From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).


She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)


Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

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12 Responses to “From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist”

  1. 1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Kate Feering Strong (below) received her invitation to Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s “fancy dress” ball, scheduled for March 26, 1883, she decided not to settle for a more […]

  2. The rich activists of New York’s “mink brigade” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] brigade were Anne Morgan (left), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, and former society queen bee Alva Belmont,  ex-wife of W.K. Vanderbilt and widow of banker Oliver Hazard Perry […]

  3. A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] York Times the next day, printing the names of noted guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with what costume they […]

  4. Central Park’s sensational 1865 balloon wedding | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in 1863 to the doomed union between Consuelo Vanderbilt (daughter of society wannabe Ava) and the 9th Duke of Marlborough in […]

  5. The woman who didn’t want women to vote | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] as suffrage gained steam in the 1910s (and drove newspapers like the Brooklyn Eagle to run reader polls, as […]

  6. This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most famous ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala in 1883—so important that it changed New York society. […]

  7. A memorial to the Gilded Age’s favorite architect | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] also designed “Petit Chateau” for W.K. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife, Alva, in 1883 at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. (It was also demolished in the […]

  8. The most spectacular mansion on Sutton Place | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Anne Vanderbilt was the widow of William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and ex-husband of Gilded Age society doyenne turned suffrage supporter Alva Vanderbilt. […]

  9. All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] you were an old money matron like Mrs. Astor or one of the “new rich” (hello, social climbing Alva Vanderbilt), all super wealthy New Yorkers during the city’s Gilded Age had one thing in common: a large […]

  10. The nude statue outside Alice Vanderbilt’s window | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] This wasn’t just any wealthy widow. The mansion (below in 1908, behind the Plaza) was the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, aka Alice Vanderbilt. In the Gilded Age, the family- and charity-focused Alice was considered less ostentatious than her social-climbing sister-in-law, Alva Vanderbilt. […]

  11. This ‘offensive’ 1873 portrait of the Vanderbilts reveals their place in Gilded Age society | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] soon be all over the society pages. One of his nine kids was W. K. Vanderbilt—future husband of social climbing Alva Vanderbilt, whose desperation to break into old money society culminated in her 1883 infamous fancy dress […]

  12. A Gilded Age chateau on Madison Avenue, and the old-money owner who never moved in | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Avenue and 53rd Street: the William K. Vanderbilt mansion—called “petite chateau” by Alva Vanderbilt, W.K.’s social-climbing wife. A year later, W.K.’s brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt, built […]

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