Alva Vanderbilt’s definition of success

Alva Vanderbilt thought that she was a very successful woman.

Alva always had great ambitions for herself, explained Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath, recently in an Arts & Letters Live presentation in Dallas.

She managed to marry William Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius, in 1875. However, even though the Vanderbilts were among the richest people in the world, they were not accepted in the best of New York society.

When Alva decided to break into that exclusive club, she became “the most conspicuous consumer among conspicuous consumers,” Gladwell says. She built a $3 million mansion on Fifth Avenue. That French chateau would be worth about $300 million today and was “an exercise in real estate pornography.”

In 1883, according to New York legend, Alva knew she had bought her acceptance into high society. That was the year she planned an opulent masquerade ball for 1,200 people and Lina Astor, wife of William B. Astor, called to ask for an invitation for her daughter Caroline.

Alva thought that she had reached the pinnacle of success when she married her daughter Consuelo to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, even though her 18-year-old daughter wept before the wedding because she was in love with another man.

Was Alva a success? Fayteen and I talk frequently about success—and about how whether or not you succeed depends a great deal on how you define success.

As she grew older, Alva changed her definition of success and became a leading suffragette. She opened her houses and her purse to feminists and was elected president of the National Women’s Party in 1921. She remained the organization’s president for the rest of her life.

She also became a successful architectural designer and was one of the first women elected to the American Institute of Architects.

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