The World of My Youth
IN TRYING to recount events that have influenced my life, it is humiliating to find that I remember very little of my childhood. Watching my great-grandchild Serena Russell at play, so sure of herself, even at the age of three, I wonder if, when she reaches my age, she also will have forgotten events that now appear important to her. That we are both in America - she the child of my granddaughter Sarah Spencer-Churchill, who married an American, and I the wife of a Frenchman - is due to World War II, and to events little anticipated at the turn of the century when I left my native land.
Memories of myself at Serena's age recall a picture painted by Carolus Duran of a little girl against a tall red curtain. She is wearing a red velvet dress with a square décolleté outlined with Venetian lace. A cloud of dark hair surrounds a small oval face, out of which enormous dark eyes (much bigger than they were) look out from under arched brows. A pert little nose and dimples accentuate the mischievous smile. There is something vital and disturbing in that small figure tightly grasping a bunch of roses in each fist. 'You were un vrai petit diable, and only kept still when I played the organ in my studio!' Carolus Duran exclaimed, when again he painted me, this time at seventeen. The second portrait was a very different affair from the first, for the red curtain which had become his traditional background was at my mother's request replaced by a classic landscape in the English eighteenth-century style, and I am seen a tall figure in white descending a flight of steps. For my mother, having decided, in the fashion not uncommon at the time, to marry me either to the man who did become my husband or to his cousin- generously allowing me the choice of alternatives - wished my portrait to bear comparison with those of preceding duchesses who had been painted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and Lawrence. In that proud and lovely line I still stand over the mantelpiece of one of the state-rooms at Blenheim Palace, with a slightly disdainful and remote look as if very far away in thought.
It is well that my Aunt Florence Twombly, now ninety-eight, could remember not only the street but also the number of the house where I was born, for my birth had never been officially recorded. This information was required when I took back my American citizenship after the French armistice in World War II. It was in one of those ugly brownstone houses somewhere in the forties, which was then the fashionable district of New York, that I first saw the light of day.
My father's family was Dutch and had its origin in the Bilt - that northern point of Holland whence comes our name. It was about the year 1650 that the first member of the family came to the New Netherlands, and succeeding generations lived in the vicinity of New Amsterdam, as New York City was then called. In the first part of the nineteenth century my great-grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt founded the family fortune, moved from New Dorp, Staten Island, to New York and changed the spelling of our name from van der Bilt to its American version. In later years I met a Professor van der Bilt who taught at a Dutch University. He told me that there was only one family bearing our name in Holland, and in looking through his family archives he had become convinced that the Dutch and American branches had descended from a common ancestor. In the Patriciat, a book that is the Dutch equivalent of the British Landed Gentry, the Professor pointed out our coat of arms, the three acorns, and the names Gertrude, Cornelius and William, which repeatedly figure in our family Bible.
My grandfather, William H. Vanderbilt, had, considering his numerous philanthropic gifts, an unmerited reputation for indifference to the welfare of others. It was, as is often the case, founded on a remark shorn of its context. This is the version of the 'public be damned' story that was given me by a friend of the family. Mr.Vanderbilt was on a business trip and, after a long and arduous day, had gone to his private car for a rest. A swarm of reporters arrived asking to come on board for an interview. Mr. Vanderbilt sent word he was tired and did not wish to give an interview, but would receive one representative of the Press for a few minutes. A young man arrived saying, 'Mr. Vanderbilt, your public demands an interview!' This made Mr. Vanderbilt laugh, and he answered, 'Oh, my public be damned.' In due course the young man left and next morning his article appeared in the paper with a large headline reading, 'Vanderbilt says, "The Public be damned." ' That he was not so black as painted I have from a cousin to whom my grandmother after her husband's death said, 'Your grandfather never said an unkind word to me during all the years we were married.'
In 'The House of Vanderbilt'1 by Frank Crowninshield, I find a reference to my grandmother in which he says, 'She was an amazing woman who brought up her children to become people of the greatest cultivation and taste. She had been born Maria Louisa Kissam, the daughter of a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Kissams were an old and distinguished family, Mrs. Vanderbilt's father having descended from the Benjamin Kissam who, in 1786, married Cornelia Roosevelt, the daughter of the patriarchal Isaac, and the President's great-great-grandfather.' Of my grandmother's eight children my father, W. K., as he was known to his friends, was the second son. I remember my grandmother very well, and our visits to her in the big house on Fifth Avenue directly opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral where she lived. She was a lovely old lady, gracious and sweet as old ladies should be. All her grandchildren - we were, I think, twenty-six - loved her. After my grandfather's death in 1885 she lived alone with her youngest son, George. Uncle George was quite different from my other uncles and aunts. With his dark hair and eyes, he might have been a Spaniard. He had a narrow sensitive face, and artistic and literary tastes. After my grandmother's death in 1896 he createdBiltmore, a great estate in North Carolina where he built model houses and fostered village industries.
