Alabama Houses recently shared the fascinating history behind the Mobile property known as the Murray Forbes Smith House:
This house was completed in 1851 for Murray Forbes Smith, and his wife Phoebe Ann Desha. The house was demolished in 1930 and is at present the site of Government Plaza on Government Street. Despite the house being known in its heyday for playing host to expensive but “unpopular” parties thrown by its owners, it is more well known as the childhood home of the couple’s daughter Alva Smith— arguably the most famous social climber in history.
On the heels of the season two finale of HBO’s Julian Fellowes glittering drama, The Gilded Age, many were left wondering if we had been finally introduced to the late 19th century institution of the American dollar princesses. As American infrastructure barons thrived, they essentially auctioned their daughters to the highest bidders in Europe to fund crumbling ancestral nobility while securing titles for their descendants. The characters of Bertha Russell and Gladys Russell are loosely based on Alva and her eldest daughter, Conseulo.
After moving to New York City from Mobile in 1859, the Smiths spent summers in Newport and Alva attended a private boarding school in France. Eventually, she was introduced to William Kissam Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who she married in 1875. Alva was determined to bring the Vanderbilt family the social status she felt it deserved. The couple had a lavish home the size of a city block built on Fifth Avenue, quarreled with Caroline Astor—the reigning queen of New York’s high society at the time—and were even instrumental in founding the Metropolitan Opera after being denied a box at the Academy of Music.
Eventually, Alva also maneuvered her daughter Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, though it was ultimately annulled.
Photos: Murray Forbes House, the house’s gates photographed as a part of HABS in 1936, Alva Smith Vanderbilt at her famous ball in 1883, the Vanderbilt’s Petit Chateau on Fifth Avenue, Conseulo Vanderbilt about 1905.