The Belmont Family History
ALVA ERSKINE SMITH
MRS. WILLIAM KISSAM VANDERBILT (1874-1895)
MRS. OLIVER HAZARD PERRY BELMONT (1896-1933)
Alva Erskine Smith was born on January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of a cotton planter Murray Forbes Smith. Her mother was the granddaughter of General Robert Deeha of Tennessee. She was educated in France and attained the social graces and accomplishments of a proper young lady in European society, with friends among the nobility - including her very best friend Consuelo Yznaga, who married a British Lord, and for whom her only daughter was named.
In 1874 she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, the second son of William H. Vanderbilt, owner of the Grand Central Railroad. Her brother in law, Cornelius was slated to inherit the entire Vanderbilt fortune, according to the eldest son tradition of the era. But, she influenced her father in law by persistent praise of the abilities of her husband, to divide the fortune more equitably. She taught the Vanderbilt family how to spend their fortune by building mansions and palaces to live in the style of European royalty, which they could well afford. In 1879 her fancy dress ball for the grand opening of 660 Fifth Avenue, the French chateau designed by Alva and Richard Morris Hunt to outshine anything in the neighborhood, brought the Vanderbilts into New York/Newport society, so long guarded by Mrs. Astor and the Old Family Knickerbockers. She raised three children: William Kissam, Jr. (Willie K.), Consuelo, and Harold Stirling. Her social position was at its height in the 1880s, when rumors of the attentions of Oliver Belmont began. At this time in Newport the great mansion-building era, the gilded age, was beginning and William K. Vanderbilt, at Alva's instigation, purchased the land abutting THE Mrs. Astor's "Beechwood" to build "The Marble Palace" as another challenge to Mrs. Astor, still leader in Newport society. Begun in 1888 with Richard Morris Hunt the architect, Marble Palace was completed in 1892, and lured many young European noble bachelors as well as all the wealthy sons of the American "Royalty" to catch a suitable husband for Consuelo. Mrs. Vanderbilt negotiated tirelessly to arrange the best alliance by lavish entertaining, grand balls and parties, tea dances and small private dinner parties ending late in 1895 with the marriage ceremonies and celebrations in New York, Newport and London celebrating the union of Consuelo to the 23-year old Ninth Duke of Marlborough.
Meanwhile, Oliver Belmont, socialite, a frequent guest at her parties, started in 1891 to build his own Louis XIII French Castle diagonally across the Avenue, also designed by Mr. Hunt. His single-bedroom "bachelor's house", nonetheless with 60 rooms, might have been a favorite topic with Alva, who passionately loved designing and building grand houses. "Knee deep in mortar?, Alva was the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects, founded by Richard Morris Hunt and others.
Barely after the Newport season of 1895 she divorced William K. Vanderbilt, to marry Mr. Belmont. She moved from Marble Palace to Belcourt, and brought with her 12-year-old son, Harold Vanderbilt, for whom Oliver Belmont built an addition on the third floor of Belcourt, off the musician?s balcony, over the loggia (now the salon). Harold Vanderbilt summered in Belcourt until about 1903. He was noted for his defense of the America's Cup against Sir Thomas Lipton, and for inventing Contract Bridge.
After Oliver Belmont died in 1908, Mrs. Belmont became a generous patron of the arts, and donated large sums to hospitals. She organized the Political Equality Association and the National Women's Party convention in 1915. Her long and vigorous personal involvement- and monetary support - in the women's suffrage movement, both in England and America, was instrumental in getting the Federal statutes changed to allow women equal rights with men in government and business.
During her lifetime she built, designed and owned many mansions - at one point she owned nine, including 477 Fifth Avenue, NYC, a French Gothic style House in Sands Point, L.I., Marble House and Belcourt in Newport, and after her suffrage work was successfully completed, she retired to France, with a house in Paris, and her favorite chateau, a historic Castle given by King Charles VII of France to Jacques Coeur ca. 1425, where she died on January 26, 1933, age 80, from injuries sustained in a carriage accident a few days before.
Alva Belmont is buried with Oliver in the Mausoleum at Woodlawn in the Bronx. Belcourt was bequeathed in her will to Oliver's grand Nephew, August Belmont IV.
Back to the Main History Page
The Belmont Family History Page