My father's eldest brother Uncle Corneil, as we called him, was a stern and serious person, or so we thought. He was not gay like my father and Uncle Fred. Of my four aunts I loved my Aunt Emily Sloane best, for, like my father, she was of a joyous nature and had the look of happy expectancy one sees on the faces of those who love life. She and my Aunt Florence were always perfectly dressed, and, with their slight figures and quiet distinction, reminded me of Jane Austen's charmingly prim ladies. Some time before her death I went to see Aunt Emily. She was sitting at a window overlooking Central Park. It struck me that her days must have been very long, now that she was widowed and that the bridge game she loved was no longer possible because of her failing memory. But when I sympathised with her, she folded her hands and softly smiling answered - 'I have such lovely thoughts to keep me company,' and when I crept away, fearing to disturb them, I heard her murmuring, as if conversing with ghosts of the past. She lived to be over ninety. At her memorial service the Rector of St. Bartholomew's in New York paid a well-deserved tribute to her lovely character and generous charity.
My maternal grandfather, Murray Forbes Smith, was descended from the Stirlings, and both my mother's given names - Alva Erskine - are Stirling names. The Scotch tradition of large families is borne out in two volumes on the Stirlings in America. This prolific family overflowed from Virginia into the more southern states and produced several governors and people of importance. All this accentuated in my mother a pride in her Southern birth and a certain disdain for the mercenary spirit of the North. Her father, who owned plantations near Mobile, was ruined by the liberation of the slaves and, after the Civil War, moved to Paris. There my mother's eldest sister made her début at one of the last balls given at the Tuileries by Napoleon III. My mother and I used to attribute our love for France to a Huguenot ancestor who escaped to America after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Indeed we were happier in France than in any other country, and, following the example of an aunt and a great-aunt, we both returned to live there.
Why my parents ever married remains a mystery to me. They were both delightful, charming and intelligent people, but wholly unsuited to each other. My father, although deep in his business interests, found life a happy adventure. His gentle nature hated strife. I still feel pain at the thought of the unkind messages I was made the bearer of when, in the months that preceded their parting, my mother no longer spoke to him. The purport of those messages I no longer remember - they were, I believe, concerned with the divorce she desired and with her wishes and decrees regarding custody of the children and arrangements for the future. My father had a generous and unselfish nature; his pleasure was to see people happy and he enjoyed the company of his children and friends, but my mother - for reasons I can but ascribe to a towering ambition - opposed these carefree views with all the force of her strong personality. Her combative nature rejoiced in conquests. She loved a fight. A born dictator, she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children. If she admitted another point of view she never conceded it; we were pawns in her game to be moved as her wishes decreed. I remember once objecting to her taste in the clothes she selected for me. 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. She brooked no contradiction, and when 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,' which reduced me to imbecility. Her dynamic energy and her quick mind, together with her varied interests, made her a delightful companion. But the bane of her life and of those who shared it was a violent temper that, like a tempest, at times engulfed us all.
One of her earliest ambitions was to become a leader of New York society. To this end she gave a fancy dress ball for the opening of her new house, 660 Fifth Avenue, on March 26, 1883. In contemporary newspapers I have read how eagerly invitations to this party were sought after. It proved to be, they said, the most magnificent entertainment yet given in a private house in America. My parents, gorgeous in medieval costumes, received theélite of what then was New York society. My godmother, who as Consuelo Yznaga had been my mother's bridesmaid, was our house guest and the ball was given in her honour. She was then Viscountess Mandeville and soon after, when her husband succeeded to the dukedom, became Duchess of Manchester. Beautiful, witty, gay and gifted, with the ability to play by ear any melody she had heard, she delighted us with her charm. Her lovely twin daughters who died so tragically young and her son Kimbolton spent that winter with us. Kim had early acquired the sense of importance a title is apt to confer, and one day when the postman left a letter for Viscount Mandeville with the comment, 'How I would like to see a real live lord,' he was astonished to see a diminutive figure in a sailor suit approach him exclaiming, 'Then look at me.'
Now firmly established as a social leader, my mother, wishing still further to dominate her world, assumed the prerogatives of an arbiter elegantiarum, instructing her contemporaries both in the fine arts and the art of living. Ransacking the antique shops of Europe, she returned with pictures and furniture to adorn the mansions it became her passion to build. She thus set a fashion for period houses, which at that date were little known in the United States. Once she was successfully installed in the three homes she had built, her restless energy must, I imagine, have turned to other projects. It was perhaps then that plans for my future were born.
Courage was one of her prominent characteristics - a courage that was physical as well as spiritual. I shall never forget an incident when I had occasion to realise how intrepid and quick were her reactions. It took place at Idlehour, our home on Long Island. One day when I, aged nine, was out driving, my pony started to run away with me, making straight for a water hydrant. My cart would undoubtedly have been overturned; but without the slightest hesitation my mother, who was standing near-by, threw herself between the hydrant and the racing pony and seized his bridle, thus preventing a serious accident.
Reminiscences relating to one's childhood are apt to be tinged with a self-conscious pity, which in my generation might be considered justified, for we were the last to be subjected to a harshparental discipline. In my youth, children were to be seen but not heard; implicit obedience was an obligation from which one could not conscientiously escape. Indeed, we suffered a severe and rigorous upbringing. Corporal punishment for minor delinquencies was frequently administered with a riding-whip. I have a vivid memory of the last such lashing my legs received as I stood while my mother wielded her crop. Being the elder, I had the privilege of the first taste of the whip - Willie followed. We had, my brother and I, been sailing in our boat on a pond. Our governess, Fraulein Wedekind, wished to bring us home, but, lost in the pleasure of the sport, we paid no attention to her calls. At length, as we neared the bank, she caught us and, imprudently straddling the water with one leg on shore, she tried to stop us. Alas, how could one prevent the wicked impulse to give a sudden shove with an oar, setting the boat free and seating Fraulein in the water? It seemed very funny at the time, but as we neared home, our governess trailing her wet skirts straight up to our mother, the incident lost its charm.
