Imagine her, Alva Murray Smith, in 1870: 17, pug-nosed, square-faced, a wry downward crimp at one corner of her mouth as though she were sucking on a painful tooth, her brows dark, her eyes shadowed and something furious about her gaze, her chin too big and bulbous like the bell of an oboe, not at all beautiful, but strong-willed enough to make beauty irrelevant. She’ll get what she wants.
She’ll come to New York, one of the “Belle Underground of girls from good Southern families ruined by the Civil War” and catch not one, but two of the richest men in America: Willie K. Vanderbilt and Oliver Belmont; she’ll displace Mrs. Astor as Queen of New York society; she’ll build Marble House, the grandest summer cottage in the country, a Versailles in Newport; breaking off with Vanderbilt and soon after marrying Belmont, she’ll be the first woman to survive a society divorce—until then, divorce had been the prerogative of actresses—and with a settlement estimated at $10 million, to boot. Alva will marry her daughter, Consuelo, to the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, perhaps the most celebrated alliance of new American money and old European nobility. No one represented tradition and the status quo, and class distinction, more than she.
Until she didn’t—until she became a radical suffragette, founding the Political Equality League. She advocated not only giving votes to women but taking them away from men, who, she claimed, had proved incapable of running the world. She saw an end of the dictatorship of the world by men. “We women have lived long enough in the cramped confines of a misfit social structure,” she wrote in a 1922 article in Ladies’ Home Journal. “We know we can manage the house. We can reconstruct it. We can put on a left wing and a right wing. We can add a sun porch to let in the light. We could even tear the house down if we liked—and I think men know that too.” She reclaimed God as a woman, telling a young Suffragette, “Pray to God; she will help you.” “Men have insisted not only that we live in a man-governed world,” she wrote in her 1922 article, “but that we worship in a man-dominated church, and we can no longer accept this.”
It was never about money. Alva had money. And it was never about display, though displaying the rewards of wealth fit into her plan to get what she wanted—not just power, but a specific kind of power. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to matter.
Like many limousine liberals today, Alva had a two-track mind: she reconciled her wealth and privilege with her sympathy for the underclass—especially the female portion. Alva—she would be called a “society anarchist”—led, in January 1917, the first picketing of the White House. Until her death in 1933, she was president of the National Woman’s Party, which she helped found. The party’s former headquarters, on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., is now a national monument, named after Alva Belmont and fellow suffragette Alice Paul.
But if she wanted to end the dictatorship of the patriarchy, describing women as the new dictators, “working for the human race,” she was not beyond another, more personal tyranny. She admitted she was a natural dictator. She bragged that she “enjoyed nothing so much as tyrannizing over the little slave children” on her father’s cotton plantation. Her daughter, Consuelo, admitted Alva’s combative nature “rejoiced in conquest.” She loved a fight. Consuelo thought her mother a “born dictator,” who dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and children. If she admitted another point of view, she never conceded it. Her family were pawns to be moved as her wishes decreed. At the height of her power, the whole world became Alva’s cotton plantation, and everyone in it, including her family—especially her family—became her tyrannized subjects.
The outline of all that she was and would become can be glimpsed in her early life, starting as a child of the antebellum South.
Alva was born in Mobile, Alabama on January 17, 1853, a year in which Mobile was stricken with a yellow fever epidemic.
“I am now in Mobile, surrounded by the dead and the living,” wrote the Reverend John Wesley Starr, Jr. on August 29, 1853, a month before dying of the disease. “I am called to the funeral of one, and before I leave the grave my ears are met by the cry of another bereaved one, asking me to attend the burial of a departed relative. I return to the city from the home of the dead and find the sick growing worse, and new victims falling prey to the ravaging fever.”
Alva, a survivor, survived.
“I was a very insubordinate, difficult child in the nursery,” she wrote years later, “and it was almost impossible for an ordinary nurse to manage me.” “Sassy, with two long braids draped to her waist, Alva was by her own admission ‘probably the worst child that ever lived,’” wrote Arthur T. Vanderbilt II. “There was a force in me,” she wrote, “that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted regardless of what might happen afterwards.”
