Suffragette. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, she was the daughter of a successful cotton merchant and plantation owner. Her parents were ruined at the outbreak of the Civil War and fled to Paris, France with their five children. When they returned to the United States after the war, her mother ran a New York City, New York boarding house and her father brokered cotton to support their family in genteel poverty. Her best friend from her childhood in Mobile, Consuelo Yznaga (later Viscountess Mandeville), introduced her to handsome, wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva determined to marry him, which she did in 1875. They were of opposite temperaments and the marriage was unhappy. Alva had three children, Consuelo, William II, and Harold Vanderbilt. Fiery-tempered and ferociously ambitious, she forced her daughter Consuelo to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, for which the impoverished duke received more than $2.5 million (an astronomical sum in 1895). Although the marriage made Consuelo miserable, she and her mother reconciled later and Consuelo was at her mother's bedside when she died at her Parisian townhouse and escorted her mother's body home for burial. Alva divorced Vanderbilt and married Oliver H. P. Belmont in 1896. Belmont, whose father had founded an international banking fortune, had been her husband's best friend. After her second husband's death, Alva embraced the Suffragist movement, donating both funds and leadership. An amazingly profligate spender, she constructed and fantastically decorated more than a dozen grand residences, the most famous of which may be Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island (which she sold in 1932 for the Depression-era price of $100,000, less than one-hundredth of the $11 million it had cost in 1892).
Alva Erskine Stirling Belmont