday Tribune to spread more awareness about suffrage. In April of 1912. Belmont added her own view on feminist philosophy to influence the outcome of the upcoming 1914 November elections. In her column, she emphasized that women had special responsibilities as mothers but also had an essential role in reforming society. She would attack those who opposed suffrage and identified the benefits of why all women should have access to the ballot.

By 1913, Alva Belmont left the National American Women’s Suffrage Association due to conflicts on tactics and strategies being used. However, at the same time, Alice Paul had founded her union, the Congressional Union (CU). This union was organized to help promote national suffrage through organizing women voters. Alva believed that the CU was the only one that was going to be able to pass an amendment and became a member quickly after leaving NAWSA. Alice Paul believed it was essential for the CU to exploit both Belmont’s fame and money to gain attraction for the movement. Once Belmont joined, she thought of new ways to promote the CU in the press and how to solicit money for the union. By the end of 1914, she had donated $12,600 to the organization. Alva got the CU to go to Newport Gatherings, where conservative suffragists and radical activists would discuss strategic principles to support each other. Alva also presented her own feminist convocation, the Conference of Great Women, which served as an effective tactic to get the press to come. During the conference, speakers addressed problems such as low wages, child labor, and the suffrage movement. By 1919, the CU became the National Woman’s Party (NWP), and Congress eventually passed the 19th Amendment.

In August of 1920, Alva urged Alice Paul and members of the NWP to launch a campaign to eliminate gender discrimination in the United States. She also initiated a campaign to help women have the same citizenship rights as men. She and Paul issued the “Declaration of Principles” in 1922, demanding “equality in all realms of life: education, the professions, labor, the church, sexual activity, jury duty, marriage, property, and citizenship.” It helped establish that women would be guaranteed equal access to education and employment. It also demanded equal pay for equal work, believing that women had the right to control their own property and bodies, as well as a right to divorce and gain custody of their children. By 1929, the NWP purchased a house in Washington, D.C, to serve as the headquarters for the movement and dedicated it to Alva Belmont, now known as the Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site. In her last years, Alva and Paul helped establish the International Advisory Council of the NWP to help monitor the legal position of women abroad. “Rise above unremunerative, unrecognized servitude. Be a strength to your children, never a subordinate,” Alva wrote in her column.

Alva Belmont was proven to be a strong, well-connected, and respectful woman throughout her lifetime. From a very young age, Belmont saw the privileges men had in society compared to women and used her voice and power to challenge the social norms being placed on women until her death. Through her love of architecture and interior design, Alva was able to design the most beautiful buildings throughout the East Coast and used these buildings to help capture the importance of women’s rights to thousands of women around the world. She continued to join movements, used her fame to spread awareness, and donated her money to advocate for women’s suffrage. If it wasn’t for Alva’s ability to use her platform meaningfully, many women might have never known about the movement or participated in it. In 1932, Belmont died from a stroke and left $100,000 to the NWP in her will.

In honor of her legacy, the delegates of the Pan-American Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, signed an equal nationality treaty in late 1933. In addition, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Equal Nationality Act, which provided citizenship to Americans regardless of their marriage status, on May 24, 1934. On “Equal Pay Day,” April 12, 2016, Alva Belmont was honored when President Barack Obama established the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C.

Alva V. Belmont was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2020, joining her son Harold, who was inducted in 2014.

For additional reading:

  • Alva Belmont: From Socialite to Feminist, J.W. Buell, The Historian, 1990.
  • Alva Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights, S. D. Hoffert, ProQuest, 2011.
  • Woman Suffrage Gathering at Newport Marble House, New York Times, July 18, 1909.
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