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CONNECTIONS: Women of ‘The Buccaneers’

Oscar Wilde defined it as “A time when single women seek husbands and married women hide from their husbands.”

Maria Consuelo Yznaga—not a household name. Of her, Wikipedia writes, “In her teenage years, Consuelo became known on New York‘s social scene as one of the group called the Buccaneers.”

There you are: a woman you’ve never heard of with an unfamiliar sobriquet. An unembellished dictionary definition of buccaneer is “a pirate or an unscrupulous adventurer especially in business or politics.” My, my, what could a girl “in her teenage years” do to earn that nickname?

Consuelo was born in New York City in 1853. Her mother was American and her father was Cuban. His money was probably older than the Astors; nonetheless, Grand Dame Caroline Schermerhorn Astor kept the Yznagas out of New York society. Why? Well, the father was, you know, foreign, and the mother was the daughter of a steamboat captain. They were not quite-quite, nor were her next-door-neighbors the Smiths. The Smith pedigree was acceptable and their money was old enough but, sadly, they lost it all. When the season opened in October with the Astor ball, neither household received an invitation.

What was the season? Oscar Wilde defined it as “A time when single women seek husbands and married women hide from their husbands.”

It is the first part of that definition that mattered to Consuelo and her sister. They wanted to marry well, but how if they were socially excluded? How was Alva Smith? The girls bonded. The sisters had money but no prospects; Alva had no money and no prospects. It was 1870—the girls were 17—it was the year Edith Wharton selected for the opening of her book “The Buccaneers.”

In it, Wharton introduces two sisters, Nan and Jinny St. George. They are nouveau riche and therefore excluded. Nan’s governess, Laura, suggests the British aristocracy as a possible source of husbands. The British season is not so discriminating—lords and dukes, earls and marquesses appreciate all money, however new. Returning to New York with titles, the girls anticipate immediate social acceptance.

In the fall of 1875, Consuelo met George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville. On May 22, 1876, regardless of his reputation as “rakish and dissolute,” she married him. The 1,200 wedding guests stopped and snarled traffic on Broadway for hours.

Her husband soon became the Duke of Manchester. They lived on the ducal estate in County ArmaghIreland. They had a son and twin daughters. The couple was part of the Prince of Wales’ “Marlborough House Set.” Consuelo interested herself in charity work, and also used her social position to arrange other transatlantic marriages for other “buccaneers.”

It is also said that she had a hand in introducing Alva Smith to her husband “Willie K.,” that is, William Kissam Vanderbilt, soon to be one of the richest men in America, if not the world. Later, when Consuelo found that Alva and Willie were still being blocked from society by Mrs. Astor, she helped Alva arrange the Fifth Avenue housewarming party. She attended and brought the Prince of Wales. Alva had no more problems with social acceptance after that.

Shortly before her death in 1909, Consuelo entertained Edward VII and Nicholas II, czar of Russia. She left an estate of approximately $69 million in today’s dollars. She left a bracelet to her friend Queen Alexandra, and the “Manchester Tiara,” created for the duchess by Cartier, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her sister, Naticia, married Sir John Pepys Lister-Kaye, 3rd Baronet. Her brother married Jennie Smith, sister of Alva. Alva named her daughter Consuelo, and Consuelo also married a duke. Evidently, being a buccaneer was successful.

In the book, the outcomes for the buccaneers are mixed. It is a book of manners and is Wharton’s usual clear-eyed view of society as well as a sharp-tongued commentary on morals. We cannot be sure how she would resolve or judge the lives she created, as she died before finishing the novel. It was published in 1938 as an unfinished novel. What we do know is that Wharton worked from life and used living models. We can be confident that Consuelo, her sister and their true stories figured into the plot of “The Buccaneers.”


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