We observe today the birth of Alva Smith, a nice Southern girl who grew up to become Alva Vanderbilt and then Alva Belmont, a woman described by terms not often linked – socialite and suffragette.
Born in 1853, Alva met William Kissam Vanderbilt after her father, a wealthy merchant, moved the family from Mobile, Alabama, to New York City just before the Civil War. (He relocated again during the war to Paris, returning to New York when the shooting was over.)
Clearly the Smiths weren’t hayseeds, by any means – before the move, they’d already been summering in Newport. a town that Alva would leave a deep impression on.
As Mrs. Vanderbilt, she was able to indulge a passion for mansions that she never outgrew. At one point she owned nine, including several she picked up as a result of her divorce settlement in 1895, along with $10 million all her own. Divorce was practically unheard of at the time, but Alva made it almost acceptable.
Involved from the early years in the struggle for women’s suffrage, she bought a permanent home in Washington for the National Woman’s Party, for which she served as president until her death. Called the Sewell-Belmont House, it is now a museum.
But she is best remembered for Marble House, her Newport mansion that dwarfed the relatively modest, mostly wooden summer cottages of millionaire’s row and especially her neighbor Carrie Astor’s Italianate cottage called Beechwood.
Beechwood descended through the family until recently and to keep it up and running, here – and I quote Wikipedia directly – is what the Astors would do:
“During off-season months (February to May), servants of the Astor family provide tours of the estate as if they are still living in 1891. Visitors are considered to be “applicants” for a summer job on Mrs. Astor’s staff, and may “apply” for any job they wish. Positions include: gardener, footman, butler, housemaid, and many others. During the summer months while the Astor family is living in the mansion, Astor family members give tours to guests. Everyone living and working in the mansion acts as though it is 1891 and act in character throughout the tour.”
I swear this is not Wikipedia snark. In any event, the Astors are no longer spending summers in Newport pretending it’s 1891 because two years ago they sold Beechwood to a modern merchant prince for ten and a half mill. The new owner is Larry Ellison, founder and CEO of Oracle, the fifth or eighth richest man in the world – his ranking fluctuates a bit. He’s pretty consistently the third richest American, though, right behind Gates and Buffett.
Larry has several other houses – and a Hawaiian island – but his inventory can’t compare to Alva’s. She retired from her life as a socialite and suffragette in 1923 and moved to Paris, where she bought a townhouse. She also had a villa on the Riviera, but died in 1933 in her chateau at Augerville, the house that had inspired her first Fifth Avenue Mansion.