Aside from her siblings, Alva had few friends and “I never to my recollection had a single girl playmate.” “There was a static quality to a girl’s life,” she wrote, “a monotony and restriction in it . . . [G]irls always play the part of spectators . . . while men and boys have the vivid action. And except to the serene gods there is nothing attractive in looking on . . . I played with boys and I met them on their own ground. I asked for not compromises or advantage. I gave blow for blow…. I stopped at nothing they attempted.”
She “loathed” girls’ “occupations and pastimes”—except for her dolls. Playing with the dolls “was a most serious matter to me,” Alva wrote, “and gave expression to the strong maternal quality in me . . . I put into their china or sawdust bodies all my own feelings. They could be weary, sleepy and playful.”
Alva crossed out playful and scrawled in hungry. From fun to necessity. She could not get to bed without putting the dolls to bed first. And, if her sisters left one of their dolls up and dressed, she had to put them to bed before she could sleep. “My love for the doll children and my rebellion against the superimposed restrictions of a girl’s life,” she observed, “were bound up together.”
She could also completely control the dolls.
One of Alva’s earliest memories was “building imaginary houses” from books in her family’s library in the “big, sunny house” on Government Street in which she spent the first five years of her life. The house, built by her father, Murray Forbes Smith, had “large rooms, wide halls, high ceilings, with high casement windows opening upon the surrounding gardens,” Alva recalled, which were “a riot of color.” Formal gardens in front; the rest of the grounds, for her, a spacious playground. The open windows filled the house with perfume from the roses, magnolias, and other flowers. The property included a bath house with a marble floor and marble steps, leading down to a marble pool; back houses; and the slave quarters.
Alva, her brothers, sisters, and their friends had the run of the house and grounds. Even though the children had their own rooms, “No room of the house was closed to us,” she said. “We were not shut away from parents and other elders . . . It made us more individual human beings . . . than the system in which the children of the present day,” before and after the turn of the century, “are reared, and which often seems to me to turn them into well-mannered little automatons rather than to help them to grown up into intelligent men and women.”
Enjoying adult company, Alva developed “self-reliance, initiative, and a sense of personal responsibility,” which she found “conspicuously absent among . . . the rich” once she grew up. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American aristocracy, Alva thought, had abdicated its responsibility—unlike her ancestors, “[s]tatesmen, jurists, and men of affairs,” who, she later noted, “helped build up the institutions upon which our government largely was formulated . . . and whose descendants . . . carried on the work not only of . . . settling a new country but of helping govern it.” Alva was proud of her ancestors’ accomplishments, but prouder that they were “people who would stand neither for oppression nor even dictation.” She certainly didn’t.
By the time Alva was born in 1853, the War of 1812 and the Creek War of 1813 seemed to belong to a legendary time, when settlers and Indians butchered one another and stockaded forts kept out the wilderness—a primitive era separated from the new state of Alabama, which had entered the Union in 1819, just three decades before Alva’s birth. The country was expanding, changing.
Like the country, Mobile was prosperous and, like the country, used its prosperity to ape the court of the new French Emperor, Louis Napoleon. “The fashions of the times were graceful, rich and picturesque,” wrote Clement Claiborne Clay, Jr., the wife of one of Alabama’s senators. Unlike “[t]hose of the next decade, conspicuous for huge chignons, false hair, and distorting bustles.” Fashionable ladies of the fifties “wore their hair a la Grecque, with flowers wreathed over it, or a simple golden dagger or arrow to secure it.” Arrows—now fashion accessories—were no longer associated with bloody Indian attacks like the Creek War’s Fort Mims or Kimbell James massacres.
“Their gowns,” Mrs. Clay wrote, “were festooned with blossoms that trailed over bodice and skirt until not seldom they became, by reason of their graceful ornaments, veritable Perditas.” This grace combined with Southern hospitality—and the Southern myth of itself—to create, especially for the fortunate, an almost Fairy Tale ideal for the antebellum society.
