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American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

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American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

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Feb 26, 2019


Before there was Meghan Markle, there was Consuelo Vanderbilt, the original American Duchess.  Perfect for readers of Jennifer Robson and lovers of Downton Abbey.

Karen Harper tells the tale of Consuelo Vanderbilt, her “The Wedding of the Century” to the Duke of Marlborough, and her quest to find meaning behind “the glitter and the gold.”

On a cold November day in 1895, a carriage approaches St Thomas Episcopal Church on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Massive crowds surge forward, awaiting their glimpse of heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Just 18, the beautiful bride has not only arrived late, but in tears, yet her marriage to the aloof Duke of Marlborough proceeds. Bullied into the wedding by her indomitable mother, Alva, Consuelo loves another. But a deal was made, trading some of the vast Vanderbilt wealth for a title and prestige, and Consuelo, bred to obey, realizes she must make the best of things.

At Blenheim Palace, Consuelo is confronted with an overwhelming list of duties, including producing an “heir and a spare,” but her relationship with the duke quickly disintegrates. Consuelo finds an inner strength, charming everyone from debutantes to diplomats including Winston Churchill, as she fights for women’s suffrage. And when she takes a scandalous leap, can she hope to attain love at last…?

From the dawning of the opulent Gilded Age, to the battles of the Second World War, American Duchess is a riveting tale of one woman’s quest to attain independence—at any price.


Feb 26, 2019

Sobre el autor

Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of romantic suspense. A former Ohio State University English instructor, she now writes full time. Harper is the winner of The Mary Higgins Clark Award for her novel, DARK ANGEL. She also writes historical novels set in Tudor England. Please visit or write her at her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor.com

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American Duchess - Karen Harper



The Wedding of the Century, November 6, 1895

The Cage Door Closes

Everyone was calling it the wedding of the century. I was calling it the worst day of my life.

Granted, I might have been watched like a hawk before—by a maternal hawk—but I had never felt my imprisonment in a gilded cage so strongly. Here I was on my wedding day, trapped in my bedroom with the door guarded by the biggest footman at the house so I would not flee.

Miss Consuelo, can you please stop crying? my maid Lucy asked as she sponged my red-rimmed eyes with cool water again. I am afraid I will make drips on your dress.

My mother had purchased my wedding gown in Paris before my betrothed, Sunny—as I must now call him, short for Sunderland, one of his secondary titles before he became the 9th Duke of Marlborough—had even asked for my hand. He had become duke four years ago at age twenty. The sobriquet certainly did not come from his personality, because a less sunny person I’d never met. This marriage was all about dollars and no sense: Vanderbilt money for the Marlborough title, prestige, and power.

I’m trying not to cry, I told Lucy with a hiccough. My voice was not my own. Mama had insisted on elocution lessons amid all the others, partly so I could speak loud and clear, but now I would sound so stuffed up declaring my vows in that huge church.

And where was my father? I needed him, and his presence has been scarce since Mother was divorcing him. But—ha!—she needed him today to give me away, needed his respectable presence as much as she needed the Vanderbilt fortune to cover all the outrageous wedding bills.

Oh, thank heavens, I blurted out at the rap on the door. Swathed in silk and tulle, I managed to turn toward it as the footman hovering outside opened it for my father and he hurried in.

Ever handsome, always smiling—well, until the arguments had become so bitter and then the divorce loomed. Papa halted a few feet away, taking me in with his warm glance, and I burst into tears again, so glad to see him, so wishing he could spirit both of us away.

My dearest, don’t cry, not today, he said and carefully came closer, shuffling to avoid stepping on the long, pearl-encrusted satin train. I know brides are nervous but—

You know it is more than that. Lucy, you may leave us now.

But, Miss Consuelo, you cannot sponge your own tears. And I need to arrange the train and veil.

Later. Soon. Please wait outside, I said and snatched the sponge from her.

Used to looking at my mother for confirmation, she glanced at my father, who nodded. She fled, probably much relieved.

My dearest, beautiful girl, he comforted when the door closed. Your mother has gone on ahead, so we have a few minutes to pull ourselves together.

I need longer than that. A lifetime. You will visit at the palace, won’t you? You are always welcome. The real vow I take today is to not change my beliefs to suit him, husband or not, duke or not! I do not care if the Prince of Wales himself comes to visit—and Sunny says he will.

Looking both worried and proud at that declaration, Papa came closer, reaching out his strong arms to carefully hug me around my shoulders.

Of course I shall visit my dear girl, high and mighty duchess though she may be. And you and I shall write. After all, he has promised to love and cherish you, has he not?

I shrugged. "But Papa, I tower over him by half a head. And there was the most cruel Life magazine cartoon by someone called Charles Dana Gibson of us kneeling at the altar where I tower over him and my hands are tied behind my back—and Mama is holding the rope to make me kneel!"

I sniffled as I stepped back and used the eye sponge to wipe once more under my eyes and then my nose. I cleared my throat and tried speaking louder. But, yes, he said he would try to be a good husband.

There, you see. You must learn to ignore the cruel press.

It truly is not that which makes me feel oppressed. It is, well, lost opportunities.

I know how much you loved someone else. Poor Winthrop too. I am sorry your mother had other plans.

