Sunday, December 9, 2007
Alva Erskine Belmont, née Smith (January 17, 1853 - January 26, 1933) was a multi-millionaire American socialite and a major funder of the women's suffrage movement.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of a cotton trader, the American Civil War ruined her family, who decamped, like many other high-society Southerners, to Paris. Her family returned to America, this time to New York, after France's defeat by Prussia in 1871. Belmont's mother was forced to open a boardinghouse on West 23rd Street. Belmont resolved to try to marry a rich man, joining New York's belle underground of girls from good Southern families ruined by the Civil War who married New York bankers, brokers, and merchants. The technique was for a well-connected female friend to introduce the young woman to a suitable match. Belmont had just such a presenter in María Consuelo Yznaga del Valle, a childhood friend from Natchez, with grand Cuban-Spanish relations, and who later became the Duchess of Manchester. On April 20, 1875, she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, son of one of the richest men in America.
Belmont worked with architect Richard Morris Hunt to create a model of a 16th century French chateau at 660 Fifth Avenue. She believed the wealthy had a responsibility to build monuments representing knowledge and culture. In 1891, she worked again with Hunt to design Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, a Society summer retreat. When Caroline Astor, queen of "the 400" elite of New York Society snubbed her, she held a magnificent masquerade ball that cost three million dollars. Unhappy over being unable to get a box at the opera, she pressed for a new Metropolitan Opera House in New York that could accommodate her family.
She and William K. had three children: Consuelo, William K. II, and Harold Stirling. She determined to find an aristocrat husband for Consuelo, and in 1895 maneuvered her into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Belmont then shocked society by divorcing her husband and receiving a large financial settlement. At that time, divorce was unheard-of among the elite. In 1896 she then married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, another wealthy man five years her junior. She immediately began extensive renovations to his sixty-room Newport mansion, Belcourt, and had another mansion, Brookholt, built in Hampstead, Long Island. Her husband died suddenly in 1908, upon which she felt "called by Christ" to a new cause.
Drawn to the women's suffrage movement by Anna Shaw, Belmont donated large sums to the movement, both in the United Kingdom and United States. In 1909, she founded Political Equality League to get votes for suffrage-supporting New York State politicians, and wrote articles for newspapers. Raised in the South, she believed blacks were inferior, yet she befriended Mary Church Terrell and supported both black women and immigrant activists. During the women's union strikes of the period, she sat in court rooms and paid the bail charges. At first she supported the suffrage organization NAWSA, but left the organization because she disagreed with its more conservative policies. With Alice Paul she formed the National Woman's Party, and became its key theoritician. Her mansions provided meeting places and housing for suffrage workers, and her finances supported the many activities around the country, which included picketing of the White House. She continued to write on behalf of an Equal Rights Amendment, and was president of the NWP in the early 1920s when it sought that law. Overall, Belmont's irascible and commanding temperament served her political cause well. , 
In the mid-1920s she moved to France in order to be near her daughter and work for international women's suffrage. Her funeral in New York included women in suffrage costumes and a political theme. There she died on January 26, 1933. She is interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
1853-1875: Miss Alva Erskine Smith
1875-1895: Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt
1895-1896: Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt
1896-1933: Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont
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