On Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it’s irrelevant; many who love the story think it’s about escapism. In truth, history is the clearest roadmap for how we got here: America in the 21st century.
It’s a love story for Valentine’s Day. It’s that hearty perennial – a Cinderella story.
Our Cinderella was born in Mobile, Alabama. His grandfather owned a cotton plantation and his father was a lawyer who sold his father’s cotton domestically and abroad. The girl was born in 1853 and named Alva.
Her life was a fairy tale, but Alva wasn’t a housekeeper or Ella from the ashes. His life was filled with Southern charm, wealth, an impeccable social pedigree, and all the ashes swept away by slaves. When Alva was seven, that changed. The cause was not the arrival of an evil stepmother, but the threat of war.
In 1860, Murray Forbes Smith, Alva’s father, was certain that there would be a civil war and that war would end his way of life. He moved his wife Phoebe and her family to New York to avoid the ravages of war and start a new career. Cornelius Vanderbilt, The Commodore, made New York the hub of the American railroad system. Railways were central to the cotton transport business. If Smith could arrange an introduction to Vanderbilt, he could start a career in cotton hauling.
All efforts to meet the Commodore have failed. When the war broke out, Southerners were not popular in northern cities. Smith watched helplessly as his southern property was destroyed and his northern business collapsed. The family did what the impoverished nobility did: they settled in Paris.
For Smith, the move to Paris was a social humiliation born of economic necessity, but it was a triumph for Alva. She attended a school where she learned languages, history, art, architecture and ancient cultures. Nowhere in America in the 1860s could Alva have received such a thorough education.
In 1869, Mr. Smith felt the time had come to bring his family back to New York. He had taken 10-year-old Alva to Paris and returned with a young woman who had developed considerable social power and charm. By no means was she a beauty. But what she lacked in appearance, she made up for in knowledge, wit, energy, and good humor.
When Smith left New York, Madison Avenue was the company street, with JP Morgan in residence. Upon his return, Smith bought a house on Madison only to learn that the New York Society had moved to Fifth Avenue. While her siblings mourned their Madison Avenue address and lack of social contact, Alva rejoiced. Next door, Alva found a best friend, Consuelo Yznaga. Consuelo was Alva’s social mirror image. Alva had bloodline and no money; Consuelo had money and no lineage. Consuelo was one of the young women Edith Wharton based her characters on “The Buccaneers.” Just like in Wharton’s novel, when Consuelo was banned from a season in New York, her mother took her abroad for a season in London.
Smith’s wife, Phoebe, fell ill and died. Smith was unable to climb the social ladder on his own, nor was he able to be introduced to Vanderbilt. He had accurately predicted the war, the outcome of the war, and the economic recovery. Unfortunately, his foreknowledge did not pay off. The loss of his wife, social isolation and economic hardship quickly shattered his health.
Alva, just 17 and the youngest of three children, took the reins. Her sisters, in her opinion, were weak and educated only for the salon. None of these society darlings could save the family, but they could. She made a shocking suggestion: “We are going to turn our house into a boarding house.” The family was appalled. It is true that they are poor, but they were born into the social elite and must respect the norms. Alva said they could meet the standards and starve, or rent rooms and keep a roof over their heads.
It is unclear whether the Smith family ever rented rooms, but at the dramatic moment the plan was being considered, Consuelo returned from a triumphant season in London. She was now the Duchess of Manchester. She was a woman with newly acquired but unmistakable social credentials, ready and able to help Alva. Alva accompanied the Duchess to a ball, where in 19th century America a Duchess was as good as a fairy godmother. There, Consuelo introduced Alva to William Kissam Vanderbilt (Willie K.), the Commodore’s grandson and son of William Henry Vanderbilt.
Her father had never managed to get himself presented with a Vanderbilt, but with Consuelo’s help, Alva did. She and “Willie K.” had a lot in common: a love of all things French, a classical education, youth, and both had been snubbed by society. Alva led Willie on a merry hunt, but in 1875 she let Willie catch him. It was at this auspicious moment that a key was introduced into Alva’s machinery.
Media coverage of movie stars today pales in comparison to coverage of America’s first wealthy and powerful celebrities in the 1870s. As soon as the press got a glimpse of the romance between Alva and Willie, they been fair game and the truth was never allowed to stand in the way of a good story.
Willie K. was tight within the press, but the press was not kind to Alva. She was cast as “the petty boarding house landlady”, read “gold digger”, an unworthy woman who had ensnared the poor, unsuspecting Vanderbilt heir through cunning and feminine wiles. If the derogatory stories continued, Alva feared losing her Willie.
She had to act, but the upcoming wedding would be proof of the press allegations. Nineteenth-century America was not an age of psychological analysis or social niceties – what you saw was what you got. Alva and the Smith family didn’t have the money to pay for the kind of wedding expected of a woman worthy of a Vanderbilt.
For example, the appropriate wedding dress at a Vanderbilt wedding was a dress by Charles Worth of Paris. A single Worth dress could cost more than all the money the Smith family had. The portrayal of her as a gold digger would be confirmed and she would be a laughing stock if her marriage and wedding dress were second rate. What could she do?
Alva called the press. In the 19th century, a woman’s name appeared in the press “when she was born, when she married and when she died”. For a woman’s name to appear at any other time was a disgrace and could mean social ruin. Moreover, no lady gave an interview. In other words, no lady except Alva. She had to take the risk.
She told the press that she ordered a Worth dress. Her dress was finished, carefully packaged in Paris, and shipped to America in time for the wedding. Unfortunately, the ship sank. She wanted the world to know that no personal vanity or desire for display would cause her to postpone her marriage to the man she loved. The wedding would take place as planned and she would wear her mother’s wedding dress. That way, the dear mother she loved and lost would be with her on her most important day.
The press was captivated and the coverage became friendlier. On April 20, 1875, at the age of 22, Alva Smith walked down the aisle of Calvary Church into the arms of her Willie K. and the wealthiest family in America.
No, they didn’t live happily ever after, but that’s a story for another day.