Depending on your age, the Vanderbilt you most associate with the name may be different. But I bet that if it’s not Anderson Cooper, it may be his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, that comes to mind. And if you’re of the age where you have millennials as grandkids, you may even remember the last of the gilded days, where the New York elite still had grand parties in their even more grand mansions. In that case, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, one of the last (if not THE last) to host such gatherings, may just be the Vanderbilt in your mind’s eye.
Grace, one of the “Marrying Wilsons” siblings, was the youngest child of New York banker Richard Thornton Wilson. Her sister Mary married Ogden Goelet (their daughter Mary Ogden Innes-Ker married a duke and we discussed her jewelry collection a few weeks ago) and her sister Belle married Sir Michael Henry Herbert. And both brothers married women in the famous Astor family. We can see how they got their moniker!
Grace had her sights on Cornelius Vanderbilt III (“Niely”) and the feeling was mutual. However, Niely’s father, Corneilius Vanderbilt II was dead-set against the union and threatened to disown Niely if he married Miss. Wilson. The two young lovers gambled that his father wasn’t serious in his threat and eloped in 1896. Cornelius II stuck by his word and Niely and Grace were out, a rift that lasted for many years.
That didn’t keep the couple from living a lifestyle that most of the rest of us would call lavish. There were grand homes for the summer in Newport (albeit rented), a mansion on 5th Avenue in New York, and a yacht that would be the envy of most sailors. The couple traveled often to Europe, befriending many royals, including Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Crown Prince Olav of Norway and every British monarch since Queen Victoria.
Grace never once missed an opening night of the New York Opera (something that was one of THE events of the season each year for the elite set). She would be decked out head to toe in her finest wearing a combination of tiaras, stomacher brooches, necklaces and furs. She was often written up in the society pages, detailing that evening’s outfit.
And the parties at their home on 5th….. oh the parties! Grace was one of the last of her era to throw such lavish events. Their grand ballroom didn’t sit idle for long, as there was usually a monthly party of some sort. But the party ended when Grace passed away in January of 1953, eleven years after her beloved Niely had gone on to the next life. But the jewels remain for us to use as a conduit to dream of a life lived large. Sleep well, sweet Grace.