I longed to scream at him that I had faced her alone on that, when I could have used his help—but then he would have lost anyway, as had I. We spoke a bit longer, lingering, perhaps pretending this was not real. He tried to buck me up, as my brothers would say.

Finally, I mentally squared my shoulders, which were already ever straight from years of wearing an iron brace to give me perfect posture. I tossed the sponge back into the bowl of water and lowered my knee-length veil over my face. Thank God for it, as I wanted to hide from all that awaited me. I could hear the crowd outside the house, and more would await us at and in the church. The numbers alone staggered me: twenty-five policemen outside the church to keep order, four thousand guests, a sixty-piece orchestra and fifty-voice choir, and a parade of churchmen to lead us through our vows.

Despite my lingerie, then four layers of satin, and the Brussels lace gown and veil, I felt quite naked and exposed. I wished I could hide forever. Someone—I feared I knew who—had released information to Vogue magazine, which had sketched and published each item of the enhancement undergarments I wore today. Suddenly my corset felt so tight I could hardly breathe.

Ready, my dear? Papa asked and held out his arm as if we were ready to tread the church aisle. Our cue would come just after the choir sang O Perfect Love before the Wedding March began. How romantic, everyone thought, but not I.

O perfect love, indeed. I had turned eighteen only eight months ago. I did not want to be the Duchess of Marlborough. I was an American through and through, however much Mama had taken me around the world, put me on display before French and British society, and bred me and sold me for this very event and the life to come.

Yet here I was, going to live on a huge estate still run by feudal rules. At least my dear governess, who had been with me for years, had lifted my spirits by insisting that, once I was duchess, I could help others. Mama expected me to take over the British social world as she had the New York so-called four hundred. Then there was the need for what I had dubbed an heir and a spare, when I knew next to naught about marriage bedroom protocol.

But I was a Vanderbilt and I would somehow—God willing—make the best of this damned gilded cage or die trying.

Yes, Papa, I’m ready, I lied, but I kept thinking, How did it ever, ever come to this?

Part One

Debutante, 1893–1895

The Golden Cage

Chapter One

It was a blustery, gray November day. I could not believe how many New Yorkers had come to the pier to see my parents and their friends off. Of course the newspapermen were there shouting questions. But I suppose, since there were eighty-five people on board the Vanderbilt yacht Valiant, that some of the crowd could have been related to the crew of seventy-two and our French chef.

But the people on the pier were not what took my attention. Papa had invited his friend Winthrop Rutherfurd to come with us on our ocean voyage to India and France, and Win stood beside me at the rail.

To tell true, I adored him, however much older he was at age twenty-nine and I only sixteen. So handsome, even-tempered, properly protective and attentive. A trained lawyer but quite the sportsman. And how he looked at me, though his manners in public were impeccable.

On my other side from Win and Papa stood Mama and next to her from Newport, Oliver Belmont, a friend of both my parents. My youngest brother, Harold, nine years old, had come along, though my brother Willie, a year and a half younger than I, had stayed behind for his schooling. I would like to say I would miss him, but with Win along and his gloved hand so close to mine, well.

I jolted from my reverie when Mama spoke: Consuelo, the next time you see New York, I will have brought you out in Europe. Your life will be different as a debutante—a Vanderbilt debutante.

Because I was tall for a woman, at nearly five feet and eight inches, I now looked down on her. After all she’d put me through—put me through my paces, she had called it, as if I were a filly to be trained. But there was no changing her—had I been twelve feet tall, she still would have steered me like this steam yacht, heading out into life’s sea.

She immediately turned back to Mr. Belmont. I saw he dared to cover her gloved little finger with his on the teak rail. Though as was proper, flesh never touched flesh in polite society, it hit me hard that—could it be?—they were more than friends? But no. Mama never did anything to sully the Vanderbilt name. She only decorated it and flaunted it as she did our mansions on Long Island and in New York City and Newport, which she had built with her designing passion and Papa’s money.

Win spoke, and I turned quickly to face him. Ah, he was nearly six-foot-three, though I did not need his height to endear him to me. Every kindly move, each smile and intense look in his eyes—

Shall we stand at the other rail to see the Statue of Liberty go by—well, that is, we are going by, he said, gesturing with one arm and holding out the other for me to take. With a nod at my father, we walked together across the width of the ship to the port side. Not only are you and I going by but we are going far, my dear Consuelo, Win added when we were out of everyone’s earshot.

At that, I did not need this massive yacht at all. I could have flown.

I COULD HEAR my parents arguing through the wall between our cabins, however sturdy the mahogany barrier. Papa was shouting back at Mama? Never, never had I heard that. Usually, she ranted, and he walked out the door without fighting back, though now he was a captive audience on this vessel the rough seas were rocking.

Alva, you cannot act that way with Belmont with the children and our guests about! His middle name isn’t Hazard for nothing. He has been a friend to us both, but beware.

Be grateful he is an honorable person, which is more than I can say for some of the paramours you have run to over the years!

Only when your social grubbing made our marriage a living hell, damn it!

And you have had a flaming affair with my friend Consuelo Montagu. Our daughter is named for her, for heaven’s sake!

I was astounded at that accusation. My godmother, the Duchess of Manchester, and my father? Surely not. Just before this voyage, Mama had ranted at me, I do the thinking here. You do as I say! But I would still side with Papa if I were ever asked for an opinion.

