The Vanderbilt name is still prominent to this day. So it may surprise you that, at one point in the 1800s, the Vanderbilts were outcasts in high society, as they were a part of the nouveau riche thanks to their success in railroads and shipping.

So how did the Vanderbilts become one of the most important families in New York City? Well, Alva Erskine Smith married into the family.

Using her husband’s wealth, the new Mrs. Vanderbilt built prominent family homes in the city and in Newport, launched her own Opera House and threw lavish balls. But she didn’t just access New York’s stuffy society. She conquered it, taking over for Mrs. Astor—alongside fellow socialites Mamie Fish and Theresa Fair Oelrichs—upon her death.

Further proving she wasn’t afraid of change, Alva eventually divorced Mr. William K. Vanderbilt and remarried family friend Oliver Belmont. She was also an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement.

Though Alva Vanderbilt is just a name mentioned in The Gilded Age, she clearly inspired the character Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), who attempts to use her immense wealth to break into high society.

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