The name Vanderbilt is generally associated with great wealth. The magnificent Biltmore estate in Asheville was built for George Washington Vanderbilt in the late 1800s, and the heiress, artist and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt—who died recently--left millions to her son, the CNN television anchor Anderson Cooper. Now, thanks to the North Carolina writer Therese Anne Fowler and her excellent work of biographical historical fiction, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts (St. Martin’s Press), another member of that famous family--Alva Smith (Gloria’s great aunt)--gets her due. In a story that travels from New York to Paris, Fowler, who’s previous book was Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, takes readers on an inspirational journey into the life of one of the Gilded Age’s most renown dynasties. She strips away the layers of an often-maligned woman to show a person of strength, determination, empathy and integrity.
Near the end of the Civil War in 1874, the South was destitute and in ruins. Alva, a 21-year-old woman in Mobile, Alabama was in a quandary. She was “ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch” with no mother, a dying father, three sisters and dirt poor, due to her father’s deals with undercutting cotton dealers and bad investments in the Confederacy. Although they had lost everything, the family had a “spotless ancestry,” and the respectable lineage gave them some influence. Alva knew she had to marry well in order to live a satisfying and proper life, but there were hordes of young women with the same objective--and “so many fewer gentlemen to try for” since the war. With nothing more than their good name and some remaining family jewels, the Smith girls entered New York’s Gilded Age society where old money and social standing was the new currency of the day.
Alva was ambitious. She didn’t just want to marry someone rich, she wanted someone with prestige and a last name such as the Astor and Carnegie. Status would give her more control and protection from “being battered about by others’ whims and life’s caprices.” In modern times that problem seems ridiculous, but this was a time when women were considered legally and socially inferior to men (remember…women in the U. S. didn’t get the vote until 1920). Women needed men for security, as they had little means of making their own money, and the author never lets the storyline wander far without reminding readers of that reality.
The Vanderbilts were “nouveau riche,” and while money could buy them many things, it couldn’t get them the social standing they so desperately wanted. The only thing that could open the door to the finer homes and families was a marriage of social standing.
While Scarlett O’Hara transformed her drapes into a dress, Alva remade an old Paris gown to attend a Vanderbilt debutante ball she had been invited to. There she met William K. Vanderbilt, rumored to be New York City’s most eligible bachelor. Set-up by a friend, Alva hooked William and it was just the kind of strategic partnership she wanted. When they wed, just before their ceremony, she thinks: “Inside the chapel was an amiable but uninteresting gentleman who in a few minutes would, by the terms of God’s divine law and the laws of the country, own her. Whatever he believed was correct in regard to her keeping, he could enact.”
While the union did allow the couple to climb the social ladder a bit more, New York’s ‘old money’ continued to control access to the best of the city’s higher echelons. Determined to gain respect, Alva utilized the Vanderbilt millions to elevate the family into “its rightful place in society.” She became the lead socialite gaining a position of power and influence through philanthropy, hosting grand balls, and changing the architectural landscape of New York with the design and construction of nine mansions akin to nothing before seen in the city. When rejected for a box seat at the Academy of Music, she was instrumental in the founding of the Metropolitan Opera House. Because Alva manipulated society so beautifully, she became the driving force in establishing the Vanderbilts as one of the most influential dynasties of the age.
Alva realized, however, that wealth, status, privilege and good behavior were no guarantees of happiness and inevitably she saw that, “contentment lay beyond money’s considerable reach.” That was reinforced when the source of her financial security, her husband, betrayed her in a devastating manner.
For anyone interested in the social politics of America, New York’s magnificent Gilded Age, and the private intrigues of the city’s cultural elite, A Well-Behaved Woman is a pleasure. Fowler’s attention to period detail is astonishing and the cast of characters are recognizable and fascinating. The book offers an unemotional, thought provoking and subtle examination of an extraordinary life during a time when women were underrated, not appreciated and oppressed. Alva Smith Vanderbilt sacrificed her future and the future of her children, and defied the conventions of the time. She used her intellect and demanded and achieved more, altering the course of women’s lives in unprecedented ways.