Mobile was not a backwater but a vital city. People looking for a new start swarmed into the town, which was continually swept by new ideas. In 1830, the city built a hospital. By 1836, Alabama had one of the first homeopathic clinics in the country. James Marion Sims, born in Mobile only ten years before Alva, would go on to found the field of gynecology. The freed slave, Horace King, designed bridges throughout the Chattahoochee Valley and the grand staircase in the Alabama State Capitol.
Increasingly, people were looking outward, beyond their families, and getting involved in civic and patriotic causes. In July 1854, a woman in Mobile helped solicit funds to buy Mt. Vernon, an effort that succeeded just six years later, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took possession of the first president’s homestead.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the state had been considered progressive in its protection of slaves, especially those hired out by their owners to others. “The Alabama Supreme Court . . . invoked the analogy to a tenant . . . The hirer of a slave, like a tenant, had an obligation to return the property in good repair or pay damages.”
Whoever hired a slave had “the moral and legal obligation,” comparable with the responsibility “of a father to support his children,” to take care of the slave, including paying for a slave’s medical treatment and protecting his or her morals.
But by the 1850s, the laws were offering fewer protections to slaves—a sign, perhaps, of the increasing irresponsibility among richer Alabamians, of the lack of character, which Alva later diagnosed in American society.
When Alva was still a child, her older brother, Murray, Jr., and sister, Eleanor, both died. Two other siblings would also die in infancy. Alva noticed that even in death, males and females were not equal. “I well remember how great was the agitation . . . [caused] by . . . [Murray, Jr.’s] death,” she wrote, “much greater than on the occasion of the death of my sister, Eleanor.” In pencil on the typescript of Alva’s memoir, she changed agitation to grief, but her first instinct, probably a more accurate childhood memory, was of disruption rather than sorrow. Murray, Jr. was—Alva thought—her father’s favorite. And, when he was laid out, she overheard a neighbor tell her mother, “Your husband will never recover from this blow. No one can take this child’s place with him.”
“The cold presence of Death could not banish the hot resentment that rose in me when I heard these expressions,” Alva said. “So then, I thought, a dead son is worth more than a live daughter.” “And I remember, too,” she continued, “my failure to understand, child though I was, why so much less grief should have been occasioned by her [sister’s] death. I did not then know how unimportant were women in the general scheme of things. So unimportant that they even had no existence apart from their husband after they were married.” Again, Alva penciled in a change: “failure to understand,” a thought, replaced “feelings of indignation,” an emotion. All her life, Alva saw emotion as less reliable than intellect, something to be overcome. Trusting the heart could lead a woman astray, stranding her in marriage. “Rich men could marry women, treat them in any way they chose, and ignore them,” she argued.
“When a bride walked up to the altar, her money, if any, was her own,” Alva wrote, “but after the ceremony it became her husband’s property.” But, reflecting the “independence of thought” Alva valued in her ancestors, “who would stand neither for oppression nor even dictation,” her grandfather gave her mother, Ann, on her marriage—along with wedding presents of slaves and the traditional camel’s-hair shawl and lace flounces—a trust. The shawl and flounces secured Ann to her past. “Great importance was attached in those days to these special features of a bride’s trousseau,” Alva noted.
The trust secured Ann to her future—and secured the future itself. During her lifetime, Ann could use the interest; the principal was to be divided equally among her children. Which meant that, not only could her mother be financially independent, so could Alva.
Alva would be so involved in her daughter’s life that Consuelo might have wanted to have been a little abandoned. “I remember once objecting to her taste in the clothes she selected for me,” Consuelo said. “With a harshness hardly warranted by so innocent an observation, she informed me that I had no taste and that my opinions were not worth listening to . . . [W]hen once I replied, ‘I thought I was doing right,’ she stated, ‘I don’t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told.’”
