Consuelo Vanderbilt Earl, heiress, dog breeder and link to golden age, dies at 107

February 25, 2011

Consuelo Vanderbilt Earl, a great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt and an heiress to the family’s railroad fortune who became a notable breeder of Skye and silky terriers, died Feb. 21 at her home in Ridgefield, Conn.

At 107, she was among the last surviving links to an era when the Vanderbilts personified the opulence and grandeur of the country’s gilded elite. No cause of death was reported.

Mrs. Earl was a sculptor and world traveler who, in her youth, attracted the attention of many socially prominent bachelors. Her first of four marriages merited front-page news in major newspapers, and her life was a whirl of bold-type activity in the highest echelons of American society for decades.

Born Nov. 24, 1903, she was the product of a marriage that united two of country’s richest families at the turn of the 20th century.

Her father, William Kassam Vanderbilt II, was president of the New York Central Railroad and a renowned yachtsman and race-car driver. In 1904, he set the one-mile land-speed record by clocking 92.3 mph in a 90-horsepower Mercedes at Daytona Beach, Fla. His sister, and Mrs. Earl’s namesake, was the onetime Duchess of Marlborough.

Her mother, Virginia Fair, was a daughter of U.S. Sen. James G. Fair of Nevada, who made his fortune as a part-owner of the Comstock Lode silver mine.

Mrs. Earl’s parents, who had been separated for much of her life, divorced in 1927.

“Consie” Vanderbilt, as she was sometimes called, grew up at her family’s home on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In the mid-1930s, she reportedly had a personal annual income of $1 million and spent the summers at her family’s estate on Long Island, known as the Eagle’s Nest, and in Newport, R.I. She often sailed with her father on his 164-foot yacht, Alva, named for his mother.

Her first marriage, to Earl E.T. Smith, on Jan. 7, 1926, received front-page coverage in The Washington Post and the New York Times. Smith was a Yale University student, polo player and champion boxer who served as U.S. ambassador to Cuba from 1957 to 1959.

The Post account called the nuptials, at the bride’s home in Manhattan, “almost medieval.”

“In setting and pageantry it was a gothic and renaissance wedding,” The Post story concluded, noting that 1,000 onlookers had milled about the sidewalk in front of the Vanderbilt residence, which was overflowing with lilies and orchids.

After they divorced in 1935, she was married the next year to Henry Gassaway Davis III, the heir to a coal fortune. He was recently divorced from her cousin, Grace Vanderbilt.

The wedding took place in the Alva’s oak-paneled salon; the yacht was moored at the Vanderbilt private island in Biscayne Bay off Miami Beach.

That marriage ended in divorce in 1940, and she took the name Consuelo Vanderbilt Fair before marrying William John Warburton in 1941. The Warburtons divorced in 1946.

Her final husband was N. Clarkson Earl Jr., an executive with the Howard Johnson and Childs restaurant chains, who became president of Louis Sherry, an ice cream and candy manufacturer. He died in 1969 after 18 years of marriage.

A daughter from her first marriage, Iris Christ, died in 2006. Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Virginia Consuelo Smith Burke of Palm Beach, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Earl, a lifelong owner and breeder of terriers, helped the silky terrier breed gain official recognition from the American Kennel Club in 1959.

shapirot@washpost.com

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
Most Read Local