A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

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,

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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.

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  • William Morrow
  • Hardcover
  • February 2019
  • 368 Pages
  • 9780062884299

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About Karen Harper

Karen Harper is the author of American DuchessNew York Times and USA Today bestselling author Karen Harper is a former Ohio State University instructor and high school English teacher. Published since 1982, she writes contemporary suspense and historical novels about real British women. Two of her recent Tudor-era books were bestsellers in the UK and Russia. Harper won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for Dark Angel, and her novel Shattered Secrets was judged one of the best books of the year by Suspense Magazine.


“This is a fascinating story about an extraordinary woman.” – Gill Paul, bestselling author of The Secret Wife

“This absorbing and evocative tale is an excellent reminder of what women have long sacrificed over the centuries for family honor and duty, and how they navigated their circumstances and influence to change the world for the better.” – Heather Webb, international bestselling author of Last Christmas in Paris


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.