Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

Perhaps among America’s greatest inventions is the capacity for the average citizen to reinvent themselves and, by extension, their reputation and personal fortunes. It is an enduring virtue as old as the 19th-century’s enterprising and pioneering frontiersmen who went West in search of gold, no different than today’s college dropout turned tech tycoon who once lived in his mother’s basement.

In spirit, the story of the making of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the early shipping and railroad magnate, is similarly epic, primordial, and uniquely American. Also known as “The Commodore,” he is the progenitor of the Vanderbilt family, born of working-class Dutch-English heritage who, in the 1800s, had amassed a kind of wealth never-before-seen in the New World, equivalent to over $2 billion in today’s currency. His tremendous fortune obtained by hard work and ruthlessness in business did not endear him any to the old-monied New Yorkers. Instead, he was considered primitive, a greenback, money-grubbing. It took a few generations for his descendants to earn favor in high society, even if it meant they had to manipulate or buy their way in, until, of course, their gravy train had ended when their fame outsized any leftover largesse in capital.

Celebrated journalist, Anderson Cooper and New York Times Best Selling novelist and historian, Katherine Howe, have written an illuminating book on The Commodore’s family called “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” not only because of this rich American history, but also because Cooper is himself a Vanderbilt, although he likes to say he’s more a “Cooper,” due to his father’s family’s more modest roots in Mississippi. His mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, known for her fashion brand in the 1970s is the great great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. So, in some respects, the book is a tomé to Cooper’s family bloodline, written at a time when his is called into question. The “Silver Fox” and single gay man of a certain age lost his mother in 2019. Then, in 2020, he had his son, Wyatt Cooper.

Organized into two parts that examine the family’s “rise” and “fall,” Cooper and Howe do not take a sweeping approach to create a more traditional historical book of nonfiction in taking the reader from points A to Z but leverage a series of loosely interconnected essays to create vignettes on seminal figures in the family at certain moments that defined them or gave unquestionable insight into their character. Using this approach exceeds at times, putting the reader squarely at a decisive moment in the protagonists’ lives, but its drawback is that other details are left out—surely, a person is made up of more than one moment. This also includes portraits of women at a period of time when society allowed them limited agency. While the portrayals are themselves revelatory, they are in some respects playfully mocking in nature, held by the premise that “No one can make money evaporate into thin air like a Vanderbilt,” which acts as the book’s connective tissue. That the Vanderbilts fall from their aristocratic perch is no surprise since it’s written in the title.

The authors capstone each chapter with quotes from Amy Vanderbilt’s “Complete Book of Etiquette: A Guide to Gracious Living,” written in the 1950s whose 20th-century advice on civilities and custom offer a warm preamble to the chapters’ subject matter. But, given their anachronistic juxtaposition to events that happen as much as a hundred years before the book’s publication, they also underscore the commanding legacy the family would later have on the American consciousness and upon high society, even if only a few generations before did they dock themselves in New Amsterdam (New York’s colonial name) from the soggy marshes of Staten Island.

The book does not begin with a biography on The Commodore and how he made his paper, but instead, quite keenly, with a prologue about the 2017 shuttering of The Breakers, America’s version of the French palace, Versailles, built by the Vanderbilts with all its gilded opulence, its 70 rooms and two greenhouses set on 13 acres of prime beachfront property in Newport, Rhode Island. It starts with a sullen Gladys Vanderbilt, Cooper’s third cousin, being thrown out of the famed-family home the Preservation Society of Newport County had acquired and had allowed one arm of the Vanderbilts to stay rent-free for decades when the Vanderbilts could no longer afford its upkeep. We are thrust into a significant moment of the “fall” before fully understanding the “rise.” The estate cost some $220 million in today’s currency to construct and sold for $2.3 million.

When we meet The Commodore, he is in the throes of dying. His 38-year-old wife, who he married when he was 75 years old eight years prior, sits at his bedside, gatekeeping who gets to consort with him, including his grudgeful children, some of whom she turns away at The Commodore’s request. The New York press, ever so keen on breaking a story, announces him dead long before he does. Cooper and Howe present a depiction of a grizzly old man who was as uncharitable in his familial life as he was in business. He had been a hard worker, beginning at 16 years old where he sailed a periauger like his father to ferry people and goods in between what is now known as Manhattan and Staten Island in the early 1800s. Within six months, and with a $100 loan from his mother, equivalent to $2,100 today, he put his own father out of business.

