Alva Belmont Biography

Philanthropist, Activist, Women's Rights Activist (1853–1933)
Alva Belmont was a wealthy socialite who used her fortune to advance the women's rights movement of the early 1900s.


Alva Belmont was born on January 17, 1853, in Mobile, Alabama. She was educated in France, and settled in New York City where she married William K. Vanderbilt. Her second husband was Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and after his death in 1908, Belmont suddenly devoted herself and her fortune to the struggle for women's suffrage and rights. She died on January 26, 1933, in Paris, France.

Early Life

Born Alva Ertskin Smith on January 17, 1853, in Mobile, Alabama, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont used her wealth and social standing to help advance the women's rights movement of the early 1900s. She was the daughter of an affluent cotton broker. Belmont was educated in France, where her family moved after the Civil War.

In the early 1870s, Belmont returned to the United States with her mother and sisters. The family settled in New York City. In 1875 she married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of transportation tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Belmont immediately set about to advance her and her husband's status by commissioning Richard Morris Hunt to design their mansion on Fifth Avenue.

New York Socialite

While extremely wealthy, Belmont and her husband had been excluded from the famed New York social register known as the Four Hundred. Caroline Astor, the wife of William B. Astor, refused to acknowledge Belmont and her husband for years. Belmont finally won her place in society with a legendary costume ball in 1883. She invited all of New York's elite to the except for Mr. and Mrs. Astor on the grounds that Mrs. Astor had never paid her a visit. Mrs. Astor soon came calling, and Belmont quickly secured her place as a leading lady in the cream of New York society.

Belmont once again turned to Richard Morris Hunt for his architectural expertise. Known as Marble House, Belmont's new summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The opulent estate became the setting for numerous social events.

While she lived in splendor, Belmont was unhappily married. She decided to divorce her husband in 1895 on grounds of his adultery. As part of their divorce settlement, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was awarded a generous annual income as well as their Newport "cottage" Marble House. She is arranged the marriage of her daughter, Consuelo, to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. The next year she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (the son of August Belmont and Matthew Perry's daughter).

Women's Rights Activist

After her husband's death in 1908, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont suddenly put herself and fortune at the service of the struggle for women's suffrage and rights. he founded the Political Equality Association in New York City the following year. The group was affliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Also in 1909, Belmont traveled to England where she attended suffrage rallies there and was inspired by work of such ardent suffragists as Emmeline Pankhurst. Belmont embraced the use of more militant tactics in the fight to win the vote at home. In 1914, she left the NAWSA and focused her efforts on the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, founded by Alice Paul. Belmont served on the organization's board and allowed it to use Marble House for events as a headquarters for a time. The union later became known as the National Women's Party.

After American women won the constitutional right to vote in 1920, Belmont took over the leadership of the NWP. She herself reportedly refused to vote until a woman candidate was in the running for president. With her great wealth, Belmont helped the NWP established a new headquarters in Washington, D.C. She also supported such causes as the Women's Trade Union League, and even contributed to keeping the Masses, the socialist magazine, from going bankrupt.

Final Years

By the mid-1920s, Belmont spent most of her time in France. She had several residences there, including a large estate known as Château d'Augerville-la-Rivière, which she restored. In her later years, Belmont became more focused on women's rights on an international scale. She created the International Feminist Committee.

Belmont suffered a stroke in May of 1932. More health problems surfaced later that year. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont died on January 26, 1933, in Paris, France. Her body was returned to New York for burial. At her funeral, female pallbearers carried her coffin into the service. She left instructions for a simple banner reading "Failure Is Impossible" to be draped across the coffin. Roughly 1,500 mourners turned out to say good-bye to one of the greatest patrons of the women's rights movement. Although her intrusive and aristocratic manner antagonized some of the women's rights leaders of the time, Belmont will always be remembered for her dedication to the fight for women's equality.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!