One of the things I always have to remind myself when I read historical novels is that, given that they are novels, the perspective depends on the whims of the author. I’ve read books — both novels and nonfiction — in which New York City socialite Alva Vanderbilt is presented in a somewhat unfavorable light. A Well Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler, takes a different angle.
The wife of C.J. Vanderbilt, whose father made a fortune as a railroad magnate, Alva Vanderbilt helped bring the Vanderbilt family into the upper echelons of 19th Century New York City society alongside the Astors. How and why she did this is in the eyes of the beholder.
Her family had been well respected in the south, but her father lost all of his money in the Civil War. They were destitute. In this novel, Alva used her beauty and brains to win over C.J. Vanderbilt, who made no bones about the fact that he was marrying her because he felt she could use those same attributes to help his family be accepted by the New York City old money families.
She is utterly successful in this task, hosting elaborate balls, building several homes in New York City and Newport, RI (where the wealthy spent summers in their “cabins”). She had everything but the true love of her husband. Instead, she yearned to be with the man who eventually became her second husband following a scandalous divorce, something not ever done before in her social circles.
She went on to see her daughter marry into a British royal family, and was active in the women’s suffrage movement.
Whether Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a strong and brave woman or simply an ambitious money-seeker, or someone in between, there is no question she left her mark on New York City.