As Vanderbilt’s influence grew, so did his wealth, moving supplies for the British military long before the territory would fall squarely into British hands. He would soon hold monopoly over shipping on the eastern seaboard. His success in shipping begot his success in the railroad, where he amassed the largesse of his $100 million dollar fortune (over $2 billion today), cementing his status as an American tycoon but much of the engineering of this is not discussed in great detail by the authors in this stylistic format. On his deathbed, and with a relatively new wife, there is the small business of inheritance and who will helm his empire when he is gone. Afterall, we are here, as voyeurs, not only to witness the virtues of fortune but this equally enrapturing of American pastimes: the melodrama of a fall from grace.

The Commodore’s death may have marked the beginning of the fall, because it kickstarts a two-year-long legal battle between four of his 12 children who challenge The Commodore’s will, as he left the bulk of his $100 million fortune to one son, William Vanderbilt, and only hundreds of thousands to the others. What The Commodore valued and sought was an heir with a similar temperament and business acumen, which he found in William and didn’t in his namesake, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, who was epileptic and who The Commodore considered weak. The rift between the brothers is encapsulated in a well-written, dramatically fraught chapter entitled “The Blatherskite and the Namesake,” seemingly pulled from archival research, newspaper clippings and even court testimony. While William would double that fortune to $200 million in eight years, he was the only of The Commodore’s descendants who saw the money as accretive rather than a crutch.

In the remaining chapters of the “rise” portion we meet other Vanderbilts and other noteworthy personalities that help to shape the Vanderbilt infamy and legacy. We are introduced to the father and mother of American high society, Caroline Astor and Ward McAllister, whose talents in taste making and social order-gerrymandering decided who and what was favorable, as well as who and what were not—like the Vanderbilts. Old money families, “nobs,” as they were called, like the Astors, Knickerbockers, Schermerhorns and Roosevelts, considered families like the Vanderbilts, Rockerfellers, Goelets and Belmonts, “swells,” new-money arrivistes whose dough hadn’t yet developed enough rank or mold. McAllister created the Society of Patriarchs, an organization that threw balls for debuting young men and women into society. (Today’s cotillions are a remnant of this tradition.) Both he and Astor also formulated “the Four Hundred,” which is an exclusive list of people, no different from Anna Wintour’s recently held Met Museum gala’s guest list, which took more than a decade for the Vanderbilts to gain entry.

As the authors frame it, it’s this sense that the Vanderbilt money is so long and deep, like the Amazon river, that they believe it is everlasting. This is exacerbated by their burning need to belong and to outdo the Joneses that herald their undoing with construction of impressive real estate holdings in Rhode Island’s Newport, and New York’s Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Central Park West and Murray Hill, and spending on lavish entertainment, including a one-night affair for about $6.4 million in today’s currency. The authors do not explore external forces like the introduction of new modes of transportation like cars, buses and airplanes that challenged the Vanderbilts’ primary business that perhaps commingled with their overindulgence. No mention is also ever made of their investments or of any wealth-building activity common among uber wealthy people who are not wont to spend money but the interest that their money makes them. Instead, the Vanderbilts splurge! As they could not gain entry into seeing operatic productions at the Academy of Music, for example, they banded with other wealthy outcasts and erected the Metropolitan Opera House for their own merriment (and now ours).

We encounter other Vanderbilts like the autocratic Alva Erksine Smith (Vanderbilt via marriage) who colludes with McAllister in challenging Caroline Astor for social dominance and wins, helping to bring social acceptance to the Vanderbilts. Alva, at once a woman of convention who leverages her daughter Consuelo Vanderbilt’s reluctant hand in marriage and a dowry of several million dollars for nobility and title to an English Duke in the chapter “American Royalty,” remakes herself later in “Failure is Impossible” as a foremother of the suffragette movement, fighting for the equality of women, including Black women where she created a settlement house in Harlem.

No different than the 19th century Vanderbilts do we find those in the 20th century and the “fall” portion of the book showcasing an equally ghastly relationship with money, scandal and bad luck. Where the first part of the book features various personalities, seeking social acceptance, in the latter half, here they have arrived.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, now the third inheritor of the bulk of The Commodore’s wealth, did so at 22 years old when his father Cornelius Vanderbilt II died unexpectedly, leaving an estimated fortune of $70 million ($2 billion plus today and less than half what his father William had amassed). Alfred would get $35 million. It can seem at times that the uber wealthy live in a world so cut off from the average man that they are impervious to earthly realities, but a great equalizer, especially at this time, was public transportation, despite their first-class creature comforts. In an impressively researched chapter called “Down with the Ship” in its detail and vividness, rocked by divorce and at the young age of 27, Alfred was lost at sea with 128 other souls in the downed Lusitania in a voyage bound for Britain at the height of World War I when it was struck by torpedo. As for the subdivision of his fortune that adds to the fracturing of the family largesse, it is never mentioned.