I bore these punishments stoically, but such repressive measures bred inhibitions and even now I can trace their effects. It is a melancholy fact that childhood, so short when compared with the average span of life, should exert such a strong and permanent influence on character that no amount of self-training afterwards can ever completely counter it. How different is the child's education today! Prejudiced as I am by my own experience, I still think that, although my mother's standard was too severe, it was preferable to the complete lack of discipline I see in many homes today.
Punishments, which were private affairs, were more easily borne than ridicule suffered in public. I remember an occasion when, dressed in a period costume designed by my mother - for it was her wish that I should stand out from others, hallmarked like precious silver - I suffered the agonies of shame that the ridicule of adults can cause children. Then again I was particularly sensitive about my nose, for it had an upward curve which my mother and her friends discussed with complete disregard for my feelings. Since nothing could be done to guide its misguided progress, there seemed to be no point in stressing my misfortune. I developed an inferioritycomplex and became conscious not only of physical defects but also of faults that with gentler treatment might have been less painfully corrected. Introspection and heart-searching caused hypersensitiveness and a quick temper to cloud an otherwise amiable disposition.
My brother Willie was my junior by eighteen months. He had inherited my father's charm and sweet temper. The wistful look of his big green eyes was appealing, but he was mischievous and recklessly daring. He used to ride one of those old-fashioned high-wheeled bicycles at such speed that he took many tosses. One day my mother threatened to confiscate the bicycle at the next fall, and Willie went through a lesson before his tutor discovered that in falling he had broken his arm. I had for him the love little girls expend on their juniors and we shared a keen sense of fun.
My brother Harold was born seven years later. Returning from a walk on a Sunday in July, 1884, we found him in my mother's arms. Nor were we further enlightened until Boya, my sainted nurse, informed me that God had sent him to us. What could be more pleasing than so poetic a version of birth and creation? Though we experienced a certain curiosity as the years went by, modesty was not sacrificed to the precocious knowledge sex education now confers. Harold, being so much younger than we, took little part in our games. In our eyes he was encircled by the halo his adoring nurse Bridget placed round his lovely head. She was an ardent Catholic - a faith that inspired her with sufficient courage one day to tax my mother with the number of houses she was building: 'You have so many houses on earth, Mrs. Vanderbilt, don't you think it is time to build one in heaven?' To which my mother replied: 'Oh no, Bridget - you live in my houses on earth, but I look forward to living in yours in heaven' - an answer of classic realism.
We did not live for long in the little nondescript house in which I was born. Choosing Richard Morris Hunt as her architect, my mother built a large ornate white stone house in the French Renaissance style at the north-west corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street. It was demolished after my father's death to make room for office buildings. This house stood back from the avenue and was approached by wide steps leading to an iron-grilledentrance. Inside, one saw on the right a great stairway running up three flights. I still remember how long and terrifying was that dark and endless upward sweep as, with acute sensations of fear, I climbed to my room every night, leaving below the light and its comforting rays. For in that penumbra there were spirits lurking to destroy me, hands stretched out to touch me and sighs that breathed against my cheek. Sometimes I stumbled, and then all went black, and, tensely kneeling on those steps, I prayed for courage to reach the safety of my room.
In comparison with this recurrent nightmare, how gay were the gala evenings when the house was ablaze with lights and Willie and I, crouching on hands and knees behind the balustrade of the musicians' gallery, looked down on a festive scene below - the long dinner-table covered with a damask cloth, a gold service and red roses, the lovely crystal and china, the grown-ups in their fine clothes. The dining-room was enormous and had at one end twin Renaissance mantelpieces and on one side a huge stained-glass window, depicting the Field of the Cloth of Gold on which the Kings of England and France were surrounded with their knights, all not more magnificently arrayed than the ladies a-glitter with jewels seated on high-backed tapestry chairs behind which stood footmen in knee-breeches. Next to this big dining-room was a small breakfast-room adorned with Flemish tapestries and Rembrandt's portrait of the Turkish Chief. Then came a white drawing-room hung with a fine set of Boucher tapestries; here were the beautiful lacquer secrétaire and commode, with bronzes chiselled by Gouthière, made for Marie Antoinette. Next-door our living-room, a panelled Renaissance salon, looked out on Fifth Avenue.
My father's small dreary room saddened me - it seemed a dull place for so gay and dashing a cavalier who should, I thought, have the best of everything life could give. He was so invariably kind, so gentle and sweet to me, with a fund of humorous tales and jokes that as a child were my joy. But, alas, he played only a small part in our lives; it seemed to us he was always shunted or side-tracked from our occupations. It was invariably our mother who dominated our upbringing, our education, our recreation and our thoughts.With children's clairvoyance we knew that she would prove adamant to any appeal our father made on our behalf and we never asked him to interfere. The hour we spent in our parents' company after the supper we took with our governess at six can in no sense be described as the Children's Hour. No books or games were provided; we sat and listened to the conversation of the grown-ups and longed for the release that their departure to dress for dinner would bring.