You do not have time for me, he insisted, his voice a bit quieter now. Only for spending money to buy our way into society, which we do not need—to climb the rungs of that ladder, not the money, I mean.

We did need to take our rightful place among Mrs. Astor’s so-called four hundred. We needed to show our true worth, and we have. And you need to show some appreciation for the houses I have designed and built, for they are works of art! Especially our Fifth Avenue mansion and Marble House. They make your favorite Idle Hour on rural Long Island seem tawdry.

Just ask the children—especially Consuelo—which they prefer!

I covered my ears with my hands and curled into a ball on my bed. I was starting to feel queasy from the rolling and tilting of the ship, and from what I was hearing. I could only hope that my governess, Miss Harper, who slept near the door, hadn’t heard their fighting. But Miss Harper, who was bright and wise, no doubt knew more about my parents’ rocky marriage than their own children did.

Except for me. When Mama and Papa were not speaking, I was the one who carried messages between them, both in the Fifth Avenue house and in vast Marble House, which everyone in Newport called a cottage. I hated it when my parents did not speak to each other, but how I wished they were not speaking now.

The wind is picking up, Miss Harper spoke from her bed across the cabin. So had they awakened her or was she trying to drown out their voices? Getting a bit rough.

I know. It scares me.

"This is the largest private yacht in America, maybe in the world. It does not roll as hard as their first yacht, the Alva."

"But the Alva sank."

Somehow, suddenly, that seemed the wrong thing to say. The big boat named Alva might have gone down, but not the real Alva. Like a storm, she, too, was a force of nature. Unstoppable, unsinkable.

AFTER SPENDING TWO days ashore in Cairo to get our land legs back while the Valiant passed through the locks of Suez, we reboarded the yacht to cross the Indian Ocean to Bombay. There the noise, swarms of insects, smells—the seething humanity of India—nearly overwhelmed me. My legs went weak and my stomach roiled, so I survived on toast and tea, despite some of the wonders we saw.

Win was ever attentive, and I began to love, not just like, him. We found we had a favorite Strauss opera in common, Der Rosenkavalier, so that became my private nickname for him. It translated to the rose bearer, and he promised to have my arms full of roses when we arrived home. I told him my favorite was the American Beauty rose, and Amber, an amalgam of that name, was his secret, secret name for me, despite my dark hair and my dark eyes and olive skin. He teasingly said that my long, slender neck was the stem for my blooming beauty.

It was during the several days my parents spent away from us that I treasured most on the voyage, for, though Miss Harper or my maid Lucy always tagged along or sat nearby, I spent hours up on deck with Win.

Your mother will have real visions of grandeur after staying with the British viceroy and the vicereine at Government House, Win told me. It’s not some plain outpost like it sounds. I hear they live like royalty as they oversee India for the queen.

Then my mother will fit right in.

Somehow we will win her to our side, he promised, keeping his voice low so Miss Harper, who was sitting on a deck chair holding a book, would not hear. I come from acceptable ‘stock,’ and would not pursue you for your money—though I do not mean to say you are not worthy of great love without a dowry or settlement of any kind.

However sophisticated I was trying to be, I sighed. Staring at the passing life, as we anchored near the Bay of Bengal along the Hooghly River, it was so hard to picture a future with Win—to picture anywhere but here. I had glimpsed on the wharf below, amid food sellers and workers, that veiled and swathed women in the heat walked two steps behind their men, some bearing pots or pitchers upon their heads with one hand up for balance. So picturesque and exotic, but somehow strange and . . . and wrong. Wrong that the British rulers lived in luxury here when there was all this.

You are trembling in this heat, sweetheart, Win said. We had best go back inside. Miss Harper is coming over, as she must have noticed, too.

The three of us were barely seated in the stateroom when my parents came back from their two nights away. As faint as I had suddenly felt—though, who knew, perhaps the vapors were caused by Win’s intensity as well as the sweltering scene below—I came to attention.

They rule here as royalty! Mama declared, pulling the pins from her hat and sailing it onto the spare settee. Almost like a king and queen, or at least duke and duchess. Papa poured himself a tumbler of brandy from the sideboard and dismissed the footman with a wave of his hand.

They are about to have a changing of the guard, Papa said, but we were entertained in luxury. Lord and Lady Elgin will be replacing our hosts, the Lansdownes. Yet still there is a pall hanging over the place and—

Hardly a pall, Mama cut in, and it is appalling you would say that. Consuelo, she said, turning toward me, the wife of the viceroy, the vicereine, does much good here and has power of her own, quite independent of her husband. So, there is a British precedent for feminine power far beyond the duties or mere self-indulgence or luxury.

I hope, I said, sitting up straighter, she sees to the wretched masses I have observed, especially the women. And what is that you said about their practice of purdah, Win?

Mama had seemed so engrossed in her opinions and observations that she turned to Win for the first time.

It is the Hindu practice of secluding women, he said. They wrap them in clothing head to foot or keep them behind high walls. It has just been outlawed here, but that does not mean the customs will change.

Dreadful, Papa said.

Mama chimed in with Despicable, primitive, and quite unfair!

I bit my tongue to keep from blurting out something like But isn’t that how you have treated me?

