When eleven-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt began to work on his father’s small boat ferrying supplies in New York Harbor at the beginning of the nineteenth century, no one could have imagined that one day he would, through ruthlessness, cunning, and a pathological desire for money, build two empires—one in shipping and another in railroads—that would make him the richest man in America. His staggering fortune was fought over by his heirs after his death in 1877, sowing familial discord that would never fully heal. Though his son Billy doubled the money left by “the Commodore,” subsequent generations competed to find new and ever more extraordinary ways of spending it. By 2018, when the last Vanderbilt was forced out of The Breakers—the seventy-room summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island, that Cornelius’s grandson and namesake had built—the family would have been unrecognizable to the tycoon who started it all.
Cooper and Howe breathe life into the ancestors who built the family’s empire, basked in the Commodore’s wealth, hosted lavish galas, and became synonymous with unfettered American capitalism and high society. Moving from the hardscrabble wharves of old Manhattan to the lavish drawing rooms of Gilded Age Fifth Avenue, from the ornate summer palaces of Newport to the courts of Europe, and all the way to modern-day New York, Cooper and Howe wryly recount the triumphs and tragedies of an American dynasty unlike any other.
The Vanderbilt name has always stirred my curiosity, for all the same reasons as the Gilded Age. Alva’s and Consuelo’s names have been familiar to me and when questioned I may have been able to point to railroads as their fortune, but prior to reading this book I essentially knew nothing about the Vanderbilt family. Through the reading of Vanderbilt I was introduced to this interesting family, a family whose massive fortune was lost almost as rapidly as it was created.
In all honesty, although I added Vanderbilt to my to-be-read list months ago, it was HBO’s “The Gilded Age” that actually pushed me to pick it up. The fact that upon beginning the book I discovered that the author is actually related to the family was a pleasant surprise. Although Vanderbilt is far from being a complete history of the Vanderbilts, it offers a brief overview of the family with a focus on the Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Gloria Vanderbilt.
At this point in my young life, I have read quite a few biographies and often struggle with enjoying the author’s writing style. Cooper and Howe’s writing is clear and quite readable, but it was in no way remarkable. Almost surprisingly, Vanderbilt feels as though it is truly a non-fiction read, full of historical details and thankfully lacking a gossipy tone.
The Vanderbilts’ name is one synonymous with wealth and the Gilded Age, but it was tragically interesting to learn how quickly their wealth was lost. I couldn’t help but imagine the Commodore, ruthless and determined in his quest for wealth, turning over in his grave as his children and grandchildren wasted his money. Work ethic is so quickly lost and as the Vanderbilts’ amply prove, wealth is rapidly taken for granted once gained.
As cliche as it may sound, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was the family member who captured my attention. Although I have heard quite a bit about her lavish spending and massive balls, I had no idea that she was deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement, or that she was raised by a slave-owning Southern family. Alva is an interesting woman to learn about, one who believed in the equality of women and men, while somehow firmly believing in the inferiority of people of color. I will never understand how these ideas could coexist.
Vanderbilt is a book about a family who somehow manages to perfectly portray the worst of United States history and culture while being the ultimate example of the “American Dream.” It is a book I certainly do not regret reading, but one I will most likely never revisit.
What have you been reading recently? Have you made any fun summer memories yet?