previous pagenext page
Lafayette L2115a
Neg. Date:
copyright V&A

Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, née Vanderbilt (1877–1964)

Tall, beautiful and ravishingly elegant, with a swan-like neck, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, née Vanderbilt was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a railway magnate from New York. She was named Consuelo in honour of her godmother, the Duchess of Manchester.

In 1895, Consuelo’s mother Alva manoeuvred her, with threats and weeping, into marriage with a land-rich, money-poor English aristocrat — Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871–1934). The marriage was an unhappy one for both parties, who had had to abandon their first loves to fulfil their parents’ desires. Consuelo received one of the most illustrious titles of the British nobility and Charles collected $4.2 million in railway stocks and a guaranteed income from dividends which enabled him to undertake the restoration of the family’s seat — Blenheim Palace.

Charles and Consuelo separated in 1906, and Consuelo moved in to Sunderland House, the Marlborough’s residence in London. It was during her lonely life there that Consuelo threw herself into public work – her chief concern being the welfare of woman and children. Her commitment to pre- and post-natal care for babies earned her the nickname of the “Baby Duchess”. In 1921 after a papal annulment, she married her old friend Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Balsan, a record-breaking pioneer, French balloon, air- and hydroplane pilot.

The fictitious dollar princess, Conchita Closson, was based on Consuelo by the American novelist, Edith Wharton, in her book The Buccaneers. Consuelo herself described her life in her autobiography The Glitter and The Gold, the glitter being synonymous with the years spent with the Duke of Marlborough, and the gold referring to happy times with Jacques Balsan. The American heiresses who came up against deep seated snobbery in English society, which considered Americans essentially vulgar upstarts, were also the subject of a musical which opened in London in 1909 and parodied the British landed classes’ urge to marry American money. The use of the name Daisy is purely coincidental as she discusses the clauses of the marriage contract.

  Daisy: Paragraph one! The dowry – that’s your million cash.
  Marquis: Enough for me to live on if I do not cut a dash.
  Daisy: Paragraph two! On parting – all belongs to you.
  Marquis: That’s really most attractive.
  Daisy: There are other clauses too!

This photograph, one of three extant poses in different dresses from the same photographic session, was made by Lafayette in July 1899, while Consuelo was still an active and popular member of English society. All three poses appeared in the illustrated press between 1902–4, and it is not difficult to see why she was considered “one of the beauties of King Edward VII’s time” and appeared in the famous 1902 Book of Beauty in a portrait by Helleu.

Consuelo met Daisy on many occasions, as both of them belonged to the close circle of friends around the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Recalling a ball given by the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, she remembered Princess Henry of Pless – “the golden-haired Daisy Cornwallis-West” — as “a great lady of considerable beauty”. On her part Daisy referred to Consuelo as the “enchanting Duchess of Marlborough” and wrote that “for years she was one of my dearest friends, and a sweeter, truer, finer woman does not walk this earth…” Of Consuelo’s famed beauty, Daisy rhapsodised over “the masses of soft dark hair… the long slim neck, the sad-looking hazel eyes, above all the slender, willowy figure with its unusual height, [which] had in their combined effect something so magnetic and distinctive that the artist seldom succeeded in capturing it…”

A version of the photograph was reproduced in The Sketch magazine on 13 July 1904.