I shuddered at the thought and was grateful once again I was an American, though Mama and I had both agreed that women at home should be able to vote, else it was another, more civilized, kind of purdah, I supposed.

I saw that Mama studied and frowned at Win and me.

Consuelo, she said, let us leave the men to their brandy. Come with me. You looked peaked and need your rest before your first coming out event in Paris, and none too soon. You and I both need a change of scene.

Win made a move to help me rise, but she took my arm, pulled me up, and subtly elbowed him away.

Chapter Two

Mama and I, our maids, Miss Harper, and our nearly one hundred pieces of luggage disembarked in Nice so we could then travel on to Paris. Papa journeyed on with the yacht, taking along Oliver Belmont and my dear Win, but we planned to travel through the countryside and would see them soon.

Yet barely were we off the Valiant that Mama took me aside and told me quickly and curtly that my parents’ marriage was definitely over. She explained she would seek a divorce when we returned to America. She said Papa agreed that she would tell me, but I vow, it was so I would not throw a scene and cling to him. With the others, I tried to keep my chin up. I had seen it coming, but it still cut deep. I could only tell myself that perhaps Papa would be better off.

Though I was devastated, Mama forbid my moping about. We moved into a lovely hotel overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. At least the beautiful City of Light, as they called Paris, was balm to my soul. Mama and I walked and walked, talked and talked. I blamed her and was angry at first, but she seemed to cater to me, taking me to museums and churches and lectures at the Sorbonne. We visited the Paris Opera and the Comédie-Française. I loved speaking French, and I loved the French people, so elegant and gay. The spring of 1894 helped to heal my heart and perhaps Mama’s, too.

I was excited to have my portrait painted by the artist Carolus-Duran, whom Mama assured me was famous for his portraits of aristocratic women. So was I now, at age seventeen, an aristocratic woman? At least I trusted that the portrait would make me look that way.

No, no, not red velvet behind her. Too heavy-looking! Mama told the bearded artist in French when he tried to pose me before huge swags of tasseled draperies in his studio. I want a classical look, a portrait to hang in Marble House, our Newport estate, for a while and then who knows, perhaps in an English palace.

My head snapped around. Whatever was she talking about?

But the Prince of Wales in England, he is already married, madam, and his son the Duke of York last year, too, the artist protested with a roll of his eyes and a little smile that peeked through his mustache.

Ah, but, she said, tugging me over to another backdrop, a realistic rendering of a classical landscape with an Ionic column, don’t you know there is one palace in Great Britain not owned by the royals? Its name is Blenheim Palace, and it belongs to the Duke of Marlborough. I have it on the best authority—Lady Lansdowne, an English aristocrat herself and the duke’s aunt.

Why, I wondered, would Mama have been discussing that when she was spending time in a palace in India? I had briefly met Lady Lansdowne, too. How she had looked me over, a bit rudely, I thought, but that was almost all I recalled about her.

But I did love the painted backdrop Mama had chosen here and, later, the portrait itself. In it I stand as if I were indeed mistress of a grand house or palace, draped in white with the most calm, confident look on my face. One foot peeks from my gown, as if I were stepping forward into my future.

How I tried to emulate that feeling and look the night Mama brought me out into French society at the all-white ball for unmarried jeune filles at the palatial home of the Duc de Gramont. Yet however elegantly gowned in one of the many dresses Mama had bought for me from Monsieur Jean Worth’s fabulous displays, I was frightened to death.

MAMA, I LIKE this gown, but why should my hair be piled so high with curls? I asked as my maid prepared me for the evening while Mama watched. My hair isn’t curly and it takes so long to get it that way. The height of the hair makes my neck look even longer. And everyone will have a necklace of some sort, so why only a simple white ribbon around my throat? You know my neck is too long, you have said so.

Less is more with you tonight. We do not want people looking at your jewelry, but at you. My girl, your elegant, swanlike neck is part of your allure.

Swanlike? Allure? But—

Consuelo, you have no taste! she exploded, rising and pointing a finger nearly in my face. I buy the gowns; you wear them. I decide the look; you display it. Believe me, I know what I am doing.

Still, that did not calm my nervous demeanor. The ballroom was vast. This was called a white ball because all the guests were unwed. It would have been deemed a pink or rose ball if married women were guests of honor. The men—and it looked to me as if there were an army of them—sat on one side of the room while we, with our chaperones, sat on the other quite on display. The men came across to ask for dances, and my card was soon filled, my evening a busy whirl. Yet wasn’t this all a sham? I was certain Win would propose when I returned to New York, but I suppose I must go through this pantomime until both of us could present our plans. I tried to enjoy it despite my upset stomach and trembling hands.

Still, it was fun to whirl around the floor to a lilting waltz. I began to confuse names and, in some cases, the French titles of my dance partners. Mama was in her element, conversing with each would-be beau before and after dances or when one of them went to fetch us punch. I had strict orders not to go near the drink tables myself because, she said, that is where stains splashed on gloves and gowns.

And then, near the last dance, a handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed man bowed before us to present himself. He had no title, and introduced himself as Jacques Balsan. Something about him, his assurance, his poise—his intent look—made me blurt out before Mama could give her yea or nay. Yes, I would enjoy a dance, as if I had been a wallflower all night and was desperate. For the first time this evening I was happy not to be overdressed or glittering with jewels like many of the other maidens.