The force Consuelo saw in her mother Alva, Alva saw in her mother Ann. “I have often wondered at the extraordinary energy of my mother,” commented Alva about how her mother handled the children, maids, dog, and bird on a European trip—an inherited energy Consuelo years later would see as one of Alva’s best qualities, something that along with “her quick mind, together with her varied interests, made her a delightful companion,” despite the “violent temper that like a tempest at times engulfed us all.”
In any case, Alva determined to follow her mother’s lead and, when she was a mother, “during all my journeys as far as India and Egypt . . . I . . . took my children with me. It did them no harm,” she claimed, “and I know gave them an education . . . I also avoided the pain of leaving them. Life without them, as I knew my mother had felt, was not life.” Alva may have meddled in Consuelo’s affairs, but clearly she felt such overheated concern was an expression of love. Or an attempt to stave off loss.
And Alva’s life had seen loss.
Alva’s father’s sympathies were with the South or, at least, with the system that had made his fortune. But he saw the inevitable end to that system—a system his daughter found benign. “The son or daughter on leaving home invariably was accompanied by the slaves who had cared for them since their earlier years,” Alva said. “These slaves, whose attachments to their young master or mistress was devoted and sincere went with them to their new homes,” an arrangement Alva found “kindly,” which “made for the comfort of and happiness of both.” Alva was as blind to the needs of her slaves as she was to the needs of her family. All—in her mind—were there to serve her and, in serving her happily, fulfilled themselves.
Except to note that they died, she rarely mentions brothers or sisters. Perhaps the loss of her siblings made Alva a solitary child. Why invest love in someone who might not be around next year? Why feel a deep connection to a home when the home might vanish?
“With the coming of the railroads,” Alva said, her father “foresaw that New York would be the great shipping port of the future.” He decided to move his family there. Her father must have also realized a civil war was inevitable. Hope of national compromise over slavery was dimming. The United States was being pulled apart by stresses inherent in the country since its inception: the tension between Virginia and Massachusetts, between American Cavaliers and Puritans, between the agrarian and industrial impulse, between North and South. With war, Mobile might not be safe. Its ports would make it a target for Union blockades, if not attacks, and it was certain to suffer commercially. Since many in New York had Southern sympathies, they might find a friendly haven there. Perhaps the Crash of 1857—the Western Blizzard, caused in part by the flood of gold from California and the consequent inflation two years before Alva’s family left Mobile—had also prompted the move.
They sold their house, leaving everything behind: the stables in 10th Street, the slave quarters, the marble pool house, the roses and magnolias, the high casement windows, the wide halls, the library where she built her book houses—Mobile, her world. For New York. An alien city. An alien culture. “[I]t was Commodore Vanderbilt’s railroad that brought me north,” she said. “Nobody had any idea then that I would one day marry his grandson. Yet the old Commodore, all unconsciously on his part, exerted a powerful influence on my future life.”
“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” Melville wrote in Moby Dick, published in 1851, eight years before Alva arrived in New York. “Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”
On Broadway, from Bowling Green to Astor Place, the streets crowded with prostitutes, prizefighters, omnibuses, milkmen balancing yokes with splashing buckets at each end, rich dandies with monocles and mustaches, carriages, carts, vagrants, gamblers, gigs, toughs, a coach-and-four with liveried servants, businessmen who kept contracts and correspondence filed in the lining of their top hats, reformers, pickpockets, utopians, religious fanatics, homeless children, con artists—like William Thompson, the man who inspired the term—and fashionable women, carrying parasols and daintily stepping over mud, offal, and droppings from horses, pigs, goats, and the feral, diseased dogs that were clubbed to death by the municipal dog-killers.
In 1857, two years before Alva’s arrival, New York, historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace chronicled, had “598 licensed hacks, forty-five hundred carts, and 190 express wagons,” carrying “cotton . . . ice, coal . . . wood . . . brick, stone, earth . . . On an average weekday . . . fifteen thousand vehicles rumbled by St. Paul’s at the corner of Broadway and Fulton . . . ‘The throng and rush of traffic in the business part of New York is astonishing even for London,’ noted a visiting correspondent for the London Times. There is a perpetual jam and lock of vehicles for nearly two miles along the chief throughfare.’”
