The very rich are not like you and me. They are duller. So Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe demonstrate in Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, their engaging and, indeed, suspenseful study of Cooper’s gilded relations. Which of these American Trimalchios will prove the most vacuous?
Cornelius Vanderbilt, the family’s founder, born on Staten Island in 1794, was boorish even by the standard of tycoons, but preternaturally clever. “Never tell nobody what yer goin’ to do till you do it,” he would say—as useful a piece of advice as any in Machiavelli.
The “Commodore,” as the young rogue who plied his humble ferry boat in New York Harbor was called by the old salts, was “just this side of illiterate,” but he had the mother wit to see the possibilities of the steam engine, and by 1870 the Staten Island Faust controlled the largest railway empire in the world.
Old “Com” was vain of his image: he liked to be painted and sculpted. But he was otherwise simple in his tastes—buying judges, cornering stock, seducing nannies—and he died, in his modest town house in Washington Place, in holy fear of the Devil. It was only after his death, when his descendants, “the original new-money arrivistes,” began to squander his fortune, that the Gilded Age began in earnest, amid unsightly quantities of hammered gold.
When barbarians encounter a higher civilization, they first embrace its vices, and next enlarge upon them. Even so, the Vanderbilts aped all that was least attractive in the aristocratic tinsel of the Old World—and made it yet more tawdry.
When the family’s Newport “cottage,” known as the Breakers, burned to the ground in 1892, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (a grandson of the Commodore) and his wife, Alice, rebuilt it in a style that would have made Jefferson weep, while at their cotillions a small army of footmen in maroon livery made everyone feel small. The competition is, admittedly, fierce, but the Breakers may be the most vulgar house ever constructed in America.
Alice was as haughty of manner as she was deficient in taste. When a daughter-in-law confessed that she had no pearls, Alice summoned the scissors and cut a strand from her own ponderous rope. “All the Vanderbilt women have pearls,” she gravely intoned.
But it was Alice’s sister-in-law Alva, the wife of the Commodore’s grandson William Kissam Vanderbilt, who, with what Louis Auchincloss called a “grim determination” to climb to “the top of the social heap,” gave the grotesque balls that appalled Edith Wharton. Vainly trying to uphold the old Knickerbocker modesty, Wharton complained that the Vanderbilts “are entrenched in a sort of thermopylae of bad taste.”
The next generation produced fanatical sportsmen who filled their empty days with horseflesh and sailboats, cette fatigue du WASP. When Alfred, with a mania for the turf, goes down with the Lusitania, it is almost a relief, for him as well as for the reader. His cousin Harold, who enlarges civilization by inventing contract bridge, requires 20 ponderous pages and some ungentlemanlike cheating to (yawn) win the 1934 America’s Cup.
The Vanderbilts aped all that was least attractive in the aristocratic tinsel of the Old World—and made it yet more tawdry.
Cooper and Howe string together these diverting portraits on a luminous thread, “the loaded promises of the American dream,” as successive Vanderbilts are undone by their intrinsic “pathology,” too much money, and too little purpose.
Consuelo, the Vanderbilt Iphigenia, is sacrificed at the altar of Blenheim Palace when Alva, with an unkind heart and a mad obsession with coronets, forces her daughter to marry an impecunious Duke of Marlborough. The gods smile on the virginal oblation: Blenheim is preserved with an infusion of the Commodore’s cash, and the name “Vanderbilt” is printed in Debrett’s Peerage.
Hard-drinking Reggie Vanderbilt is as heartless as Alva; he takes little interest in his daughter, Cathleen, until he discovers that she has a pretty girlfriend, Gloria Morgan, who the pedophile with a golden liver marries when she is still in her teens. But before he expires at 45, of cirrhosis, Reggie sires baby Gloria, who in time redeems the Vanderbilt name when she creates a line of blue jeans that rivals Jordache.
“All the Vanderbilt women have pearls.”
Vanderbilt confirms Santayana’s perception (after a stultifying dinner with John D. Rockefeller) that the more money an American has, the less interesting he becomes. The book, however, will undoubtedly be read not as a cautionary tale but, like The Great Gatsby, as a how-to manual, as our discontented citizenry hysterically chases a golden calf that continually eludes it.
But that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster …
The most striking thing about the Vanderbilts is not their vapidity—though it rises to the level of genius—but the reaction it produced. Characters such as Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Jay Chapman—descended from older American elites—resented upstarts like the Vanderbilts, who usurped their place in the hierarchies. They also rejected the plutocrats’ comically shallow idea of the good life.
Wharton was as nauseated by the Van Osburghs (read: Vanderbilts) in her novel The House of Mirth as some of us are today when, by some unhappy chance, the Kardashians cross our screens.
Old-money reformers like Henry Adams and the Roosevelts worked hard to undo the Gilded Age, creating a caste of preppy public servants to which the Vanderbilts themselves were eventually assimilated, a quasi-patrician elite whose civic-minded leaders would engineer the American Century.
The new WASP oligarchy, headed by Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson, had a good run, but it came crashing down with Vietnam, and by 1970 a mob of meritocrats was howling at the gates. Gloria, Anderson Cooper’s mother (and Reggie’s daughter), sensibly turned her attention to that least patrician of fabrics, denim, and made money out of it.
The Commodore would have approved.
Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe, will be published on September 21 from Harper
Michael Knox Beran is the author of several books, including The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and, most recently, WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy