American DuchessKaren Harper
Prologue: The Wedding of the Century, November 6, 1895: The Cage Door Closes
Part One: Debutante, 1893–1895: The Golden Cage
Part Two: Duchess, 1895–1906: The Gilded Cage
Part Three: Champion, 1906–1919: The Open Door
Part Four: Wife and Benefactor, 1919–1938
Part Five: Refugee, 1939–1940: Fight and Flight
P.S. Insights, Interviews & More . . .*
About the Author
About the Book
Also by Karen Harper
About the Publisher
The Wedding of the Century, November 6, 1895
The Cage Door Closes
Everyone was calling it the wedding of the century. I was calling it the worst day of my life.
Granted, I might have been watched like a hawk before—by a maternal hawk—but I had never felt my imprisonment in a gilded cage so strongly. Here I was on my wedding day, trapped in my bedroom with the door guarded by the biggest footman at the house so I would not flee.
“Miss Consuelo, can you please stop crying?” my maid Lucy asked as she sponged my red-rimmed eyes with cool water again. “I am afraid I will make drips on your dress.”
My mother had purchased my wedding gown in Paris before my betrothed, Sunny—as I must now call him, short for Sunderland, one of his secondary titles before he became the 9th Duke of Marlborough—had even asked for my hand. He had become duke four years ago at age twenty. The sobriquet certainly did not come from his personality, because a less sunny person I’d never met. This marriage was all about dollars and no sense: Vanderbilt money for the Marlborough title, prestige, and power.
“I’m trying not to cry,” I told Lucy with a hiccough. My voice was not my own. Mama had insisted on elocution lessons amid all the others, partly so I could speak loud and clear, but now I would sound so stuffed up declaring my vows in that huge church.
And where was my father? I needed him, and his presence has been scarce since Mother was divorcing him. But—ha!—she needed him today to give me away, needed his respectable presence as much as she needed the Vanderbilt fortune to cover all the outrageous wedding bills.
“Oh, thank heavens,” I blurted out at the rap on the door. Swathed in silk and tulle, I managed to turn toward it as the footman hovering outside opened it for my father and he hurried in.
Ever handsome, always smiling—well, until the arguments had become so bitter and then the divorce loomed. Papa halted a few feet away, taking me in with his warm glance, and I burst into tears again, so glad to see him, so wishing he could spirit both of us away.
“My dearest, don’t cry, not today,” he said and carefully came closer, shuffling to avoid stepping on the long, pearl-encrusted satin train. “I know brides are nervous but—”
“You know it is more than that. Lucy, you may leave us now.”
“But, Miss Consuelo, you cannot sponge your own tears. And I need to arrange the train and veil.”
“Later. Soon. Please wait outside,” I said and snatched the sponge from her.
Used to looking at my mother for confirmation, she glanced at my father, who nodded. She fled, probably much relieved.
“My dearest, beautiful girl,” he comforted when the door closed. “Your mother has gone on ahead, so we have a few minutes to pull ourselves together.”
“I need longer than that. A lifetime. You will visit at the palace, won’t you? You are always welcome. The real vow I take today is to not change my beliefs to suit him, husband or not, duke or not! I do not care if the Prince of Wales himself comes to visit—and Sunny says he will.”
Looking both worried and proud at that declaration, Papa came closer, reaching out his strong arms to carefully hug me around my shoulders.
“Of course I shall visit my dear girl, high and mighty duchess though she may be. And you and I shall write. After all, he has promised to love and cherish you, has he not?”
I shrugged. “But Papa, I tower over him by half a head. And there was the most cruel Life magazine cartoon by someone called Charles Dana Gibson of us kneeling at the altar where I tower over him and my hands are tied behind my back—and Mama is holding the rope to make me kneel!”
I sniffled as I stepped back and used the eye sponge to wipe once more under my eyes and then my nose. I cleared my throat and tried speaking louder. “But, yes, he said he would try to be a good husband.”
“There, you see. You must learn to ignore the cruel press.”
“It truly is not that which makes me feel oppressed. It is, well, lost opportunities.”
“I know how much you loved someone else. Poor Winthrop too. I am sorry your mother had other plans.”
I longed to scream at him that I had faced her alone on that, when I could have used his help—but then he would have lost anyway, as had I. We spoke a bit longer, lingering, perhaps pretending this was not real. He tried to buck me up, as my brothers would say.
Finally, I mentally squared my shoulders, which were already ever straight from years of wearing an iron brace to give me perfect posture. I tossed the sponge back into the bowl of water and lowered my knee-length veil over my face. Thank God for it, as I wanted to hide from all that awaited me. I could hear the crowd outside the house, and more would await us at and in the church. The numbers alone staggered me: twenty-five policemen outside the church to keep order, four thousand guests, a sixty-piece orchestra and fifty-voice choir, and a parade of churchmen to lead us through our vows.