Oh, yes, Balsan, Mama said after he made further introductions to both of us. From the industrial family with the textile empire—the heir.

I have traveled the world, Madam Vanderbilt, but, I admit, mostly to buy wool for our Balsan mills.

I thought Mama might not like such a plebian concern, but she said, Actually, my family dealt in cotton before our dreadful War Between the States. But as for the Balsans, of course, any family that is friends with the Gramonts is surely well respected.

He hastily signed my dance card, and we were off onto the floor. It was strange, but, as his gloved hand took mine, it was as if we really touched. He was not as tall as Win, just my height, so our eyes met and matched. He seemed to smile with his eyes as well as his mouth, which flaunted white, even teeth.

Mama may be American and I too, I told him in French, but she seems to know of your family.

The Balsans’ businesses are all earthbound, but I love to take to the skies. My passion—one of them, he added, smiling at me again. My favorite pastime is ballooning aloft in the clouds.

Oh, but is that not dangerous?

A bit, but worth it. To see the earth which mankind has tried to divide into fenced fields and roads and city blocks gives one a whole new vision for life. If our earthbound paths cross again, and I pray they shall, Mademoiselle Consuelo, I shall propose that I take you up into the heavens with me.

What an amazing conversation we had, when all evening I had heard little but comments on how beautiful I looked, questions as to whether I liked Paris and what were the Vanderbilt homes and businesses like, as if everyone did not already know railroads and more railroads had made my family’s fortune. Of course, I should tell this Jacques Balsan that I could promise nothing in the future. That my mother would never let me go up in a balloon in a basket—oh, yes, I told him I had seen a newspaper drawing of such a daring deed.

I sighed and not from the exertion of the waltz. For the first time tonight, I did not wish that my dance partner was my dear Win.

It sounds wonderful, I told him and felt quite let down to earth when he returned me to my mother with a smile and a quick squeeze of my hand before he bowed and left us.

You will not believe this, Mama said.

I know—oh, believe what?

You, my dear, have had five proposals of marriage this evening, brought directly to me, two of them in writing.

Oh, no. I—from one dance?

From your beauty I—we—have showcased tonight, and your name, of course.

Papa’s money, you mean.

The place I have made for us and you with it. But any French noble will not do, so do not fret.

I exhaled in relief, still a bit out of breath from dancing with Jacques. But there was something about the way she had worded that. Hopefully, she meant an American would be better for me, and I would convince her that Win, after all, from a respected and well-to-do family, would be quite perfect.

Would you believe, she said as the evening ended, that we have an invitation to meet His Serene Highness Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg tomorrow? The great nephew of Tsar Alexander III, no less. He was not here tonight but an emissary of his family was.

My heart flip-flopped then sank. I could only hope there was no connection between Mama’s European husband-hunting for me and that name and title. I didn’t want a title and I didn’t want to be linked with anyone serene and high. As much as I loved Europe, I wanted to marry in America to an American. And where was Battenberg anyway?

I searched the crowded room for another glimpse of Jacques but did not see him again. Not for many years.

MY DREAMY DAYS in France collapsed like a stuck balloon when I entered the evening salon of the grande dame Madame de Pourtalès to be presented to Francis Joseph of Battenberg. I had learned he was a German princeling, but I did not care a flip if he were a king or a saint. Mama had not exactly said so, but was she actually dangling me as a possible princess to an alien, distant, and no doubt backward Balkan state called Serbia?