Occasionally Willie and I were permitted to join my mother in her handsome bedroom and watch her evening toilet. There was one memorable evening when the safe in which her jewels were kept could not be opened. My mother was going to a big dinner at which it would almost have been considered an offence to wear no jewels. Something of the prevailing feeling of panic must have reached me, for I ran to my room and prayed fervently that a miracle would open the safe. And when I returned the safe was opened and my mother decked in her beautiful pearls. Small wonder that I believe in the efficacy of prayer.
When I was old enough for a room of my own I was moved from the nurseries next to my mother to a room above hers, to which she had access by a spiral staircase in one of the towers that adorned the house. On this floor there was a colossal playroom where we used to bicycle and roller-skate with our cousins and friends. But the chief memory it holds is of a Christmas tree that towered to the roof and was laden with gifts and toys for us and for every one of our cousins.
After heavy snowfalls there were joyous sleigh drives to which we looked forward - the horses with their bells, the fat coachman wrapped in furs, and Willie and myself in the back seat with our small sleigh on which we were allowed to toboggan down slopes in the Park.
After the holidays there were matinées at the Metropolitan Opera House to look forward to, when in my best dress I sat in my father's box near the stage. My earliest operatic recollection is of hearing the great Adelina Patti sing Martha. Her birdlike trills evoked scenes of wild enthusiasm, and mountains of bouquets were heaped roundher diminutive form. Gounod's Faust was one of my favourites, but Mephistopheles terrified me and folly became associated with love after seeing Marguerite and later Lucia de Lammermoor in their affecting mad scenes.
Every Saturday my mother made me recite endless poems in French, German and English, and in my tenth year there was a memorable occasion when our solfège class gave a concert in honour of our parents. Whether from stage fright or emotion, I gave a rendering of 'Les Adieux de Marie Stuart' with so much feeling that I burst into tears. Somebody tossed me a bouquet and I am sure no prima donna ever felt a greater thrill.
Willie and I also went to a weekly dancing class conducted by Mr. Dodsworth, an elderly and elegant instructor who had taught succeeding generations of New Yorkers how to dance and how to behave when in company. Willie disliked being dressed in his best sailor suit and having to dance with elderly girls who steered him around, but I liked wearing my prettiest dress, and the competition of boys who wished to dance with me gave me a sense of superiority I did not often enjoy at home.
Sundays were special days. We went to morning service at St. Marks-in-the-Bouwerie, a long drive in the landau with Willie and myself in our best clothes facing my mother in an elegant costume and my father in a frock-coat, top hat and an overcoat with a fine fur collar. Those long drives were always frightfully tiring, for I was made to sit up very straight and was not allowed to relax for a moment. When my legs began to fidget in uncontrollable twitches, I was strictly admonished against what for some unknown reason my mother dubbed 'Vanderbilt fidgets', as if no other children had ever been afflicted thus. Sitting up straight was one of the crucial tests of ladylike behaviour. A horrible instrument was devised which I had to wear when doing my lessons. It was a steel rod which ran down my spine and was strapped at my waist and over my shoulders - another strap went around my forehead to the rod. I had to hold my book high when reading, and it was almost impossible to write in so uncomfortable a position. However, I probably owe my straight back to those many hours of discomfort.
Upon our return from church, we children lunched with our parents in the company of two boys of our age, and after a Scripture lesson spent delirious hours marching armies of tin soldiers across the carpet that represented land, or sailing them over the seas of parqueted floors to fight furious battles for the possession of the forts we built out of blocks.
In contrast to this city life there was the welcome liberty we enjoyed at Idlehour, my father's place at Oakdale, Long Island, where we spent the early summer and autumn months. It was a rambling frame house close to a river; green lawns swept away to the gardens, stables, woods and farms. Here we crabbed and fished in the river and learned to sail a boat. We had ponies, which I rode side-saddle, and a garden to plant, but we were bad gardeners, for my brother Willie, who was of an impatient nature, would pull up the potatoes long before they were ripe. Our earliest bets were made on the number we would find on each root.
Good behaviour found its reward in the pleasure of cooking our supper in the playhouse. Our German governess presided and indulged her taste for sauerkraut, which we did not appreciate, but as compensation I was allowed the chocolate caramels I loved to make. This playhouse was an old bowling alley, and when my mother handed it over to us she insisted as a matter of training that we should do all the housework ourselves. Utterly happy, we would cook our meal, wash the dishes and then stroll home by the river in the cool of the evening.
Boya, my nurse, as near a saint as it is possible for a human being to be, shared these outings with us. High-minded, simple and kind, she had none of the mawkish sentimentality that caused my governess to take affront at the slightest provocation.
There were times when, possibly influenced by Boya, I reflected with some discomfort on the affluence that surrounded me, wondering whether I was entitled to so many of the good things of life. This feeling was sharply accentuated by a visit I paid to the sick child of one of our Bohemian workmen, whose duty it was to cut the grass lawns that surrounded the house. One morning when wishing him good day I noticed how sadly he answered. 'Isanything the matter?' I inquired. Then he told me of his little girl, aged ten - 'just my age,' I commented - a cripple condemned for life to her bed. The sudden shock of so terrible a lot overwhelmed me, and when the next day I drove with my governess to see her, the pony-cart filled with gifts, and found her in a miserable little room on a small unlovely cot, I realised the inequalities of human destinies with a vividness that never left me. How much I owe to Boya! It was from her I learned the happiness helping others brings. For she gave her all in alms and kindness, and later, when she left us, spent her last years directing a Home for Swiss Girls in New York.
