Grace Wilson Vanderbilt
Photograph taken by Hirsh
New York journal and advertiser. (New York, NY), Oct. 27 1899. https://www.loc.gov/item/sn83030180/1899-10-27/ed-1/.
Photograph taken by Hirsh
Grace Wilson, sister of Richard T. Wilson, who owned the spectacular mansion that stood in the village green behind you, reigned as queen of early 20th century society. However, it was her romance with a Vanderbilt that ensured her celebrity status and a storyline worthy of a modern soap opera...
It’s May 1895. Twenty-two-year-old Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III and 25 year old Grace Wilson, the belle of New York society, arrive in Newport, RI for the summer social season. Before long, the shy and serious Neily and the vivacious Grace are an “item.”
Grace Wilson clearly stood atop high society even though her fortune could not match the fabulous wealth of the Vanderbilt’s. Her sister, May, married Ogden Goelet, one of the richest men in the world; her brother, Marshall, married Carrie Astor, heiress to the Astor fortune; her sister, Belle, married British aristocracy and was now Lady Herbert; her mother was a widely admired doyen of the cultured class; and her brother, Richard was one of New York’s most eligible bachelors.
Indeed, Grace and Neily seemed an ideal match, but the Vanderbilts did not approve.
Rumor had it that Grace had been involved with Neily’s older brother Bill, who died of typhoid while in college. Perhaps the Vanderbilts believed she was determined to get the Vanderbilt fortune one way or another, and set her sights on Neily after Bill died. Maybe it was Grace’s friendship with the Prince of Wales, a notorious playboy, who made the Vanderbilts question her virtue. Or perhaps it was simply that Grace was older than Neily, and had one broken engagement –two factors they would see as inappropriate for their sheltered son.
To separate the two, the Vanderbilts sent Neily to Europe for an extended visit at the end of the summer. Much to their horror, Grace arrived soon after, where removed from the Vanderbilt’s censure, she and Neily rekindled their romance. By the following spring, Neily returned to New York determined to marry Grace. The Vanderbilts were incensed. Neily’s father went so far as to publish a statement opposing their engagement.
The media ate it up. Readers across the country devoured regular updates on the “Romance of the Decade” about a young man willing to forsake millions to marry the woman he loved.
Neily set their wedding date for June 18, 1896. Fearful of being ostracized by the Vanderbilts, guests fled the city so that they could not attend. One of the ushers sailed for Europe just two days before the ceremony. Like modern day paparazzi, reporters staked out the Wilson mansion, where the wedding was to be held, waiting for love to triumph...or fail miserably. The day before the wedding they had their story: Neily lay sick in bed with rheumatism and canceled the ceremony.
A few weeks later, Neily’s father suffered a stroke, brought on, his family believed, by Neily’s engagement. Now Neily had to endure both his family’s censure and the guilt of causing his father’s illness. However, the Vanderbilts underestimated their son’s resolve. In early August, Neily moved out of the Vanderbilt mansion, and married Grace at her family’s home in a ceremony attended only by the bride’s family and a single friend. Love triumphed after all.
Sadly, Neily never reconciled with his father who left the family fortune to Neily’s younger brother, Alfred. But Alfred (who later drowned in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania after giving up his life vest to save a young mother) helped Neily by giving him $6 million. The Vanderbilt money, a sizable allowance from the Wilsons, and Grace’s extraordinary charm, soon made the young couple A-Listers among the rich and famous of American society.
Today, the Grace Palmetto Bluff’s antique, 1913 motor yacht, serves as tribute to Grace Wilson whose love affair with a Vanderbilt captured the imagination of America more than 100 years ago.
Would you give up millions of dollars to marry the one you love? Would you shun your best friend's wedding because you were afraid of displeasing his parents? If your father disinherited your brother, and left his entire fortune to you, would you give your brother millions out of your inheritance? Such were the dramatic twists and turns that are a part of Grace Wilson Vanderbilt's story. But first walk over to the chapel to hear this story about the Gilded Age "Romance of The Century." After all, it's a love story and what better place to hear it, than a wedding chapel.