‘The Glitter and the Gold’ by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – Book review

2017 saw at least two big starring films about the UK prime minister Winston Churchill – Churchill with Brian Cox and The Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman, for which he collected the Best Actor Oscar.

Both prompt further learning and Mary S Lovell’s tome to the Churchills is a strong recommendation. On a quarter way through Lovell’s book, a further fascinating character is discovered – Consuelo Vanderbilt.

Conseulo Vanderbilt and a young Winston Churchill (Source: Wikipedia)

The Vanderbilt and Churchill lineages became interlinked when the 18 year old Consuelo was siphoned off to a marriage of convenience to Winston Churchill’s first cousin, the Duke of Marlborough.

Thrown headlong into the important English family and a class system that was complete nonsense to her, the Vanderbilt money was to provide the ample resources to keep the family seat of Blenheim well maintained:

“My husband spoke of some two hundred families who lineage and whose ramifications, whose patronymics and whose titles I should have to learn. Then Blenheim and its tenants, it employees and its household servants would claim my attention. It was only later that I found that my personal reactions towards what to me appeared absurd distinctions must be repressed and that I must not expect even a servant who stood high in the hierarchy to perform a task he considered beneath his dignity.”

Her first years as a wife and a gracious host, her dinner parties and diary reminiscences read like the who’s who of the day – characters from the political and arts arenas, as well as French and Russian royalty – including Rasputin’s alleged assassin !

Incredibly, the marriage lasted 11 years: “Time had but accentuated our differences.” In 1906 divorce was a difficult arrangement; separation became the only option. Her shackled personal life aside, Consuelo shifted gear and pushed herself and pushed the limits on what was expected of women at that time.

She assisted the Church Army with helping to rehabilitate first time offenders, along with their wives who had lost their primary source of income. Finding and fitting out two London city buildings to create work rooms, the Home for Prisoners Wives enabled these women to earn a wage.

With this came numerous public speaking engagements that took her around Britain, including 10 Downing Street, Paris and to her birth place, New York. In the shadow of the threat of war, Consuelo shone and was wanted for numerous philanthropic and political assignments, including:

  • Chairwoman for the American Women’s War Relief Fund
  • Honorary Treasurer of the Women’s Emergency Corp and Medical School for Women
  • Founder of the Children’s Jewel Fund
  • …as well as her continued medical care and support for English women.

At the height of World War I in 1917, Consuelo was asked to represent North Southwark on the very male-dominated London County Council. She was voted unanimously to the seat. The position helped to draw further attention to the plight of the poor by inviting one of her friends, the Prince of Wales to inspect South London areas with her. The constant of her work continued through to the year of the signing of the Armistice. However the strain had taken its toll and on doctor’s orders she was told to rest.

By the early 1920s divorce became legal; proceedings began to free her from Marlborough. But sadly coincided with the death of her father. Returning to New York she briefly joined her mother’s suffragette activities but soon returned to London to begin a new chapter.

In 1921 she married Jacques Balsan, a captain of the French Air Force and moved to France. Having not worked since her marriage, in 1926 she was welcome of the approach from social workers to help build a hospital. And so began her entry back into charity and public service. Through her connections she was able to bring in political and social leaders to help raise awareness and much needed funds for a range of projects. This period dovetails with an entire chapter of the colourful characters Consuelo and Jacques received at their home on the French Riviera – it was my favourite.

But war was to raise its ugly head again. By this time Consuelo had built a sanatorium – or a preventorium it was called in those days – for children recuperating from illnesses and operations. Housing some 60 babies and 80 small children, Consuelo took her rounds of them all every day. Keeping the hospital going during war rationing became even more difficult and varied. Those she tended soon grew to include large numbers of dislodged refugees, and later, wounded soldiers. All the while keeping tabs on the advance of the enemy and thinking how to evacuate if and when the time came.

And more refugees kept arriving. Her eyewitness accounts presents a vivid portrait of what and how these people endured:

“…farm wagons…trekking south leaving their crops, their cattle, their homes to the mercy of the invader…Perched on the top of one of these I saw a little old lady in an armchair. She … was dressed in her best black gown with a shawl crossed over her chest, on her head one of those lacy high bonnets French peasants still wear. When I spoke to her she said sadly, ‘This is the third time les Boches have driven us from our home – once before the Battle of the Marne – a second time in the late German drive just before the end of the last war – and now again.’ “

The evacuation of the children then became paramount. At the same time, she was called upon to help even more refugees, some 45,000 – many wounded – and while the enemy circled overhead. The stories she relates are heartbreaking and sometimes, in the face of death, the security of her own life came secondary to help those in need.

Never one to take her heritage for granted – however it did help her out of the occasional spot – her tenacity saw her achieve much during a time that was difficult for women to advance.

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