As anyone who has toured the Biltmore House knows, the Vanderbilts were one of the wealthiest families in American history. The Gilded Age, a new series from PBS's American Experience, will focus on the Vanderbilts and the other 4,000 richest families that lived opulent lives in the late 1800s.
The series will show the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous of the Gilded Age and, of course, that includes the Vanderbilt family. Town & Country premiered a clip from the show, which looks at Alva Vanderbilt's scandalous divorce from William Kissam Vanderbilt, the oldest son of Cornelius, and the heir to the bulk of his fortune. William had what Patsy Cline would call a cheatin’ heart and while divorce was almost unheard of at the time, Alva filed the papers anyway. In the wake of the scandal, her friends shunned her, but as the clip from The Gilded Age says, Alva had an ace up her sleeve.
Alva was a clever woman and she knew that she needed to marry off their daughter, Consuelo, quickly. In some ways, it was an easy task—not only was Consuelo renowned for her beauty, but she was one of the wealthiest women in the United States. Her father William Vanderbilt was the wealthiest man in America at the time and it was her uncle George Vanderbilt who fell in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains and built the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. When Consuelo debuted in society in 1895, she had close to $20 million in the back, which is equal to almost $4 billion today.
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Of course, the money is what also made Alva’s job tricky. Having that much money made finding real love even harder for her than it is for the rest of us. There were so many unscrupulous wealthy or powerful men who wanted to leverage Consuelo’s considerable resources into more wealth and more power. As the clip from The Gilded Age shows, Consuelo ended up in what was basically an arranged marriage with the 9th Duke of Marlborough who had the title, but no money. Their wedding was as closely watched as Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s impending ceremony is today. Sadly, their marriage became yet another example of the loveless, socially advantageous marriages that were common during the Gilded Age. Luckily, Consuelo eventually freed herself from the loveless marriage, and found her true passion as a political activist and true love with a less famous man.
If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, check out Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's biography, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age, which reads like an historical copy of People.
The Gilded Age premieres Tuesday, February 6 on PBS. Check your local listing for timing information.