At night, in the gas lamp light, the crowds were more boisterous. As Lloyd Morris would describe in Incredible New York, swells slummed in dance halls, like the Franklin Museum, in Grand Street; or Harry Hill’s Concert Saloon, called the most notorious in America; or, the most expensive and elegant of them all, the Louvre, uptown on Twenty-Third Street.
On Greene Street “nearly every house was a brothel,” most—like Flora’s and the Forget-Me-Not—advertising their trade with tinted glass globes, not so different from the orange lights that signaled the dozens of oyster cellars throughout the city. More refined whorehouses, called parlor houses, like the Seven Sisters’, lined West Twenty-Third Street near Seventh Avenue. On Twenty-Fourth Street, across from the Fifth Avenue Hotel and almost as splendid, was John Morrisey’s casino, the most fashionable gambling hall in town, where Morrisey entertained his friend Commodore Vanderbilt, whose colorful curses and taste for even more colorful company kept him an outsider in New York Society.
After checking out the dancehalls, brothels, and gambling hells, a young rake could ride uptown just before dawn to watch cowboys drive cattle down Fifth Avenue to the East Side slaughterhouses. Inside more refined establishments—at night—eminent New Yorkers like James Fenimore Cooper and Horace Greeley participated in séances, where the Fox Sisters from Upstate New York conjured up the dead, or rather those who—according to the sisters and their Spiritualist followers—had merely crossed over into a happy afterlife, where there was no death, only what seemed to be an eternal vacation from the hurly-burly of an increasingly mechanical world. “Journalists, politicians, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and ministers—those who could afford to pay—jammed the sessions,” writes Barbara Weisberg in Talking to the Dead.
And, despite the recent financial crash, many could pay. New York was now the Empire City, the hub of American trade, finance, and industry. At one party, not long before Alva got to the city, Mrs. William Wetmore wore a dress that, according to Fenimore Cooper, “cost, including jewels, thirty thousand dollars.” The city was “jumbled and anarchic,” wrote Burrows and Wallace, “an incoherent labyrinth, a polarized city ruled by rapacity . . . [A] battleground, fractured along lines of class and sex.”
New York—with its damnyankees, one word—was everything Mobile was not. Instead of graceful, it was brutal. Instead of charm, it had strength. Instead of romance, it had . . . romance of a different kind: the romance of money, energy, and power.
One could build a fairy tale on that.
In New York, Alva recalled, “Our first home was an English basement house in Fifth Avenue, next to the corner of 26th Street,” two blocks from John Morrisey’s, three blocks from the Louvre saloon, and five blocks from the Seven Sisters’ whorehouses. The address was not as bad as it sounds—Mrs. William Colford Schermerhorn’s new mansion was close—but not as good as it could be. It was not, for example, on Union Square, which from 14th Street to 18th Street on Broadway, Alva enthused, “was a residential district, of beautiful private houses with large gardens”—like the gardens she missed in Mobile.
The gardens on Union Square may have reminded Alva of home, but a block north, at 19th Street, Peter Goelet’s garden—surrounded by 12-foot high, wire-mesh reinforced, iron fence—was unlike anything she had seen in Mobile. Lush and fantastic, it was filled with “pheasant, peacocks, and birds of paradise.”
Alva would stand, “entranced,” gazing through the fence. Goelet—an old Knickerbocker aristocrat who lived alone—“allowed no one in his garden, children least of all.” Alva was shut out—unlike in Mobile, where she was a favorite in the market and had the run of her family’s house and grounds. She wasn’t used to being shut out.
The world Alva could enter—the public world anyone could enter, like Madison Square—was not as enchanting as Union Square and its surrounding neighborhood. Madison Square was surrounded by fence, not like Goelet’s but “a miserable wobbly affair,” Alva complained. “[S]trung from peg to peg along this fence was a line on which were hung crude pictures and leaflets with silly little verses, rather like highly inferior valentines,” guarded by women who sat “selling these worthless things.”
