Belmont, Alva

Belmont, Alva (Erskine Smith Vanderbilt)

(1853–1933) socialite, suffragist, reformer; born in Mobile, Ala. Born into a moderately wealthy Southern family, she was educated in France where her family moved after the Civil War. Returning to the U.S.A. with her mother and sisters in the early 1870s, they settled in New York City and by 1875 Alva was marrying William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. She immediately set about to advance the Vanderbilts' status by commissioning Richard Morris Hunt to design their mansion on Fifth Avenue—the setting in 1883 of a legendary costume ball. Divorced from Vanderbilt in 1895 on grounds of his adultery, she was awarded a generous annual income as well as their Newport "cottage," Marble House. Having arranged the marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the Duke of Manchester (1895), in 1896 she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (the son of August Belmont and Perry's daughter). After her husband's death in 1908, she suddenly put herself and fortune at the service of the struggle for women's suffrage and rights. She opened her Newport mansion to feminist groups, published articles, founded a new suffrage organization, contributed to various feminist groups, and sponsored the 1914 tour of the English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst. She also supported such causes as the Women's Trade Union League and even contributed to keeping the Masses, the socialist magazine, from going bankrupt. From 1921–33 she served as president of the National Woman's Party, during which time she actually lived mainly in France where she maintained three elaborate residences. Although her intrusive and aristocratic manner antagonized some of the women's rights leaders of the time, she was sincere in her own way about gaining equality for women.
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After her marriage to Oliver Belmont, Alva became one of the frivolous society leaders she railed against.