Despite my lingerie, then four layers of satin, and the Brussels lace gown and veil, I felt quite naked and exposed. I wished I could hide forever. Someone—I feared I knew who—had released information to Vogue magazine, which had sketched and published each item of the enhancement undergarments I wore today. Suddenly my corset felt so tight I could hardly breathe.
“Ready, my dear?” Papa asked and held out his arm as if we were ready to tread the church aisle. Our cue would come just after the choir sang “O Perfect Love” before the “Wedding March” began. How romantic, everyone thought, but not I.
O perfect love, indeed. I had turned eighteen only eight months ago. I did not want to be the Duchess of Marlborough. I was an American through and through, however much Mama had taken me around the world, put me on display before French and British society, and bred me and sold me for this very event and the life to come.
Yet here I was, going to live on a huge estate still run by feudal rules. At least my dear governess, who had been with me for years, had lifted my spirits by insisting that, once I was duchess, I could help others. Mama expected me to take over the British social world as she had the New York so-called four hundred. Then there was the need for what I had dubbed “an heir and a spare,” when I knew next to naught about marriage bedroom protocol.
But I was a Vanderbilt and I would somehow—God willing—make the best of this damned gilded cage or die trying.
“Yes, Papa, I’m ready,” I lied, but I kept thinking, How did it ever, ever come to this?
The Golden Cage
It was a blustery, gray November day. I could not believe how many New Yorkers had come to the pier to see my parents and their friends off. Of course the newspapermen were there shouting questions. But I suppose, since there were eighty-five people on board the Vanderbilt yacht Valiant, that some of the crowd could have been related to the crew of seventy-two and our French chef.
But the people on the pier were not what took my attention. Papa had invited his friend Winthrop Rutherfurd to come with us on our ocean voyage to India and France, and Win stood beside me at the rail.
To tell true, I adored him, however much older he was at age twenty-nine and I only sixteen. So handsome, even-tempered, properly protective and attentive. A trained lawyer but quite the sportsman. And how he looked at me, though his manners in public were impeccable.
On my other side from Win and Papa stood Mama and next to her from Newport, Oliver Belmont, a friend of both my parents. My youngest brother, Harold, nine years old, had come along, though my brother Willie, a year and a half younger than I, had stayed behind for his schooling. I would like to say I would miss him, but with Win along and his gloved hand so close to mine, well.
I jolted from my reverie when Mama spoke: “Consuelo, the next time you see New York, I will have brought you out in Europe. Your life will be different as a debutante—a Vanderbilt debutante.”
Because I was tall for a woman, at nearly five feet and eight inches, I now looked down on her. After all she’d put me through—put me through my paces, she had called it, as if I were a filly to be trained. But there was no changing her—had I been twelve feet tall, she still would have steered me like this steam yacht, heading out into life’s sea.
She immediately turned back to Mr. Belmont. I saw he dared to cover her gloved little finger with his on the teak rail. Though as was proper, flesh never touched flesh in polite society, it hit me hard that—could it be?—they were more than friends? But no. Mama never did anything to sully the Vanderbilt name. She only decorated it and flaunted it as she did our mansions on Long Island and in New York City and Newport, which she had built with her designing passion and Papa’s money.
Win spoke, and I turned quickly to face him. Ah, he was nearly six-foot-three, though I did not need his height to endear him to me. Every kindly move, each smile and intense look in his eyes—
“Shall we stand at the other rail to see the Statue of Liberty go by—well, that is, we are going by,” he said, gesturing with one arm and holding out the other for me to take. With a nod at my father, we walked together across the width of the ship to the port side. “Not only are you and I going by but we are going far, my dear Consuelo,” Win added when we were out of everyone’s earshot.
At that, I did not need this massive yacht at all. I could have flown.
I COULD HEAR my parents arguing through the wall between our cabins, however sturdy the mahogany barrier. Papa was shouting back at Mama? Never, never had I heard that. Usually, she ranted, and he walked out the door without fighting back, though now he was a captive audience on this vessel the rough seas were rocking.
“Alva, you cannot act that way with Belmont with the children and our guests about! His middle name isn’t Hazard for nothing. He has been a friend to us both, but beware.”
“Be grateful he is an honorable person, which is more than I can say for some of the paramours you have run to over the years!”
“Only when your social grubbing made our marriage a living hell, damn it!”
“And you have had a flaming affair with my friend Consuelo Montagu. Our daughter is named for her, for heaven’s sake!”
I was astounded at that accusation. My godmother, the Duchess of Manchester, and my father? Surely not. Just before this voyage, Mama had ranted at me, I do the thinking here. You do as I say! But I would still side with Papa if I were ever asked for an opinion.
“You do not have time for me,” he insisted, his voice a bit quieter now. “Only for spending money to buy our way into society, which we do not need—to climb the rungs of that ladder, not the money, I mean.”