The man I was to meet had a long, serious face and was attired in a military

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  • (4/5)
    I love learning about different aspects of history, whether they be important events or just about different people through time. I knew absolutely nothing about Consuelo Vanderbilt going into my reading of this book so it was exciting to be introduced to this tiny tidbit of American/English history.Consuelo is the daughter of an overbearing mother and a very, very rich father. Her mother is determined that her daughter will marry well and to that end she takes her on a tour of Europe in search of a title. She finds her one in the Duke of Marlborough who needs a wife with money to save his family’s estate, Blenheim Palace – the only castle not owned by the Crown.Consuelo does not want to marry the Duke as she believes herself to be in love with another man but her mother is determined. So therefore the marriage goes forward and soon Consuelo finds herself as the ninth Duchess of Marlborough. She moves into Blenheim and soon brings some American thinking to the staid English estate. In time she becomes known for her kindness.The book explores the life of Consuelo as she changes from innocent young heiress to a woman running from the German invasion of France in WWII and beyond. It’s not like I can spoil plot as Consuelo’s life if part of the historical record but I suspect that many are like me and don’t know much about her.This was an easy reading book that I read in one long afternoon. I was really rooting for Consuelo because I really had a hard time with her mother. Talk about a social climber – whew! There was a lot of time and material to cover and at times I felt it went a bit too quickly but Ms. Harper did keep the book focused on Consuelo throughout. It is definitely her story. I would like to learn more about her after reading this as I feel there is more to know. Consuelo did write an autobiography and I think it would be quite interesting to read.The period after WWI did find a number of titled Englishmen seeking rich wives to help rebuild/maintain estates that had been in their families for generations. England had been decimated by the war and many of the old families were hurting for money. The US was humming along and there was a lot of money to be found. It’s interesting to learn about this period in history.
  • (4/5)
    I received this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a fair review. I love historical fiction but haven't read a lot about Consuelo Vanderbilt so I was glad I won a copy. I also enjoy Ms. Harper's work. What I really enjoyed about the book was the history that Ms. Harper wove through Consuelo's story while still giving us a good idea of what her life may have been like. For me I am taking this as an introduction and am eager to read more but if you like well fleshed out characters and their lives this may not be for you.
  • (3/5)
    Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It leads to learning more about the subject matter and characters after a fictional introduction. This books offers some interesting information about the practice of arranging marriages between British royalty and American wealth, in this case Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough. Blenheim Palace is often in the current news, and the descriptions of its interior were fascinating. I found the characters, however, to be one-dimensional and uninteresting with the exception of Winston Churchill's witticisms. Consuelo's infatuations, particularly with Jacques Balsan, read like a romance novel.My thanks to Library Thing and the publisher for this ARC.
  • (5/5)
    American Duchess is an engrossing fictional account based on the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt. Born into the prestigious wealth of the Vanderbilt family, her arranged marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough was one of sorrow and unhappiness. A strong-willed character, Consuelo was a woman of deep compassion and honor. Her father instilled in her the precept that those who have much should strive to enrich the lives of those who do not. Her charitable accomplishments were prolific. As a friend to many historical American and European legends, Consuelo's life piqued my interest into pursuing further research into the story of this remarkable American.
  • (2/5)
    I typically love historical fiction about real life people. I didn't know much about Consuelo Vanderbilt and had hoped this would be a great introduction. While it was that, I had a hard time connecting to her and the other characters.I received an advance copy in from LibraryThings Early Reviewers in return for an honest review.
  • (3/5)
    This is a first-person narrative based on the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, a young American heiress known as one of the "Dollar Brides"--girls whose families paid a huge settlement to marry them off to titled Brits. Consuelo has always been a sympathetic figure with a domineering mother who forced her into a loveless marriage with "Sunny" Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. It was well known that she was late for her wedding because her maid was trying to repair her tear-stained face. Harper tries to make her even more pathetic by having her leave behind a man she truly loved. The novel details her difficult marriage, childbirth, separation and later divorce; her remarriage and her philanthropic work; her friendship with Winston Churchill, Sunny's cousin; and her difficult but sometimes surprising relationship with her mother. Hers becomes a typical story of the weak woman who finds true love and her own voice.One of the things I missed hearing more about was Consuelo's part in the restoration of Blenheim Palace, the Marlborouogh family estate. I've heard bits and pieces in tours of both Blenheim and, here in America, Biltmore, but Harper makes this strictly Sunny's project. While it's true that Vanderbilt money funded the restoration, Consuelo was instrumental in the choices made, but here she focuses on charity work for the locals instead. I assume the author felt this would be a better set-up for her eventual founding of a children's hospital as well as her departure from Blenheim.It took me a long time to get through this book, not because it was bad, but because other, more interesting books kept grabbing me. If you like happily-ever-after endings for oppressed heroines, you will enjoy American Duchess.
  • (4/5)
    This is a biographical novel about Consuelo Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill Balsan.  A member of the wealthy American Vanderbilt family, she was married off by her ambitious mother to the Duke of Marlborough in England in 1895.  I have a hard time getting interested in the first world problems of the incredibly wealthy, although the section about the escape by Consuelo and her second husband from France during World War II was exciting.  And that is where this book ends.  It would be interesting to see how Consuelo's 1953 autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, compares with this book.
  • (5/5)
    I looked forward to reading this book, and I was not disappointed. Harper’s book of historical fiction about Consuelo Vanderbilt was a joy to read. Beginning with Vanderbilt’s struggle with her mother in finding a suitable mate, we learn of her fate in becoming a “Dollar Princess,” or Duchess in her case. Living with heartbreak in her first marriage, and finally finding love in her second marriage, Vanderbilt becomes a strong woman in her own right. Harper describes all of the people and places in beautiful detail, and gives a superb portrayal of the times. It was a delight to read this book, and I hope to read more from Karen Harper.