When my grandfather died in 1885 leaving the bulk of his fortune equally divided between his two elder sons - Cornelius and my father - my mother was able to give full vent to her ambitions, and the yacht Alva, of 1,400 tons, was one of the first results of our new affluence. She was a beautiful and luxurious ship with appointments in simple good taste, but she was a bad sea boat, as we soon found to our discomfort, and was eventually sunk in a collision in a fog. On our first trips we visited the West Indies. In following years we crossed the Atlantic and cruised in the Mediterranean. On one occasion as we left Madeira and headed for Gibraltar a frightful storm overtook us. The waves broke over the high wooden bulwarks in such rapid succession that there was not enough time for the water to drain out through the freeing ports before the next wave hit us. I was lying in the forward deck cabin with my brother Willie and his tutor, who was both frightened and sick. 'If we have seven such waves in succession,' he informed us, 'we must sink.' Willie and I spent the rest of the day counting the waves in terrorised apprehension as the green water deepened on our deck. There were several casualties among the crew and the doctor who always accompanied us on our voyages was kept busy.
These yachting expeditions were excessively boring to us children. The doctor, my brother's tutor, my governess and three men friends of my parents made up our party. Heavy seas provided our only escape from the curriculum of work, for even sightseeing on our visits ashore became part of our education, and we were expected to write an account of all we had seen. Harold, still beingin the nursery, was free to amuse himself within the limits a yacht made possible.
On one of our cruises we visited Algiers, Tunis and Egypt. I recall being deeply impressed by the magnificent proportions of the temples of Egypt, but the tombs of the kings gave me the worst kind of claustrophobia and I was terrified by the hundreds of bats that clung to the low ceilings. There was something pathetic about the richly caparisoned mummies surrounded by the worldly possessions they deemed necessary to their future lives, and it seemed positively indecent to disturb the dignified seclusion they had taken such infinite precaution to insure.
On leaving Egypt we went to Constantinople. At the entrance to the Dardanelles our yacht was rudely halted by two shots across the bow, for warships were then not admitted into the Bosphorus and we had been mistaken for a small cruiser. After a twenty-four-hour delay during which the authorities were placated, we were allowed to proceed and soon anchored in that beautiful bay, with Constantinople and its lovely palaces and mosques spread before us. My parents had gone on shore when an anxious captain brought me the news that a pasha had arrived and wished to see my father. As the captain could not speak a word of French nor the pasha a word of English, it was arranged that I should entertain him, since he refused to leave without tendering the Sultan's apologies to my parents for the incivility of our reception. It must have been a new experience for the haughty and sophisticated Turk to talk to a little girl for an hour or more, and it was a proud moment when later a beautiful box of sweets arrived as a tribute to my exertions. At that time Turkish women were strictly secluded, their emancipation from the purdah only being accomplished by Mustapha Kemal in his policy of Westernisation during the first quarter of the next century. My father had an audience with the Sultan, who showed us every courtesy, even having us visit palaces not usually opened to the public.
Our cruise that year ended at Nice, where we arrived in time for the carnival and all its grotesque and riotous gaiety. We took part in the Battle of Flowers and greatly enjoyed throwing what in time became rather dusty nosegays at passers-by. Suddenly a well-meantbut clumsily aimed package hit me in the eye. Neither the chocolates it contained nor the compliment attached to it, 'Pour la jolie petite fille,' were allowed to console me, for my mother, fearing that compliments might lead to conceit, said, 'It must have been meant for Harold.' Harold, aged three, was, I admit, a beautiful child; still I hoped he had not been mistaken for a girl, and had doubts of my mother's veracity.
From Nice we went to Paris, where in recurrent years we spent the months of May and June at either the Hotel Bristol or the Continental. When I think of spring it is of Paris, with its sweet scents of budding chestnut trees and flowering lilac, and of the lilies the hawkers vend in the streets, those sprigs of muguet one wears on the first of May. The lovely city has for me a beauty that makes my heart ache. The gracious harmony of its ancient buildings, the shimmering lights, the soft green of the trees, and the fast-flowing Seine glowing red in the evening sun, all nurture a sad and tender reverence. For the beauty of spring is evanescent and loveliness is a fragile thing.
When I was a child, Paris in springtime was a happy place. At the Carrousel we rode wooden horses to gay waltzes. We loved the Punch and Judy shows in the Champs Élysées, and in the little booths we bought pails and shovels to play with on the sand piles, or boats to sail on the round basins in the gardens of the Tuileries. There was a small band of us who met there for several years running when our parents went abroad to race at Longchamps, to shop, or simply to have a good time in the easy carefree way of the nineteenth century. I remember Waldorf Astor, now Viscount Astor, and married to Nancy Langhorne, first woman Member of Parliament. He was a serious little boy, very good-looking, with the remarkable sense of fairness that inspired all his actions to the end. There was also May Goelet, who was bright, amusing and quick, the three natural attributes of an American girl. She was to be my bridesmaid and later to marry Marlborough's cousin, the Duke of Roxburghe, himself a fine man and a great gentleman. She became a Scottish chatelaine and lived at Floors Castle in the lovely Border country where England and Scotland meet. Her chief interests wereneedlework, salmon-fishing and bridge, which she played well enough to rank with Lady Granard, another compatriot. To these diversions she devoted a good brain which might perhaps have been used to better purpose.