“We did need to take our rightful place among Mrs. Astor’s so-called four hundred. We needed to show our true worth, and we have. And you need to show some appreciation for the houses I have designed and built, for they are works of art! Especially our Fifth Avenue mansion and Marble House. They make your favorite Idle Hour on rural Long Island seem tawdry.”
“Just ask the children—especially Consuelo—which they prefer!”
I covered my ears with my hands and curled into a ball on my bed. I was starting to feel queasy from the rolling and tilting of the ship, and from what I was hearing. I could only hope that my governess, Miss Harper, who slept near the door, hadn’t heard their fighting. But Miss Harper, who was bright and wise, no doubt knew more about my parents’ rocky marriage than their own children did.
Except for me. When Mama and Papa were not speaking, I was the one who carried messages between them, both in the Fifth Avenue house and in vast Marble House, which everyone in Newport called a “cottage.” I hated it when my parents did not speak to each other, but how I wished they were not speaking now.
“The wind is picking up,” Miss Harper spoke from her bed across the cabin. So had they awakened her or was she trying to drown out their voices? “Getting a bit rough.”
“I know. It scares me.”
“This is the largest private yacht in America, maybe in the world. It does not roll as hard as their first yacht, the Alva.”
“But the Alva sank.”
Somehow, suddenly, that seemed the wrong thing to say. The big boat named Alva might have gone down, but not the real Alva. Like a storm, she, too, was a force of nature. Unstoppable, unsinkable.
AFTER SPENDING TWO days ashore in Cairo to get our land legs back while the Valiant passed through the locks of Suez, we reboarded the yacht to cross the Indian Ocean to Bombay. There the noise, swarms of insects, smells—the seething humanity of India—nearly overwhelmed me. My legs went weak and my stomach roiled, so I survived on toast and tea, despite some of the wonders we saw.
Win was ever attentive, and I began to love, not just like, him. We found we had a favorite Strauss opera in common, Der Rosenkavalier, so that became my private nickname for him. It translated to “the rose bearer,” and he promised to have my arms full of roses when we arrived home. I told him my favorite was the American Beauty rose, and Amber, an amalgam of that name, was his secret, secret name for me, despite my dark hair and my dark eyes and olive skin. He teasingly said that my long, slender neck was the stem for my blooming beauty.
It was during the several days my parents spent away from us that I treasured most on the voyage, for, though Miss Harper or my maid Lucy always tagged along or sat nearby, I spent hours up on deck with Win.
“Your mother will have real visions of grandeur after staying with the British viceroy and the vicereine at Government House,” Win told me. “It’s not some plain outpost like it sounds. I hear they live like royalty as they oversee India for the queen.”
“Then my mother will fit right in.”
“Somehow we will win her to our side,” he promised, keeping his voice low so Miss Harper, who was sitting on a deck chair holding
a book, would not hear. “I come from acceptable ‘stock,’ and would not pursue you for your money—though I do not mean to say you are not worthy of great love without a dowry or settlement of any kind.”
However sophisticated I was trying to be, I sighed. Staring at the passing life, as we anchored near the Bay of Bengal along the Hooghly River, it was so hard to picture a future with Win—to picture anywhere but here. I had glimpsed on the wharf below, amid food sellers and workers, that veiled and swathed women in the heat walked two steps behind their men, some bearing pots or pitchers upon their heads with one hand up for balance. So picturesque and exotic, but somehow strange and . . . and wrong. Wrong that the British rulers lived in luxury here when there was all this.
“You are trembling in this heat, sweetheart,” Win said. “We had best go back inside. Miss Harper is coming over, as she must have noticed, too.”
The three of us were barely seated in the stateroom when my parents came back from their two nights away. As faint as I had suddenly felt—though, who knew, perhaps the vapors were caused by Win’s intensity as well as the sweltering scene below—I came to attention.
“They rule here as royalty!” Mama declared, pulling the pins from her hat and sailing it onto the spare settee. “Almost like a king and queen, or at least duke and duchess.” Papa poured himself a tumbler of brandy from the sideboard and dismissed the footman with a wave of his hand.
“They are about to have a changing of the guard,” Papa said, “but we were entertained in luxury. Lord and Lady Elgin will be replacing our hosts, the Lansdownes. Yet still there is a pall hanging over the place and—”
“Hardly a pall,” Mama cut in, “and it is appalling you would say that. Consuelo,” she said, turning toward me, “the wife of the viceroy, the vicereine, does much good here and has power of her own, quite independent of her husband. So, there is a British precedent for feminine power far beyond the duties or mere self-indulgence or luxury.”
“I hope,” I said, sitting up straighter, “she sees to the wretched masses I have observed, especially the women. And what is that you said about their practice of purdah, Win?”