Although we meet other intriguing characters like Harold Vanderbilt and secondary ones like Gertrude Vanderbilt and Truman Capote (who was written about quite extensively for a book about the Vanderbilts), the parts of the book that offer more emotive reflection occur when we meet Cooper’s mother Gloria Vanderbilt. The authors present her as a woman caught in between her identity as a Vanderbilt and the one she has tried to create for herself as an independent, working woman. That conflict has verisimilitude with the tension of the infamous custody battle that shaped her young life, volleying between her mother, Maria Mercedes Morgan-Vanderbilt and her aunt Gertrude. Where Gloria’s worldly mother’s neglect and waste of Gloria’s $4 million fortune ($60 million in today’s money) toughened Gloria, the security of the Vanderbilt patronage made her supple. Using the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 short story, “Rich Boy,” Cooper thought it apropos to describe his mother’s unique predicament this way in the chapter entitled “Living a Roman à Clef”: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”

Gertrude, in her benevolence, won the court battle but in doing so fully exposed Gloria to the handicaps of wealth, but specifically that of the Vanderbilts’. Needless to say, as all the Vanderbilts before her, and while operating her own empire in adulthood, so does Gloria amble along in a life of monetary ignorance and waste.

As much as all the stories in the book are derived from archival research of copious books, periodicals and newspapers, giving a sense of an insider’s view, there’s still a bit of distance, especially from the earlier characters, as they are never written from Anderson’s perspective as a Vanderbilt with any personal reflections or accounts passed from generation to generation. It is as if the author is himself learning of his clan in the writing of this book, or it was the natural division of labor with his co-writer. As well, without any mention of other prominent families and what they have done with their cheddar these many generations later, the book uniquely frames that the handicapping nature of wealth is purely a Vanderbilt one.

The chapters wherein the author discusses his mother are naturally the most personal and intimate, if even at times he addresses her as “Gloria,” rather than “mom” or to himself in the third person. Much like the other Vanderbilts before her, Cooper doesn’t shy away from sharing information on his mother’s extravagant spending, her tax problems, her roller coaster relationship with money in the chapter called “The Last Vanderbilt,” saying to her once and for all, “You know, Mom, saving money is making money,” a concept no other Vanderbilt but The Commodore might have grasped, according to the authors’ depiction. Cooper describes how once when he had just earned a promotion having to purchase two screens made from antique Chinese wallpaper for $50,000 that was a stretch for him to afford at the time. They were items his mother had sold years before that she had had in a prior house and now absolutely needed for its sentimental value. After only six months she asked him to put them in storage because they no longer matched a new chandelier she had bought.

Next to his relatives, Cooper, now a millionaire in his own right and by his own labor, seems by inference to understand the mechanics of money in-money out. What you learn and perhaps what the book is really about is Cooper’s discomfort with being labeled a Vanderbilt, and a desire to set the record straight about a family that has been gossiped about and wrongly editorialized for centuries. When his mother died, there was talk in the press of a hefty inheritance he would acquire, estimated at $200 million between any trust that his mother owned and from her own enterprise, even while rumors milled that she was broke. But Cooper had known for much of his life that there was no inheritance to receive. He writes of a conversation between he and his mother before she passed away: ”I suppose people will think you are inheriting the Vanderbilt millions,” says Gloria. “Boy won’t they be surprised.”

As the child of a wealthy family, it can be difficult to escape the speculation that you have not rightfully earned your place. Yet, Cooper is not a man who flaunts his wealth and privilege and is easily one of the hardest working men in television. As he has made his persona and celebrity, hardly anyone knows of this family lineage outside of some circles. In these last chapters, it’s sobering to learn that the personality you see on TV, similarly had to put in extra time and do extra work in order to meet financial obligations to his mother, even if it is on an economy of scale grander than the average person. At once, Cooper feels pedestrian and not aristocratic, despite an upbringing rubbing elbows with the likes of Liza Minelli and Michael Jackson. In fact, Cooper is reminiscent of a young Cornelius Vanderbilt, The Commodore, still busting his ass to make a buck with his shows: Anderson 360° on CNN, 60 Minutes appearances on CBS, dispatches on National Geographic, his News Year’s Eve Special on CNN… Is he motivated by the green stuff like his great great great grandfather? This is not discussed.

In addition to sharing this rich history with his son Wyatt when he becomes of age to understand his family history, maybe Cooper is laying tracks for a new direction for his offspring and dynasty. Perhaps, in this way, the Coopers née Vanderbilts rise again.

Available in stores today, read this rich and superbly crafted tale of an influential American family, equipped with many private family images and a family tree to navigate all the featured personalities and similarly-named relatives, if not for the history for its understated edification about having a sensible relationship with money.

About this book

  • ISBN:9780062964618
  • Price:$30.00
  • Page Count:336

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