And there was Katherine Duer, who married, first, Clarence Mackay, and then, after divorcing him, Dr. Joseph Blake, the great brain surgeon who rendered such service to France at his hospital in World War I. Katherine was very handsome, with a straight nose, and a shock of dark hair that swept back from a low, well-shaped forehead. Her dark eyes flashed with ardour and the love of life. She wanted to dominate us all; she was one of those who assumed it to be her right. She was always the queen in the games we played, and if anyone was bold enough to suggest it was my turn she would parry, 'Consuelo does not want to be Queen,' and she was right. These days of early spring were the precursors of others that during the summer months we spent at Newport. Here our little band would meet again. My happiest memory is of a farm in the surrounding country where we went for picnics and played at Indians and white men, those wild games inspired by the tales of Fenimore Cooper. Wriggling through thorns, scrambling over rocks, wading through streams, we were completely happy - though what sights we looked in torn clothes with scratched faces and knees as we drove home to the marbled halls and Renaissance castles our parents had built!
In the autumn my family would return to Idlehour and then to New York, where the winter routine would resume. As I grew into my teens, I began to study at what was known as the Rosa classes. My class consisted of six girls and was held at Mrs. Frederick Bronson's house. Mr. Rosa managed to cram such various subjects as English, Latin, mathematics and science into two hours; but if our knowledge was elementary, at least our interest was sharply awakened. Mr. Rosa was especially successful with history and literature, or perhaps it was because they were my favourite subjects that I thought so. We were given essays to write, and pages and pages on the Punic Wars are still treasured among my earliest literary efforts.
Mrs. Bronson lived on Madison Avenue near Thirty-eighth Street, which was then a fashionable residential part of the city. Every morning I walked there with my governess. Fifth Avenue had but very few shops in those days. The big Hotel Windsor at 571 Fifth Avenue, later destroyed by fire, was, with the churches, one of the few large edifices to interrupt the even flow of private mansions. The buses were still drawn by horses and there were many elegant carriages with a coachman and groom on the box seat. I liked these walks better than the return home in my father's brougham, which called for me at one o'clock.
In addition to the Rosa curriculum I had French, German and music lessons with various governesses, and an hour or so of exercise in Central Park.
In the eighties the foundations of education were laid young. We were not encouraged to consider self-expression more important than the acquisition of knowledge, and if, like children the world over, we painted crude and grotesque pictures, they were not considered to possess artistic merit. At the age of eight I could read and write in French, German and English. I learned them in that order, for we spoke French with our parents, my father having been partly educated at a school in Geneva. We had then a German governess at home; the French governess came in for an hour a day, and I prepared my lessons for her under the supervision of Boya.
There was, because of our travels, a long procession of governesses in my life, and when I grew older there were two so-called finishing governesses in residence, one English and one French. How difficult it was to please them both. What tact and patience it required! It may have taught me to see both sides of a question, for whatever opinion was held by one was invariably contradicted by the other. The English governess remained with me to the day of my wedding. She was one of the best friends I ever had.
Reading early became my favourite recreation. What untold hours of happiness were spent in the company of Les Petites Filles Modèles, Le Bon Petit Diable and other creations of Madame de Sègur, whose sympathies with errant childhood I found more to my taste than the sentimental yearnings expressed in a series of German books thatalso came my way about that time. I remember one entitled Zwei und Fünfzig Sonntage from which I gathered that German children, rather like me, regarded Sunday as a day of liberation from a too-encompassing discipline. The books I read in those early days were chiefly French and German. There were fairy tales, Hans Andersen's and Les Contes de Perrault, and La Fontaine's Fables, which I had to commit to memory. In a German book there was a grotesque creature called Struwwel Peter whose escapades Willie and I thoroughly enjoyed. Later Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and Fenimore Cooper's 'Leatherstocking' tales inspired the games we played. There were in those days fewer books written for children. I am bewildered by the choice with which I am now confronted. It was perhaps for this reason that we read what might be described as the Classics. It was only later when Willie went to a day school and I was left alone that my books became sentimental, and Queechy with The Wide, Wide World brought tearful hours. And there was Miss Alcott, whose Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy must be household names in every American family. At the age of thirteen I became acquainted with the loves of gods in a lovely book on Greek mythology, and with Charles Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses, Henty, Marryat and Jules Verne went on voyages of discovery. The Scottish Chiefs I knew practically by heart and Robin Hood was also a favourite hero. It was about then that Plutarch's Lives inspired a Spartan austerity which in contrast to the cushioned comfort of my life I found appealing. Unbeknown to my governess - for by then I had been moved to a room near my mother's - I determined to sleep on the floor without a blanket; but a heavy cold soon put an end to that short-lived experiment. The next step in my literary experiences was the discovery of Ivanhoe, Kenilworth and Woodstock, and Dickens's novels, which held me spellbound. Later came Thackeray's Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Vanity Fair I was not allowed to read. For water nymphs I developed a special tenderness in Ondine and Kingsley's Water Babies and I recited 'Die Lorelei' with genuine emotion. Our games of croquet became hilarious when Alice in Wonderland and its sequel came our way, and frequent references to 'Off with her head' would annoy our adversaries when we croqued their balls outof bounds. But the real emotional crisis was reached when in the yacht's library I found The Mill on the Floss and my dreams became interwoven with the romance of Stephen and Maggie Tulliver. In addition to these, my personal books, I read with my governess biographies of the great English and German poets together with their works; from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Spenser's Faerie Queene I turned to the Nibelungenlied and Wallenstein, from Milton's Puritan idealism to Klopstock's German lyricism - from Shakespeare to Schiller and Goethe. I knew far more of Goethe's loves than my mother surmised, but love was a legendary word and meant to me only what in his lovely poem he describes as 'Himmel hoch jauchzend zum Tode betrübt - glücklich allein ist die Seele die liebt.' I read voraciously of the German Classics with a governess who so inspired a love of German poetry and philosophy that after my marriage I read the books hitherto forbidden - Faust in its entirety, Heine, with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. For the heavier philosophies of Kant and Hegel I had no liking and wasted no time in cudgelling the little understanding I had of them. But Nietzsche had the inevitable appeal of poetic vision combined with madness. In Vienna, years later, on one of those sad pilgrimages to restore my hearing, I had dreams of translating Also Sprach Zarathustra - a dream which ended when on inquiry at a bookshop I discovered there were already some twenty-seven such translations.
