Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

Image of Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty
Release Date: 
September 21, 2021
Reviewed by: 

The co-authors of Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, journalist Anderson Cooper and novelist and historian Katherine Howe, posit that the Vanderbilt family suffered from a “pathology” of obsession with material wealth that led to their downfall. They contend that the history of the Vanderbilts “is the story of the greatest American fortune ever squandered.”

Despite its title, the book chronicles neither the rise nor the fall of the Vanderbilts. Rather, the authors portray episodes from the lives of a handful of descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ruthless New York entrepreneur who controlled one out of every 20 American dollars in circulation at the time of his death in 1877. The stories are rich in atmosphere, emotion, and context, heavy on judgment, and light on new insights into this well-documented family.

Cornelius had 13 children and his primary heir had nine; an inclusive history of the family would require many volumes. In narrowing their focus for this book, the authors follow the money and the scandals, with a few exceptions. They begin with Cornelius himself, in his final days, and the squabbling among his children over his estate, worth $2 billion in today’s dollars.

Cornelius believed that his sons, of whom he had three and only one he really liked, deserved to inherit the bulk of his fortune. His favorite, Billy, received the lion’s share, despite a hard-fought court battle among the siblings. Billy was an aberration among Vanderbilts: he grew his inheritance rather than just spending it.

New money to the Astor family’s old, the Vanderbilts chased social status by moving to the appropriate Manhattan neighborhoods and calling on the right people. Ultimately, they bought their position in society. When the Knickerbocker family denied Billy a box at the Academy of Music, an important social venue, he banded together with other nouveau riche and built the glamourous Metropolitan Opera House.

While fortunes continued to be handed down to the Vanderbilt sons, their wives often took charge of spending it. The authors spotlight Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of Billy’s son Willie. She and Willie lived in Manhattan during the Gilded Age when gaining and maintaining status in the highest echelons of society amounted to an all-consuming game of nerve and strategy.

Alva brought a steely will to achieving her family’s place in the social hierarchy. One wonders if the Vanderbilts would have been better served with Alva helming their business ventures rather than their social calendar. She hosted a costume ball with so much anticipatory buzz that Caroline Astor was compelled to call on Alva to garner an invitation. With 1,200 guests and a budget rumored to top $6 million in today’s dollars, the extravagant gala made a splash in the media and earned Alva the ultimate prize: an invitation to Caroline Astor’s ball the next year.

Cooper and Howe let none of the Vanderbilt descendants off the hook for their material fixations and trivial pastimes. They contrast Alva’s son Harold’s passion for sailing million-dollar yachts in “thirty-mile circular races to nowhere” with Cornelius’s first successful business sailing ferries across New York Harbor. And they point out that on the same day newspapers featured Alva’s sumptuous ball, a front-page story reported on Illinois coal miners killed by a flood.

The authors elevate the drama of the Vanderbilts’ stories by injecting emotion, gleaned from journals and memoirs of the Vanderbilt women, and describing clothes and settings in cinematic detail. The most insightful and satisfying chapters are those devoted to Gloria Vanderbilt and her daughter, “Little Gloria,” Anderson Cooper’s mother, in which Cooper brings a compassionate, down-to-earth, and humorous perspective. A story about working as his mother’s art studio assistant is charming.

Cooper portrays his mother, the great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, as a hopeless over-spender long after her famous inheritance ran out. She grew up among women who cherished beautiful things and whose value—in romantic relationships, in the media, and among high society—was measured by their wealth. If not already in the Vanderbilt DNA, spending was taught by example.

Pathology refers to an abnormality or change in a person caused by disease. Yet the Vanderbilts’ behavior largely conformed to the social norms of their times. Conspicuous consumption defined the Gilded Age. Frivolity, waste, and excess have remained hallmarks of the ultra-rich throughout history. Anyone who has watched a season of Real Housewives knows that the rich flaunt what they have and regularly squander their fortunes. It would seem that the pathology exists in the culture, not the family.

The authors make a point toward the end of the book that “exceptional moments are not often what matter most to us, when we reflect on the lives we have lived. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, for instance, recalled in the notes for her memoir lazy summer afternoons with her children digging in the garden at their summer house on Long Island.” Alva did not mention her $6 million costume ball. It’s an intriguing idea that the Vanderbilts, despite their jaw-dropping lifestyles, may have enjoyed the simpler things most.

Ordinary pleasures, however, make for a less interesting read. The media covering the Vanderbilts for more than a century understood that, as do Cooper and Howe. Perhaps there was method to this family’s madness. Their spectacular spending of a massive fortune, while judged harshly by these authors, earned the Vanderbilts a commodity even more rarefied than money: enduring fame.