He was born shortly after George Washington began his second term as President. When he died a decade after the Civil War, he was the richest man the new nation had ever seen. His fortune of $100 million “controlled one of every twenty American dollars in circulation at that time.” Estimates of its equivalent value today would place it upwards of $100 billion. The favored son to whom he left the bulk of his millions doubled the family’s holdings. They controlled the all-important railroad networks that linked New York City with the Midwest. It was a monopoly as great as any ever amassed in American history. And the wealth it generated was to finance the most extreme examples of Gilded Age excess.
Wealth squandered through the generations
The family’s founder “possessed a genius and a mania for making money, but his obsession with material wealth would border on the pathological, and the pathology born of that wealth would go on to infect each successive generation in different ways.” By the middle of the next century, the three generations that followed him—”the original new-money arrivistes”—had squandered the wealth on palatial homes, magnificent yachts, stables of race horses, and other indulgences of every imaginable sort. This was Gilded Age excess to an extreme. The family’s fortune was no more. And when “the last Vanderbilt” died at the age of ninety-five in 2016, the family, too, had passed into the mists of history.
An offspring of the family tells the tale
This is the story so beautifully told in Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper and novelist Katherine Howe. Cooper is a direct descendent of the man who started it all, “the Commodore,” Cornelius Vanderbilt. And his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, was “the last Vanderbilt.” Her photo, and his as a baby, appear on the book’s cover.
Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe (2021) 336 pages ★★★★☆
Gilded Age excess through the generations
Over the century during which the sprawling Vanderbilt family held the nation’s attention, scores of people bore the name. In this short history, the authors judiciously chose to focus on a handful of the Vanderbilts whose lives have been at the same time both more eventful and more emblematic of the family’s declining fortunes.
“Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) built one of the nation’s legendary fortunes, first as a steamboat entrepreneur and later through his ownership of a vast network of railroads that spanned the Northeast, Midwest, and Middle Atlantic. He was unlettered and universally considered boorish, often treating those around him with contempt, including his thirteen children. He was known to take a whip to his namesake son, Cornelius, for the “weakness” he showed as an epileptic.
William (“Bllly”) Vanderbilt (1821-85), the Commodore’s eldest son, survived the abuse he suffered as a child—his father called him “the blockhead”—and proved himself to be a brilliant businessman. He took control of the New York Central Railroad on his father’s death in 1877 and doubled the family’s fortune in the eight years that elapsed before his own death. He passed the bulk of his estate to his two sons, Cornelius II and William. Each, in his own way, acted out the family’s impulse to indulge in Gilded Age excess.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-99) headed the family in its third generation. He was the Commodore’s favorite grandson for the strong work ethic he consistently demonstrated. He took command of the family empire on the death of his father and remained at the helm until 1896, when ill health forced him to pull back.
William Kissam (“Willie”) Vanderbilt (1849-1920) , Cornie’s younger brother, ascended to the head of the Vanderbilt family on his brother’s death in 1899. He devoted himself to raising race horses and was one of the founders of The Jockey Club. He was, in a word, a playboy. Willie may have been better known to the public as Alva Vanderbilt’s husband.
Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933) rivaled Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908) as the doyenne of The Four Hundred at the peak of New York society. Alva was the wife of Willie Vanderbilt. She was a domestic tyrant who reigned over her household with fear. For example, she forced her daughter Consuelo into an unhappy marriage with the Duke of Marlborough (a close friend of his first cousin Winston Churchill). Alva presided over New York society from palatial homes in the City and in Newport, Rhode Island, distinguishing herself by spending enormous sums of money on lavish balls and other headline-grabbing parties. Later in life, she took up the cause of women’s suffrage, funding much of the action in New York, and supporting soup kitchens and other efforts to support the poor.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
A son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and thus a member of the family’s fourth generation, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1877-1915) was a passenger on the RMS Lusitania, going to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association and traveling with his valet. He went down with 1,100 others on May 7, 1915, when the Germans torpedoed the ship. Alfred was a sportsman, and he particularly enjoyed fox hunting and coaching. He spent a great deal of money before his untimely death, the very personification of Gilded Age excess.
Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) may be best remembered for the blue jeans that prominently bore her name. She was an artist and fashion designer as well as a socialite. Her father was Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880-1925) of the third generation, the youngest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. He gambled away the millions left to him and died of cirrhosis of the liver when Gloria was eighteen months old. In turn, she squandered the millions left to her in trust by her grandparents. She made millions more from her creations but died with little evidence of the fortune, leaving her son, Anderson Cooper, with less than $1.5 million. He characterizes her as “the last Vanderbilt.” In her long life, she married four times, most notably to orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, film director Sidney Lumet, and author and screenwriter Wyatt Cooper.
Tracing the family’s history through pivotal events
Cooper and Howe tell their story in twelve chapters, each of which revolves around a single significant event. The book opens at the Commodore’s deathbed with reflections on his often tumultuous relations with the large family that surrounded him. Other key events include:
- Alva Vanderbilt’s over-the-top 1883 ball that “out-Astored Mrs. Astor”
- The tragic sinking of the Lusitania
- “The biggest divorce case that America has ever known” when Alva ended her marriage with Willie
- The 1934 America’s Cup yacht race in which Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, one of Willie’s sons, captained the US entrant
- Truman Capote‘s Black and White Ball in 1966
It’s an adroit way to bring focus to a story that otherwise might well have lurched out of control.
Comparing yesterday’s fortunes with today’s
Writers who explore the past face a challenge when describing the size of yesterday’s fortunes. As I write today, Forbes tells us, two Americans (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) each possess wealth estimated to total more than $200 billion. (Musk’s is close to $300 billion.) Seven others follow them with fortunes greater than $100 billion. Commodore Vanderbilt’s $100 million—one thousand times less—seems paltry by comparison. Yet Cooper and Howe do what authors have been taught to do. They refer to the inflation in the dollar’s value. For example, that $100 million in 1876 would be $2.6 billion today if we simply factor in the inflation. Because one dollar in 1876 would now be “worth” $25.76.
Inflation alone doesn’t tell the story
But inflation alone doesn’t tell the story. Economics isn’t just about numbers. Nobody with $2.6 billion today could possibly do what Commodore Vanderbilt and his immediate successors could do with their fortunes. The New York Central Railroad system they commanded represented a monopoly as surely as do Amazon and Google today. Their “paltry” $100 or $200 million enabled them to build vast palaces stuffed with priceless art and artifacts appropriated from the royal homes of Europe. Even $2.6 billion wouldn’t suffice to finance such conspicuous consumption in 2021. Although Anderson and Howe don’t tell the tale, the men at the head of the family bought and sold legions of politicians to protect their interests. In short, the Vanderbilts of the nineteenth century could do pretty much anything they ever chose to do. They were American royalty.
Comparing dollars to dollars is misleading
Comparing nineteenth-century wealth with today’s by citing inflation is misleading. Inflation today is most commonly measured by the Consumer Price Index. As the Brookings Institute explains, “The CPI is constructed each month using 80,000 items in a fixed basket of goods and services representing what Americans buy in their everyday lives—from gasoline at the pump and apples at the grocery store to cable TV fees and doctor visits.” How many of those 80,000 items were available in 1876? Only a tiny fraction, I would guess. And in 1876 there weren’t even anything close to 80,000 consumer items to be had anywhere in America.
Just walk the lanes of a supermarket to get an idea of what I mean. The automobile, which as much as anything is the centerpiece of the American economy, didn’t represent even a dream in its inventors’ minds in 1876. The seemingly small fortunes of the Vanderbilts in the nineteenth century elevated them as far above the rest of us as are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos today.
About the authors
Anderson Cooper (1967-) has anchored his eponymous news program on CNN since 2003 and serves as a correspondent for 60 Minutes on CBS News. He is a great-great-great grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of the fabled family’s fortunes. Cooper is a graduate of Yale University. He came out as gay in 2012 and remains the most prominent openly gay American journalist. Vanderbilt is his third book.
Katherine Howe (1977-) is the author of five novels and one other nonfiction book in addition to Vanderbilt. She specializes in historical novels. Howe holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and philosophy from Columbia University and a master’s in New England Studies from Boston University. She teaches at Cornell University. Her family settled in Massachusetts in the 1620s. She is related to two of the women convicted as witches during the Salem witch trials. Her other nonfiction book is The Penguin Book of Witches.
For more reading
Be sure to check out The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles (The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation), a biography of the Commodore which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
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- Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites
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- 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up)
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