The deepest emotion of my young life was born in my Confirmation. Bishop Littlejohn, then the Bishop of Long Island, was our house guest, and the service took place in the church at Islip which my father had helped to build. As I knelt at the altar rails I felt as if I were dedicating my life to God's service and, had anyone suggested my becoming a nun, I might indeed have considered changing the white muslin and veil I was wearing for the more sober garb of the convent. Preparing for this sacrament at a time when the widening rift between my parents was causing me sorrow rendered me peculiarly susceptible to the emotional appeal of Christianity.
In my sixteenth year my family acquired a new 2,000-ton yacht, the Valiant. It brought my father from Birkenhead, where she was built, to Newport in seven and a half days. His journey was short anduneventful compared to my great-grandfather's on the S.S. North Star, which sailed on the twenty-second of May, 1853, from Sandy Hook and took ten days, eight hours and forty minutes to reach Southampton. In a contemporary magazine I found the following description, which may amuse my readers:
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt built the S.S. 'North Star' for his pleasure. Her size was: 200 feet length of keel and 270 feet overall, with 38 feet breadth of beam. It was the largest yacht that had ever been constructed for a pleasure voyage, and when she had been finished and sumptuously furnished he started on his holiday trip to the Old World with all his numerous family of 18 on board - his sons and daughters and wives and husbands and children, and a great retinue of servants.
The Commodore and his companions were received with distinguished marks of consideration wherever they went and in Southampton a public dinner was given them by the civic authorities, the day on which it took place being kept a holiday by the citizens.
After a fortnight's sojourn in England, the 'North Star' took her departure for Cronstadt, where she arrived safely and the Commodore with his family and followers were hospitably entertained by the Czar and his Court. It was the year before the Crimean War and Russia had not experienced any of the mortifying disasters which broke the heart of the Emperor and caused his premature death.
After enjoying a succession of brilliant feasts and receptions in St. Petersburg the 'North Star' left for the South visiting Havre; the principal ports of the Mediterranean, in Spain. France, Italy, Constantinople, Malta, Gibraltar, Madeira and returned to New York in September. And wherever they went, the Commodore and his companions were treated like princes.
The cruise of the 'North Star' still remains unparalleled. No similar excursion has ever been since undertaken either in this country or in Great Britain; and the Commodore's holiday excursion remains like his whole career, by itself and not likely to be repeated.
My father's journey, if less eventful, at least had a brilliant ending, for when he arrived at Newport, our new and magnificent home awaited him - Marble House on Bellevue Avenue. This, mymother's second architectural achievement in cooperation with her architect friend Richard Hunt, was inspired by the Grand Trianon in the park of Versailles. Unlike Louis XIV's creation, it stood in restricted grounds, and, like a prison, was surrounded by high walls. Even the gates were lined with sheet iron. But it cannot be gainsaid that Marble House both within and without impressed one with its splendour and grandeur. The hall and staircase were built of yellow marble, and there were fine tapestries flanking the entrance, depicting the Death of Coligny and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, which always gave me a momentary chill. The beautiful dining-room, built of red marble, gleamed like fire.
Upstairs my own room was austere. It was panelled in a dark Renaissance boiserie. There were six windows, but at best one could only glimpse the sky through their high and narrow casements. An unadorned stone mantel opposite my bed greeted my waking eyes. To the right on an antique table were aligned a mirror and various silver brushes and combs. On another table writing utensils were disposed in such perfect order that I never ventured to use them. For my mother had chosen every piece of furniture and had placed every ornament according to her taste, and had forbidden the intrusion of my personal possessions. Often as I lay on the bed, that like St. Ursula's in the lovely painting by Carpaccio stood on a dais and was covered with a baldaquin, I reflected that there was in her love of me something of the creative spirit of an artist - that it was her wish to produce me as a finished specimen framed in a perfect setting, and that my person was dedicated to whatever final disposal she had in mind.
