(Newport, RI) Arranged marriages to Dukes, high society divorces, scandalous underage drinking, and lavish parties are all part of Marble House’s history. And who owned this 50 room mansion? A Southern born woman named Alva…
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. She wasn’t a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a pioneer on the frontier of modern science… but she did design a life she wanted and wasn’t afraid of fighting for it. She also once dressed as a Venetian Princess for a party she threw at her home and insisted wine always be present at the table. She sounds so fun!
She had an $11 million dollar house built in the early 1890’s, using her husband’s money, as her 39th birthday present and had it put in HER NAME. She wanted to own it outright… no strings attached. In today’s terms, that would be a $260 million dollar home. Currently, according to Forbes, the most expensive home on the market is listed for $125 million.
She was brave and took chances. When it was de rigueur to host dinner parties in the French style with many courses at once in order to create an impression of awe for your guests, she served hers “a la Russe.” This Russian service divides the dinner into 8 courses and completely changes the experience for the guests. Plates were pre-designed works of art that brought a sense of equality to the table since everyone was served the same thing in the same way. Symbolic? I think so considering her later campaign for women’s rights.
As soon as the first course of oysters was served to the last person at the table, the first person’s plate was being replaced with course two, an eggplant salad. Next would be soup, followed by fish, and then a palate cleansing sorbet. The sixth course would commence with a light greens salad as an opener to the seventh and main course which was usually a roast. Then finally, an array of desserts was served. All of this usually only took 64 minutes! Can you imagine?
In June when we toured Marble House, I was struck by how differently the Gilded Age definition of home is from ours. To us, a home should be the most comfortable place you can imagine. To them, a home should be the most impressive place you could dream up.
However, I was equally as struck by the tenacity and bravery of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. Sure, she spent a lot of money on 75 pound chairs and a Chinese Tea House in her backyard, but she also paved the way for women making their own choices and wasn’t afraid to admit it when she was wrong.
She was a construction of contradictions and refused to allow the Newport opulence to only be a backdrop for her existence.
Instead, she used it to her advantage and to change the world for women. And, I can’t blame her for that.