“Friends have often told me that I should write my story and describe the world of my youth, which was so different from that of today,” writes Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan in the Foreword of her autobiography The Glitter and the Gold.
Indeed, the world she described has all but disappeared, and was certainly inaccessible to the majority of people who lived in her era. It is difficult to imagine a life so full of privilege, opulent jewels, and extravagant gowns. She describes beautiful balls, famous people, and earth shaking world events from a first person point of view. From her early life as a member of America’s richest family, to her ascent into British nobility, surviving World War I, and fleeing Europe during World War II, she lived through these days and she is sharing them with us.
Consuelo brings her readers into her world, yet we get only a few glimpses into her own heart and mind. Her opinions – of people, situations, politics, the pointlessness of British formality – are often clearly spelled out, but she glosses over much of her emotions and feelings about her personal life. Her writing style implies a great deal, but she was not the kind of woman to write a “tell all” account of her life, in the modern sense of a memoir. Instead, she chooses her words very carefully, using “Mr. X” to describe someone whose identity she wishes to protect. You get the sense that she does not want to divulge too much, and she virtually skips over the juiciest details of her life with a just few well thought out phrases.
For example, we know from the beginning that her mother forced her into a loveless marriage with the Duke of Marlborough, and that she was crying tears of sorrow on the morning of her wedding. She makes her opinion of her husband quite plain, but in a 19th century elegance that needs to be decoded a bit. Appearances were very important to him, and he expected her to memorize long lists of people with whom they would associate. She was not yet 20 and was charged with organizing and hosting lavish parties for England’s most important people.
We know she is not happy with the Duke, and yet the couple had two sons. The practicality of such a coupling, when they did not care for each other and maintained separate bedrooms, raises a few questions that Consuelo was too tasteful to explain. What must her emotions have been, knowing she was having a child with a man she did not love, and who did not love her? On that significant point, she is silent.
After several years of what she vaguely calls “solitude,” she finally marries French aviator Jacques Balsan for love. She does not talk at all about their courtship, why she fell in love with him, or what their lives were really like. She titles the chapter “A Marriage of Love,” and we know that she was indeed happy with her new husband. But I expected more details leading up to the marriage. Instead, in one paragraph she talks about waiting for her divorce to be final. In the next she writes, “On July 4, 1921 I was married to Jacques Balsan in the Chapel Royal of the Savoy at nine in the morning.” Rather to the point. She goes on to say, “…life with Jacques Balsan has brought me the profound happiness companionship with one equally loved and honoured means.” But she does not say much more about their relationship. She provides virtually no details of their private lives, but she does devote several pages to describing his professional achievements. His accomplishments in the French military are impressive, but I would have liked to know more about how they got back in touch, how he proposed to her, and how her emotions were vastly different at her second wedding than they were for her first. We don’t even know if her mother attended the second wedding! That would have been an interesting conversation.
One of my favorite things about Consuelo is her wit. She was so refined, and yet she had a sense of humor that comes across in her writing, perhaps more than if one knew her in person. She recounts tales that makes you smile, if not laugh out loud. Although she did not connect with many of her husband’s family in any meaningful way, she found a lifelong friend in his cousin Winston Churchill. He did not get along well with Lady Astor, and Consuelo writes of an amusing exchange between them: “After a heated argument on some trivial matter Nancy, with a fervor whose sincerity could not be doubted, shouted, ‘If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!’ Whereupon Winston with equal heat and sincerity answered, ‘And if I were your husband I would drink it.’”
She provides the reader with details about life inside British royalty that one cannot find anyplace else, showing them as human beings. For example, in describing the coronation of Queen Alexandra, she “watched the shaking hand of the Archbishop as, from the spoon which held the sacred oil, he anointed her forehead. I held my breath as a trickle escaped and ran down her nose. With a truly royal composure she kept her hands clasped in prayer; only a look of anguish betrayed concern as her eyes met mine and seemed to ask, ‘Is the damage great?’” This reminds us all that life can throw you a curveball, royalty or not!
At times Consuelo goes on for paragraphs describing people the reader has never heard of. And if it weren’t for her refinement, and the knowledge that she is writing about her own reality, it may come across as name dropping. Someone as classy as Consuelo is not trying to impress you. She is merely recounting her life, which happens to be amply sprinkled with British royalty, famous writers and artists, and the crème de la crème of society. Still, it was a bit tedious to read litanies about “the former Mrs. So-and-so, who later became Duchess of This-and-that.”
My biggest complaint about her narrative is its abrupt ending. I hadn’t realized there was an index in the book, so I naturally assumed there was some kind of epilogue or afterward to wrap up her story in the pages that were left. I was enthralled by her escape from Europe after the Germans invaded France. I was tense, wondering (although I already knew!) if she would get out all right, and how she and her husband would get their visas and board a ship or plane bound for America. And in the midst of the tension, she simply quit writing! We know nothing about her life for the duration of the war or afterward, and a quick internet search provided few additional details beyond her death date in December 1964 (over 10 years after she published The Glitter and the Gold).
I have not been to Europe, but I understand that Blenheim Palace, Consuelo’s former home with the Duke of Marlborough, is open to the public. Her book describes the lavish home in detail, but there is only one photo – her massive, luxurious bedroom at Blenheim. Also included in the illustrations is a portrait of Consuelo and her son Ivor, which is now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A few years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Marble House, one of Consuelo’s childhood homes in Newport, Rhode Island. The entire home is constructed of Marble, and I would love to return, now that I have read more about the venerable Consuelo who was virtually imprisoned there before her mother forced her into a loveless marriage with the Duke. I recall the superb audio tour recounting the Vanderbilts’ parties, their sumptuous lifestyle, and the hundreds and hundreds of staff members it took to keep the place running. Well worth a stop if you find yourself in Newport.
I enjoyed The Glitter and the Gold, and am enthralled enough to read more books about the Vanderbilt family. This book was not a “quick read,” because of the flourish of the prose, but was definitely enjoyable.