Alva preferred Union Square and Goelet’s garden, with its iron fence, to Madison Square with the women who peddled “worthless things.” It’s not that she preferred being fenced in—in Goelet’s or anyone else’s Eden—to being fenced out. It’s that she wanted to own the fence.
Though Alva’s long hair “never failed to create a sensation when I walked with my sisters and my governess,” she felt it was a “torment . . . from which men freed themselves centuries ago . . . [A] frightful waste of time and energy. I don’t think it made women lazy, but it did make us irritable.” At least, it made her irritable. “Clothes—and hair,” Alva said, “what a double handicap, down through the ages.”
Alva’s mother had advanced taste in fashion. She wore dresses designed, not in New York like the ones most of her friends wore, but in Paris, by Olympe, a chic and very European designer. Very Empress Eugenie with “the close-fitting bodice cut low.” Not the more democratic—and dull—American style. “Pink satin brocaded in silver . . . so stiff,” Alva said, “that it would stand alone.”
Clothes and hair: a double handicap—but exciting.
Twice a year, when the boxes from Olympe were delivered, Alva and her sisters would crowd around to watch her mother unpack the dresses. Six months’ worth at a time. Not just for her, but for Alva and her sisters, too.
One Sunday, Alva and her sister Jenny went next door to the Church of the Ascension for Sunday School. Alva—wearing an outfit from Olympe, stood out from the other more plainly dressed girls. During class, a boy made faces and laughed at her, especially because of her hat. “It was by no means the first time such a thing had happened,” Alva claimed. “My dresses and hats had been the cause of my undoing many times before.” The boy “jeered . . . as openly as he dared,” she said. “Well, of course, we were in Sunday School, and nothing could be done about it then.” Alva waited until school was out and then attacked the boy. “[W]e fought, and I pushed him in the gutter. He never laughed at my clothes again.”
Being among damnyankees—even adolescent damnyankees—fed Alva’s rebellious nature. She was a Reb before the rebellion, ready to fight anyone, anytime for any slight—especially at the hint she was inferior in any way.
Once Alva climbed an apple tree using a ladder, which a boy—her friend Pepe del Vallay—took away. While she was trapped in the tree, Pepe made fun of her, and threw apples at her. Alva thought his “masculine superiority was unbearable. I came down the tree like a monkey, scaling the rough bark,” she said. On the ground, her hands bleeding, she “saw red” and “ran after Pepe, who by this time felt the approach of a Fury and had begun to make his escape. I caught him and threw him to the ground. I choked him and banged his head upon the ground. I stamped on him screaming, ‘I’ll show you what girls can do.’ In my rage I think I would have killed him but for the intervention of some of the spectators who had gathered to watch the fight. Pepe was completely vanquished.”
Alva’s description betrays her awareness of spectators. All through her life, she would rage—and charm—on a stage, always showing the world “what girls can do.”
The Civil War had destroyed Alva’s world, but the world seemed Phoenix-like, dying only to reinvent itself, in the process cracking open all the old taboos: a model for her future life.
Six years after the war ended, when Alva was 18, her mother died. She was only 49, and, as Alva noted, had borne seven children, something Alva would recall when she became a suffragette. “I realized, young as I was, the inspiration she had been to me, and how much I had lost.” What Alva had lost was her “best and truest friend.”
“Up to this time, I had never cared deeply for anyone in all my life except my Mother,” Alva admitted. She stood by her mother’s coffin, gazing upon “the being . . . [who] had been everything in my life.” “In a dumbly grateful way,” Alva said, “I knew she had given the very best of herself for her children’s welfare.”
But typically, Alva refused to give ground even to Death. “Emotions come forth from caves never before opened,” she maintained. “With many people these emotions find expression in tears and sobs. With others they crystallize into sterner stuff. The latter was true with me.”
Top Photo: A young Alva Belmont, about 1875 (The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)