  • (4/5)
    Recently I read a novel about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and I was excited to learn about this novel about Alva's daughter Consuelo who married a British duke and eventually divorced him. Consuelo was one of several wealthy American heiress to marry into the British aristocracy. However, her marriage was hardly a fairy tale, as Consuelo and her husband initially separated, then divorced after several years of marriage. She did remarry - to a pioneering French pilot - and this novel traces the ups and downs of her life through two world wars, a depression, and numerous family upheavals. She was a fascinating woman and many historical figures make their appearances in this novel. Highly recommended for those interested in Consuelo and this era.
  • (5/5)
    Consuelo Vanderbilt was born into the Gilded Age of fame, wealth, excess, and grandeur. At eighteen years of age, she is forced into a loveless marriage arranged by her social-climbing mother, Alva Vanderbilt, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Though she is in love with another, Consuelo vows to be the best mother and wife that she can be. Though it is difficult adapting to her husband's homeland with its' strict customs and rules, she quickly enjoys being a mother and also benefactress of the estate's very poor residents. However, Consuelo begins to realize that no matter her social standing, wealth, or charity work, what she really wants is to be loved for herself. Will this wealthy Duchess find lasting love to fill her poor heart?This was a really great book and made me very interested in the Vanderbilt family and empire...which still exists today! If you enjoy turn-of-the-century history, you will enjoy this novel.
  • (4/5)
    American Duchess by Karen Harper tells the story of Consuelo Vanderbilt who was a young American heiress conscripted to an arranged marriage by her mother Alva Vanderbilt in 1895. The practice of ‘dollar brides’ was not uncommon during the era. Wealthy American families essentially bought ties and titles through arranging their daughters marriage to financially struggling European aristocracy. Consuelo is indeed her mother’s strong willed daughter and uniquely expresses her independence, something quite rare in that time period and social circle. I enjoyed the book and really appreciate the research that Karen Harper put into this book. I am a fan of historical fiction and this reads more towards historical romance. I recommend it for those who enjoy that genre. Thank you to LibraryThing and William Morrow for the advanced reader copy and the opportunity to review American Duchess.
  • (4/5)
    This story is actually based on the real Consuelo Vanderbilt, an American woman who marries the British Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo's family is very rich, but they do lack a title. Between the late 19th century and World War II, a flood of “dollar princesses” flocked to England looking for love. In return for a coveted title, they offered their much-needed wealth to an aristocracy desperate for cash. However, their was no love match between Consuelo and her husband and their marriage began to suffer early on. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It took us thru the Gilded Age, the feminist movement, and WW2 as Consuelo attempts to find her independence and true love. I received a complimentary book as part of the Goodreads giveaway program.
  • (4/5)
    Consuelo Vanderbilt was brought up strict by her socialite mother, Alva. Taught all the things a society lady was supposed to know, and confined to a corset with a steel rod in the back to make sure her posture was perfect, she was expected to marry well and provide heirs to continue the line. When the Duke of Marlborough showed some interest, a deal- strictly a business deal- was made: Consuelo would get to be an English duchess, and the Duke would get the money he needed to save his palace and live life the way he wanted to. Problem was, Consuelo was already in love with another man. Under threats from her mother, Consuelo gave in and married the Duke. She was now a provider of huge sums of money and of heirs. Consuelo wasn’t one to just sit around and spend money, though. She was quite the philanthropist, and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. She did her part during WW I, running a sort of hospital. And she finally left her husband so she could live her own life. It’s an interesting book and I enjoyed reading it. But it has some flaws. First is that Consuelo is flawless; she is never in the moral wrong. Of course, it’s written in the first person, so that’s kind of to be expected. The second is that I feel like the book was possibly written for the Young Adult crowd, even though it is being advertised for adult readers. Finally, there is a bit of a flat affect. None of the characters- not even Consuelo- really come to life. And one (Alva) makes a total 180 degree turn about in character, which seemed odd. Four out of five stars.
  • (4/5)
    I love learning about different aspects of history, whether they be important events or just about different people through time. I knew absolutely nothing about Consuelo Vanderbilt going into my reading of this book so it was exciting to be introduced to this tiny tidbit of American/English history.Consuelo is the daughter of an overbearing mother and a very, very rich father. Her mother is determined that her daughter will marry well and to that end she takes her on a tour of Europe in search of a title. She finds her one in the Duke of Marlborough who needs a wife with money to save his family’s estate, Blenheim Palace – the only castle not owned by the Crown.Consuelo does not want to marry the Duke as she believes herself to be in love with another man but her mother is determined. So therefore the marriage goes forward and soon Consuelo finds herself as the ninth Duchess of Marlborough. She moves into Blenheim and soon brings some American thinking to the staid English estate. In time she becomes known for her kindness.The book explores the life of Consuelo as she changes from innocent young heiress to a woman running from the German invasion of France in WWII and beyond. It’s not like I can spoil plot as Consuelo’s life if part of the historical record but I suspect that many are like me and don’t know much about her.This was an easy reading book that I read in one long afternoon. I was really rooting for Consuelo because I really had a hard time with her mother. Talk about a social climber – whew! There was a lot of time and material to cover and at times I felt it went a bit too quickly but Ms. Harper did keep the book focused on Consuelo throughout. It is definitely her story. I would like to learn more about her after reading this as I feel there is more to know. Consuelo did write an autobiography and I think it would be quite interesting to read.The period after WWI did find a number of titled Englishmen seeking rich wives to help rebuild/maintain estates that had been in their families for generations. England had been decimated by the war and many of the old families were hurting for money. The US was humming along and there was a lot of money to be found. It’s interesting to learn about this period in history.
  • (3/5)
