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Gladwell weaves captivating tale of an underdog

Malcolm Gladwell's story about Alva Belmont illustrated his theme of the "underdog." Photo: Steve Morse


Published November 14, 2013

“The lesson of that triumph applies as equally in our day as it did in hers, and that is, if you deny people legitimacy, they will one day, by one means or another, come back and defeat you.”
Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and best-selling author, mesmerized a crowd at Alumni Arena last night with a beautiful story about a woman named Alva Belmont.

The purpose of his hourlong tale, which recounted Belmont's extraordinary life, was to illuminate the motivations that drive underdogs — people who don’t have any obvious advantages who still decide to put up a fight.

Gladwell, in glasses, a bright blue shirt and dark blazer, captivated the audience as only a master storyteller could. As the third presenter in UB’s 27th Annual Distinguished Speakers Series, he spoke in tones both hushed and emphatic, his voice falling, rising and pausing at all the right moments to create suspense and intrigue.

As a writer, Gladwell is known for nonfiction works that turn to science to challenge common wisdom about why people behave the way they do and why they succeed. His books include “Blink,” which examines how first impressions and gut judgments can help people make good decisions, and “The Tipping Point,” which explores how trends and social behaviors take flight and go viral.

The latter title was offered for free to UB students, faculty and staff this year through the UB Reads program, which encourages the university community to share in reading a common book each year.

Gladwell's critics say he exaggerates the effect that certain phenomena and scientific studies have on the way people and society behave. But his talk at UB provided a taste of why readers have found his essays and insights to be so powerful.

Like his written best-sellers, Gladwell’s story about Belmont invited his audience to rethink assumptions and pick apart intellectual theories. His chosen theme — the underdog — is also the topic of his newest book, “David and Goliath.”

Alva, as Gladwell referred to Belmont, was born as Alva Smith in Mobile, Ala., in the mid-19th century before moving with her family to New York City as a child.

Little Alva was a “force of nature,” Gladwell said: domineering and controlling, with a keen desire to get ahead in life. As she grew older, she turned her mind to landing a wealthy and handsome husband.

The man she picked was Willy Vanderbilt, “grandson of the richest man in the world,” and after their marriage, she set out to become “the most conspicuous consumer in the history of conspicuous consumption,” Gladwell said.

Alva purchased 800 acres of Long Island property and had a mansion built on it. She bought an entire city block in Manhattan and commissioned a faux French chateau worth $3 million — in 1890 dollars — and stuffed it full of treasures. Other luxuries included the world’s largest yacht, which was so huge that a foreign navy once fired at it thinking it was a military cruiser, and a Rhode Island “cottage” with a facade of white, Italian marble.

When Alva and Willy’s daughter, Consuelo, fell in love with a New York socialite named Winthrop Rutherfurd, Alva forced Consuelo to marry Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, also known as “Sunny” Marlborough, instead.

After the wedding, Gladwell said, Alva had a tear in her eye: “The little girl from Mobile, Ala., is now the mother of a duchess.”

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Alva became a radical, a leader in the suffrage movement that won women the right to vote in 1920.

“It would be as if one of the Kardashian sisters were to pull up stakes and move to the Middle East and join Hamas,” Gladwell told a laughing audience. “It’s not something that we would consider expected, should we say?”

So why did Alva do what she did?

Gladwell thinks the answer lies in a theory of the underdog called “legitimacy.”

One common explanation for why people defy authority is deterrence: When the benefit of breaking a law or societal norm exceeds the cost, that’s when order breaks down. By making punishments extreme, you can keep the streets quiet.

But this line of thinking isn’t quite right because many historical case studies contradict it, Gladwell said.

A competing theory — one that aligns with past events — is legitimacy, he said. Legitimacy has three prongs: It says people obey authority when they feel that all groups in society are treated fairly and equally, that they can speak up and be heard when wronged, and that the laws and rules are stable and won’t change in rapid, arbitrary ways.

Look at Alva’s life, and you see these ideas at play, Gladwell said.

After Consuelo’s wedding, “When that carriage pulls away and that tear comes to Alva’s cheek, that’s not a tear of triumph,” Gladwell said. “That is a moment of tragedy.”

Alva had made an incredibly difficult decision. By forcing Conseulo to marry the duke, Alva alienated a daughter she loved.

Alva did it, Gladwell said, to spare Consuelo from leading the existence of a high-society, New York City wife: vapid and tedious.

These women were expected to stay home and run the household. They could not work or get an education or have a public life. Their husbands often cheated. Willy Vanderbilt, for one, was a philanderer with a wandering eye.

The system wasn’t fair. Alva wasn’t respected. She was desperately unhappy, but there was no one to whom she could air her complaints, who could help her.

And so, beneath the boats and homes and riches, Alva’s “life is anywhere but grand,” Gladwell said. “She occupies an incredibly narrow and oppressive world.”

Brilliant, ambitious and driven, Alva would have been an entrepreneur or run for public office today, Gladwell said. But at the turn of the 20th century, these were not options, so she built enormous houses because that’s all she could do. She needed a challenge.

With time, her unhappiness bred a radical mind. She demanded a divorce and got one, a move that shocked her peers and made her an outcast among old friends. In 1896, she married Oliver Belmont, a New York socialite who served a single term in Congress. He died in 1908.

Later, inspired by strong-minded women including her daughter, Alva took her protest further and became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

She channeled her money and talent into winning women the right to vote. She rented office space on Fifth Avenue so activists could move their headquarters to Manhattan from a small town in Ohio. She planned or participated in events like marches and fundraisers. She saw all women as women united a cause, so she invited black suffragettes to join her, and they did.

And, in 1920, the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed, granting women the right to vote.

“The lesson of that triumph applies as equally in our day as it did in hers, and that is, if you deny people legitimacy, they will one day, by one means or another, come back and defeat you,” Gladwell said to a hushed audience.