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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

A Visit with Gertrude Vanderbilt

In the time period of my Gilded Newport Mysteries, wealthy women--those who belonged to the elite social group called The 400--were living in the proverbial Gilded Cage. Their lives were defined mostly by social events, exquisite clothing, the size of their mansions, and seeing that their children married well. This led to some fierce competition among them. They were constantly vying to be the best, the most famous, the most fashionable, etc. Shallow as it all sounds, this competition, in my opinion, wasn't so much fueled by selfish concerns as it was by a need to find an outlet for their ambitions and creativity. Such women were often well-educated, had traveled the world, and been exposed to some of the world's greatest art and literature, but while their husbands went off to work every day to run businesses and industries that were changing America and bringing it into the modern age, women were still consigned to home and family.

As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth, this began to change. Women found themselves no longer content to find fulfillment secondhand through their husbands' achievements. Why? Because they were strong, intelligent, ambitious individuals in their own right, and they had talents of their own to offer the world. We know Alva Vanderbilt Belmont became a leader in the Suffragette movement. Sisters Maude and Edith Wetmore (Chateau sur Mer) also became active in politics and supported women's rights. Edith Phelps Stokes (of the famous John Singer Sargent portrait of her and her husband where she took center stage in informal clothing), understood the importance of early childhood education and used her position in society to bring mandatory kindergarten into the public school system.

Then there is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In Murder at the Breakers we see her as a slightly awkward, introverted young lady who doesn't particularly like being the center of attention. This is true, according to what I've read. Yet after marrying Harry Payne Whitney, Gertrude found herself at loose ends and wanting more out of life than hosting parties. She loved art, and what began as a hobby (or so her husband believed), became her life's passion. Below are examples of her sculptures, many of which commemorate the soldiers of WWI. Each one began as a drawing, then was modeled in clay, and finally cast into bronze or stone. I saw them on a recent trip to the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach.

Above is a tribute to the oceanliner Lusitania, which was sunk by the Germans in 1916. Her brother, Alfred, died as a result.

This is Gertrude's Red Cross uniform. During the war, she established a surgical hospital closer to the front so that seriously wounded soldiers wouldn't have to be transported all the way to Paris to be treated.

Finally, below, a favorite painting of mine which was included in the exhibit, by Robert Henri, 1916. I love how confident Gertrude is here, and that she is wearing pants, something women generally didn't do at that time.

Gertrude went on to found the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. It's gratifying that many of the women I write about (and fictionalize) in my mysteries went on to become people I admire. One of the joys of writing the series is learning about each family, and the women of that family, and discovering who they were beyond the gilt and glamour of the Gilded Age.

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