On the ground floor just under mine a Gothic room held a collection of majolica, cameos, and bronzes which a French connoisseur, Garvais by name, had brought together. It was our living-room, but stained-glass windows from some famous church kept out the light, creating a melancholy atmosphere in which a della Robbia Madonna suggested the renunciation of a worldly life. It was here that Marlborough later proposed to me, and that I accepted a sacrifice that, in obeisance to the dictates of my upbringing, I felt was fore-ordained.
It was not strange that, intuitive and sensitive, I should have been introspective. My life was a solitary one in which my brothers, both younger, one markedly so, because of their schooling took little part. We never shared our lessons, and during the holidays as they grew older they partook of sports and games in which I was seldom allowed to indulge.
The restrictions of my girlhood may appear strange to modern young women accustomed to the freedom that is theirs. But in my youth there were no telephones - no cinemas - no motor-cars. Even our clothes prevented the relaxed comfort we now take for granted. When I was seventeen my skirts almost touched the ground; it was considered immodest to wear them shorter. My dresses had high, tight, whalebone collars. A corset laced my waist to the eighteen inches fashion decreed. An enormous hat adorned with flowers, feathers and ribbons was fastened to my hair with long steel pins, and a veil covered my face. Tight gloves pinched my hands and I carried a parasol. Thus attired I went to Bailey's Beach for a morning bathe. There, clad in a dark blue alpaca outfit consisting of a dress under which were drawers, and black silk stockings, with a large hat to protect me from the sun, I bobbed up and down over incoming waves. Needless to add that I was never taught to swim. Tennis and golf played no part in my education, but lessons in deportment cultivated a measured and stately walk. How full of tedious restraint was this artificial life! It was not surprising that I disliked our sojourn at Newport and longed for the greater freedom Idlehour brought me. As I grew older, discipline increased. I then saw little of my contemporaries, and spent my days at my studies. My mother disapproved of what she termed silly boy and girl flirtations, so the picnics at the farm ceased and my governess had strict injunctions to report any flighty disturbance of my thoughts. Luncheon, which was served in the red marble dining-room where the heavy bronze chairs required a footman's help to get them near the table, was my only social distraction.
My mother always lunched at home to be with her children; it was the only meal we had with her. One of my most vivid memories of her is at the head of the massive oak table in our New Yorkhouse, at which places were invariably laid for six or eight guests who would drop in informally. It was then the fashion for women to drink tea or chocolate with their midday meal. In front of my mother's place there was a sumptuous silver tray on which stood a tea service and a chocolate pot. They were large and heavy and were embossed with scenes from Flemish life recalling those in the tapestries on the walls. They seemed to me much too heavy for my mother's delicate hands to lift.
Men were only occasionally present at these luncheons, my father being kept at his business, and as I grew in years and listened to the arid gossip women talk when in each other's company, I developed a decided preference for the society of men whose conversation, it seemed to me, held much more of interest. My studies at the Rosa classes had made me very much alive to events other than those discussed among my mother's women friends. I sometimes longed to express my views in the general conversations that took place, but a look from my mother repressed me. Art was a favoured topic, and I listened to the appreciations of certain self-termed connoisseurs whose appraisals were dictated by the cost rather than the beauty of an object. I was not surprised when later in Mrs. Oelrich's pseudo-marble palace or Mrs. Goelet's Renaissance château I saw objects that with their heavy gilding and rich velvets looked expensive but had neither the fine proportions nor the restraint art imposes. Period houses were then rising like mushrooms in the competitive atmosphere of Newport's plutocracy. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who lived in a frame house of some distinction but no pretensions and claimed to be a social leader, is reported to have been annoyed by such ostentation. On one occasion when her hostess, whose knowledge of history was as limited as her appreciation of art, announced, 'And this is my Louis Quinze salon!' Mrs. Fish with a polite but studied insolence exclaimed, 'And what makes you think so?' Such distinctions gave pleasure to the little set of elegants who still occupied the simple houses of their fathers and gazed with affronted eyes at the vulgar extravagances of newcomers.
As a child I would note these new mansions rising when in the afternoons I drove my pony Dumpling up and down BellevueAvenue. My governess, Miss Harper, shared the seat beside me in the low dog-cart specially built for me; behind sat a small groom. One day, shopping in the town of Newport, I learned how the rich are exploited, for when Marble House was mentioned as our address the shopkeeper informed me he had mistaken the price he had given me, and added a good fifty per cent. Even Miss Harper seemed taken aback, and I was aghast at what I conceived to be dishonesty.
As I grew older, I was increasingly happy to leave the artificial life of Newport and to return to Idlehour in the autumn. Here, when I was sixteen, a last peaceful interlude awaited me before our departure on a long cruise to India.
I saw little of the Rosa classes from then on. It was perhaps as well that the competitive ardour examinations evoked should be over, for I worked myself into such a state of apprehension that I still wonder how I managed to secure the cum laude with which our teacher rewarded our best efforts. Encouraged by my English governess, I had had hopes of going to Oxford after my graduation, with an honours degree in modern languages in view, but all this came to naught when at the age of eighteen I became engaged to be married.
THE GLITTER AND THE GOLD. Copyright © 1953 by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. All rights reserved. . For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.