Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a great grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, is best known for going down with the ship. Not the RMS Titanic — that iceberg accident happened in 1912 — but three years later, on the RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by a German U-boat. It was in many ways a view the prelude to war, the aggression against a civilian ship that forced Woodrow Wilson — after he won re-election on a platform, “He kept us out of war” — to reassess U.S. entry in World War I.
Unable to swim, a man of leisure whom the newspapers referred to as “a sportsman,” Alfred gave his life vest to a mother with an infant in her arms, part of the chivalry drilled in to every good “gentlemen,” The Law of the Sea, women and children first.
Alfred had married Ellen “Elsie” French in a society wedding in 1901, and she soon bore him a son.
But within seven years, Elsie filed for divorce after she discovered that Alfred had been conducting an affair with Agnes O’Brien Ruíz, the wife of the Cuban attaché in Washington, D.C. After this news reached the newspapers, Agnes killed herself.
The divorce set off what the New York Times described as a “social war at Newport,” making for “an interesting rivalry between the two sets during the Summer here and during the Winter in New York.” The notoriety of “the divorcing Frenches,” or as one newspaper put it, “The Family Where Marriage Is Always a Failure,” no doubt eased the feud.
After settlement — Elsie reportedly won a settlement of $10 million, which translates into about $237 million today — Elsie French Vanderbilt became one of Newport’s largest taxpayers. In 1915, two years after a federal income tax was enacted, this once avid anti-suffragist endorsed municipal suffrage for women, seeking a voice in issues that affected her pocketbook.
Not all the activists I write about in my new book, Gilded Suffragists, were motivated by politics. A few, like Elsie, were converted by their tax bills.