    It is hard for us, in this day and age, to reconcile ourselves to the idea of a forced marriage. Most of us choose to marry for love and even those people who I know who have had arranged marriages have had a more modern version where they were allowed to decline if the prospect was too horrible to contemplate. But it's really not that long ago that marriage was a business transaction and not a love match, especially in the upper classes, as Karen Harper shows in her latest historical fiction novel about Consuelo Vanderbilt, American Duchess.In 1895, at only 18 and in love with another man, Consuelo is forced by her overbearing, social climbing mother into marriage with the ninth Duke of Marlborough, her money for his title and palace estate. One of the Gilded Age's "Dollar Brides," Consuelo was perhaps the most famous among the American heiresses who left America for England and the chance to marry into a cash strapped aristocracy. Trapped in a loveless marriage with a cold fish husband, Consuelo turned towards doing good for those less fortunate than she was, earning the sobriquet of Angel of Woodstock for her ministering in the village near Blenheim Palace. Her life continued to be glittering on the surface even as she stretched her philanthropic muscles and poured herself into her two beloved sons. Being the Duchess of Marlborough, especially with her financial means, brings her into contact with many of the famous, the glamorous, and the royal of her time although she regarded her life as like to being in a gilded cage. And it is only later in life that she finds the freedom and love that she searched for for so long.The book is narrated in the first person by Consuelo herself and opens with the day of her wedding, the wedding of the century, before moving backwards two years to show just how she ended up on the verge of this unwanted marriage and then forwards into her life as Duchess of Marlborough and beyond. Early on in the story, Consuelo is immature, alternately defiant and compliant, while her mother is firmly dictatorial and her father is a complete milksop. Husband Sunny is unemotional and a hidebound traditionalist but not really as present in the novel as one might expect, and certainly not portrayed as horrible a person as our narrator asserts that he is. In fact, none of the characters is completely fleshed out and they feel a little one dimensional as a result. Even Consuelo as the narrator has no flaws nor does she share the little human details that would have made her character realistic and fully realized, making this read more as a superficial biography, removed from the subject, than as a personal account, which a first person narrative historical fiction should surely have mimicked. Consuelo's story has all the makings of a fascinating one, an activist, an heiress, and American Duchess whose life spanned both world wars and who found her own happiness later in life but this skims lightly across the surface of this complicated woman. The writing is simple and easy to read and although it is not a full portrait of Consuelo (oddly ending on a romance novel note of happily ever after and in the midst of WWII despite the fact that Consuelo lives another 20 odd years), it is a light and fast read perfect for those with a fascination with the English aristocracy, those who like to see how the other half lives, and historical fiction fans looking for an easy beach read.
  • (3/5)
    American Duchess, A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt, by Karen harperAfter reading Therese Fowler’s “A Well-Behaved Woman”, about Alma Vanderbilt, Consuelo’s overbearing mother, I eagerly awaited reading this book, which I hoped would fill in the spaces on the life of Consuelo. Overall, I got the impression that Consuelo was immature, but since she was married in her teens, it was to be expected. Brought up with all the class money could buy, I found her to often be shallow and selfish, taking advantage of her station in life, without fully appreciating it. However, she was shown to mature in some ways, and in adulthood she was depicted as a genuinely philanthropic and compassionate woman interested in elevating women to a position more equal to that of men and in aiding those less fortunate than she was. Yet often, she spent her money with abandon when it could have been used to promote higher ideals.Both are imagined books, billed as historic fiction, about the lives of two women who were not only successful, but who were benevolent and charitable, and who played a role in the history of the women’s movement. Both of them were interested in suffrage and equal rights. Both were interested in the care and protection of women and children, of those less fortunate, who were, in their time, very much under the thumb of the men in their lives, living in a male dominated world. Both of the women were strong-willed and intelligent, single-minded and perseverant.The writing style is simplistic and often juvenile, giving it the aura of a romance novel, designed for the Young Adult genre, more than historic fiction designed for the adult reader. It often felt shallow as it talked about ghosts and decorating and gardening without offering evidence of more substantial life events, that would made me feel the information was, in fact, legitimate and the book, authentic. That said, it is a story which is engaging, at times, charming at times, informative occasionally, if not truly revealing. It offers a history of the time, about the class distinction, the culture and the wars, but the overriding theme for me was the concentration on the love affairs and marriage difficulties, rather than any new information on Consuelo, her life or her mother’s. In fact, the two books, this and the one by Fowler, are quite different in approach and interpretation of events, which I had not anticipated. I did enjoy the tidbits about Winston Churchill, but I have no idea which of them are accurate, and which of them are imagined. I did enjoy the book since it was an easy read, the words flowed smoothly, but it never seemed to fully grow up, and neither did Consuelo. As a matter of fact, although decades passed, she always seemed like a young girl. The book offered a smattering of the history, but never fully developed into a novel which informed me about Consuelo, but rather it dealt with the general history of the time of her life, which is rather well known. There were wars and an economic depression, followed by a time of prosperity, many of us still enjoy, although women are still demanding more rights than they have been able to achieve. In Fowler’s book, the main theme seemed to be the grooming of Consuelo to be a wife and aristocrat, to marry well and be protected in a way that women had not been before. In this book, Alma’s control over Consuelo seems more important than the intent or underlying reasons for the authoritarianism. I never felt fully invested in the book or the characters.
  • (4/5)
    This book did something that I think good historical fiction should do: it sent me off researching Consuelo Vanderbilt and separating the fact from the fiction. The good news is that there is a lot of fact in this novel. But it is a novel, and so there are definitely fictional elements to heighten the story of a very interesting woman.The book is an easy read. In fact, my initial impression was that it was written for a YA audience, until I got farther into the story and encountered more of the complexities of the characters. It is a nice combination of relationship drama set against historical settings and events. At times it feels as if it is an historical romance, and I felt as if it downplayed some of Consuelo's philanthropic work. But it was engaging and enjoyable.My thanks to LibraryThing and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review an ARC of this book.