Thursday, February 26, 2009

Poor Marie Antoinette: Grace Wilson Vanderbilt

Grace Wilson Vanderbilt once said that: "I feel deeply for poor dear Marie Antoinette, for if The Revolution came to America, I should be the first to go." She might have felt sorry for the doomed French queen, but this inveterate social climber lived exactly the way that she wanted.

Grace was the daughter of Richard T. Wilson, a nouveau riche self-made man who made his fortune by speculating during the Civil War. Rhett Butler, in Gone With The Wind, may have been based on him.

He wasn't highly regarded by those with 'old money' in New York, so scandal broke out when in 1896 Grace became engaged to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of the Commodore.
She'd been secretly engaged to his brother, William Henry, but he died of typhoid fever. Cornelius fell in love with beautiful Grace at first sight, when he was 22.

His parents were strongly opposed to the match because they disapproved of Grace's background, her being two years older, and her broken engagement to Jack Astor. They disinherited him and his father suffered a stroke and died shortly after the marriage.

Grace's parties were famous. She even brought the entire cast of a musical, 'Red Rose Inn', from New York, to a specially built theatre on the grounds of Beaulieu, her villa at Newport. She entertained royalty and she became the leader of New York society. Dressed in Worth and Paquin, she had 33 servants.

At one stage she signed cheques worth $80,000.00 and asked her secretary: "Do I really have this much money?"

The Brigadier-General, who had become a soldier, engineer and businessman, died in 1942. Grace and Cornelius had two children, also Grace and Cornelius.

Eventually Grace moved from her lavish Fifth Avenue mansion to a smaller - 28 room - house along the road, nicknamed 'The Gardener's Cottage'. Here she lived until her eighties when she died of pneumonia. According to an article in Time magazine: "She would say to whoever was near by: "Come, let's go for a drive, darling." Then her companion, sitting down by Mrs.Vanderbilt's bed, would take her on an imaginary tour of Newport. "There's a sparkle on the water today," she would say. "There's Mr.So and So bowing to you..."

There is a picture of Grace here: Picture of Grace

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