Alva Erskine Smith was born January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama. Two of her sisters died before she was born. Her only brother died in 1857. Alva had two other sisters that survived into adulthood.
As a child, Alva summered with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island and accompanied them on European vacations.
In 1857, after her brother died, her family left Mobile and relocated to New York City, where they briefly settled in Madison Square.
When Alva’s father moved to Liverpool, England, to conduct business, her mother moved to Paris where Alva attended a private boarding school in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
After the Civil War, the Smith family returned to New York, where her mother died in 1869.
At a party for one of William Henry Vanderbilt’s daughters, Alva’s best friend, Consuelo Yznaga, introduced her to William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
In keeping with her quote – “First marry for money,” Alva and William Vanderbilt were married April 20, 1875 at Calvary Church in New York City.
Alva Vanderbilt would have three children with William.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, followed by William Kissam Vanderbilt II on March 2, 1878, and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt on July 6, 1884.
Alva was a friend and frequent patron of Richard Morris Hunt and was one of the first female members of the American Institute of Architects.
As a young newlywed, Alva Vanderbilt worked from 1878 to 1882 with Richard Morris Hunt to design a French Renaissance style chateau, known as the Petit Chateau, for her family at 660 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
A contemporary of Vanderbilt’s was quoted as saying that “she loved nothing better than to be knee deep in mortar.” Alva held a masquerade ball that cost $3 million to open the Fifth Avenue château.
(Petit Chateau was demolished in 1929)
Also, in 1878, Alva had Richard Hunt begin work on their Queen Anne style retreat on Long Island, she named Idle Hour. Alva added on to the house almost continuously until 1889 and the house burned down in 1899.
William K. Vanderbilt had a new fireproof mansion rebuilt on the Idle House estate and it is now the home of Dowling College.
Richard Hunt was again hired by Alva to design the neoclassical style Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, as William K. Vanderbilt’s 39th birthday present and summer “cottage” retreat for Alva.
Built from 1888 to 1892, the Marble House became a social landmark that helped spark the transformation of Newport from a relatively relaxed summer colony of wooden houses to the now legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. Marble House was reported to cost $11 million and was staffed with 36 servants, including butlers, maids, coachmen, and footmen. Alva built Marble House next door to Caroline Astor’s much simpler Beechwood estate.
Alva Vanderbilt shocked society in March 1895 when she divorced her husband, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a large financial settlement said to be in excess of $10 million, in addition to several estates.
Alva already owned Marble House outright.
Alva’s grounds for divorce were allegations of William’s adultery, although there were some who believed that William Vanderbilt had hired a woman to pretend to be his mistress so that Alva would divorce him.
Alva then maneuvered daughter Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on November 6, 1895.
Alva then married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont for love January 11, 1896, a man five years her junior and one of her ex-husband’s old friends.
Oliver had been a friend of the Vanderbilts since the late 1880s and like William was a great fan of yachting and horseraces. He had accompanied them on at least two long voyages aboard their yacht the Alva.
Scholars have written that it seems to have been obvious to many that Alva and Oliver Belmont were attracted to one another upon their return from one such voyage in 1889.
Oliver was the son of August Belmont, a successful Jewish investment banker for the Rothschild family, and Caroline Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.
After Alva’s divorce from Vanderbilt and subsequent remarriage to Oliver, she began extensive renovations to Belmont’s sixty-room Newport mansion, Belcourt Castle.
The entire first floor was composed of carriage space and a multitude of stables for Belmont’s prized horses. Eager to reshape and redesign Belcourt, Alva made changes that transformed the interiors of the mansion into a blend of French and English Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Alva then began construction of another neoclassical mansion, Brookholt, built in 1897 in East Meadow on Long Island.
In 1899 Alva and Oliver bought the corner of 477 Madison Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan. The mansion became known as the Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont House.
The neoclassical three-story townhouse, designed by Hunt & Hunt, had a limestone facade and interior rooms in an eclectic mix of styles.
Construction was still underway when Oliver Belmont died suddenly in 1908.
To honor her late husband, Alva announced that she would build an addition that was an exact reproduction of the Gothic Room in Belcourt Castle, to house her late husband’s collection of medieval and early Renaissance armor.
The room, dubbed The Armory, measured 85 by 24 feet and was the largest room in the house.
Alva and her youngest son, Harold, moved into the house in 1909.
Alva’s last new mansion in the United States was built on Long Island’s North Shore. This one, Beacon Towers, has been described by scholars as a pure Gothic fantasy. It was built from 1917–18 in Sands Point. In 1925, Alva closed the castle permanently, then sold it to William Randolph Hearst in 1927.
Beacon Towers is thought by some literary scholars to have been part of the inspiration for the home of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
After hearing a lecture by Ida Husted Harper, Alva took on the new cause of women’s suffrage. The Armory would later be used as a lecture hall for women suffragists. Alva sold the Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont House in 1923.
Youngest son Harold Stirling Vanderbilt graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910, then joined his father at the New York Central Railroad Company.
Son William Kissam Vanderbilt II would become president of the New York Central Railroad Company on his father’s death in 1920.
Alva retired to France in 1923. She had a townhouse in Paris and a villa on the Riviera. She also purchased the 15th-century Château d’Augerville in Augerville-la-Rivière, Loiret, in the summer of 1926 and restored it as her primary residence.
Château d’Augerville had been one of Alva’s inspirations for her châteauesque-style 660 Fifth Avenue house and legend had it that the chateau had once belonged to Jacques Cœur, who had left it to his daughter.
Alva did a great deal of restoration and renovation during her ownership. She had the river flowing through the estate widened because she said, as Consuelo later wrote, “This river is not wide enough.” She brought in paving stones from Versailles to cover the previously sand-paved great forecourt between the house and the village. She also built a massive concrete Neo-Gothic portal gate separating the chateau and village. Other changes included replacement of the wrought iron staircases and moving the kitchens to the basement. She also added a bowling alley in one of the houses on the estate.
Daughter Consuelo’s marriage was annulled at the Duke of Marlborough’s request and Consuelo’s consent August 19, 1926. The annulment was fully supported by Alva, who testified that she had forced her daughter Consuelo into the marriage.
By this time Alva and her daughter Consuelo enjoyed a closer, easier relationship. Consuelo went on to marry Jacques Balsan, a French aeronautics pioneer.
Son Harold remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family in the New York Central Railroad after his brother William’s death, serving as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954.
Alva suffered a stroke in the spring of 1932 that left her partially paralyzed, and she died in Paris of bronchial and heart ailments on January 26, 1933. Her funeral at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City featured all female pallbearers and a large contingent of women suffragists.
Alva is interred with Oliver Belmont in the Belmont Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. The Belmont Mausoleum took several years to build and is an exacting replica of the original Chapel of Saint Hubert on the grounds of the Château d’Amboise.
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