It probably helped that by the time Cooper fils came of age, the Vanderbilt fortune, once among the greatest in American plutocracy, had pretty much gone pfft. His mother was a serial spendthrift who burned through an inheritance that came to her in 1945 of about $4 million, the equivalent today of nearly $60 million. “No one can make money evaporate into thin air like a Vanderbilt,” Cooper and Howe observe.
Cooper hardly grew up poor, but his early-warning antenna made him sense that he was on a sinking ship. By age 13 he was earning his own walking-around money, doing part-time modeling. When he got his first big raise in salary, Mom immediately hit him up for money to buy a pair of antique Chinese screens for $50,000. It’s a measure of Cooper’s devotion to his problematic mother that he turns it into a touching story. Mom got her screens and, typically, soon decided that they didn’t really work after all.
Shortly before she died at 95, she told him with a girlish giggle: “I suppose people will think you are inheriting the Vanderbilt millions. Boy, won’t they be surprised.” One gets the sense that Cooper is actually relieved. Being filthy rich ain’t for everyone.
The ur-Vanderbilt’s nickname, “The Commodore,” was bestowed on him by skeptical fellow Staten Islanders when he was running a ferry service with his father at age 11. On his death in 1877, he left behind “more money than any American at the time had ever accumulated: $100 million, the equivalent of more than $2 billion today.”
His son Billy’s family nickname was “The Blatherskite,” Dutch for “blockhead.” That too turned out to be ironic. The Blockhead was as talented at making money as his old man, and into the bargain, he was well-liked. The list of the railroads he owned takes up half a page. When he died in 1885, he left a fortune of $200 million, $5.4 billion in today dollars.
Cooper’s attitude toward his ancestors’ use of their gargantuan wealth runs the gamut from bemused to censorious to Bernie Sanders spittle-spraying indignation. One of the book’s better chapters is built around Alva Vanderbilt’s eye-popping 1883 costume ball, intended mainly to bring her social rival, the famous Mrs. Astor, to her knees.
Alva dressed as a Venetian princess, complete with a rope of pearls formerly owned by Catherine the Great. The bash cost $250,000 — $6.4 million in today’s clams. (Look to your laurels, Petronius, Gatsby!) Cooper and Howe pivot to a horrifying account of a coal mine disaster that occurred the same night. The point is made, if somewhat bluntly.
Of Cooper’s grandfather, “Reggie” Vanderbilt — Gloria’s father, who drank himself to an early death after burning through his inheritance — the authors remark that he “was fortunate to live at a time when rich kids could mow down pedestrians in the street with their automobiles and get away with an apology, as he killed at least two.” Wait, there’s more: “He once ran over a seven-year old boy, who fortunately survived. The papers suggested it was the little boy’s fault for getting in Reggie’s way.” Rich stuff. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens turned that kind of moving violation into the spark for the French Revolution.
Another ancestor, “Willie” Vanderbilt — grandson of the Commodore — “belonged to the first generation of Vanderbilts to feel that their primary purpose in life was to consume, which wasn’t much of a purpose.”
But they weren’t all feckless boobies, as the Blatherskite proved. Harold Vanderbilt skippered yachts to victory in America’s Cup races. And boy did they love to build stuff. We’re talking edifice complex. The list of their palazzos, chateaus and Newport summer “cottages” would wipe that sneer of cold command from Ozymandias’s face. Like his mighty works, few survived, but Newport’s “The Breakers” — three times the size of the White House — remains Rhode Island’s biggest tourist draw. The book begins on a sad note with Gladys Vanderbilt, great-granddaughter of its builders, being ordered to vacate the premises after a dispute with the preservation society that now owned it. The book closes by taking the reader on a ghost tour of vanished Vanderbilt properties in Manhattan. It is so haunting and beautifully written that I found myself reading it over and over.
Here and there are moments of noblesse oblige, as when Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, whose major achievement in life was “spending money beautifully,” gives his life vest to a passing woman “trembling with fear of the fate she expected to meet” as the torpedoed Lusitania goes down, with Alfred aboard. He died; we’re left to hope she didn’t.
The most interesting Vanderbilts (to this reader) are the women. Some are downright scary. The above-mentioned Alva, a Confederate expat from Mobile, Ala., who married Willie, is a Category 5 force of nature. She was determined not only to make Mrs. Astor grovel but also to marry off her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill’s first cousin.
Poor Consuelo told this horror version of a Cinderella story in her fine memoir, “The Glitter and the Gold,” published in 1952. But the story is nicely rendered here. “The American press could never agree on the Duke’s salient characteristics, which effectively implied that he had none.” Alva’s implacable goal of one-upping Mrs. Astor drove her to a parodic bit of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses when she built “Marble House” in Newport, next to Mrs. Astor’s “Beechwood,” at a cost of $310 million in current bucks. It would have been simpler — and cheaper — to strangle Mrs. Astor with Catherine the Great’s pearls.
But Alva’s greatest monument may have been launching “the greatest divorce case that society had ever seen.” It forever shifted Manhattan’s social tectonic plates. For this faux pas, she was “cut” by her fellow parishioners at the Trinity Church in Newport.
“I always do everything first,” Alva boasted, sounding like an over-caffeinated Edith Wharton grande dame, thumping her pigeon breast. “I blaze the trail for the rest to walk in. I was the first girl of my ‘set’ to marry a Vanderbilt. Then I was the first society woman to ask for a divorce, and within a year ever so many others had followed my example. They had been wanting divorce all the time, but they had not dared to do it until I showed them the way.” Muahaha!
This is a terrific book, rich (yes, pun intended) in social history, ingeniously organized and overall well-written. The chapter on Truman Capote’s 1966 “Black and White” ball at the Plaza Hotel and his later bombshell betrayal of his New York society “swans” in his Esquire short story “La Côte Basque, 1965” is lethally incisive. “The story is actually a masterful experiment in the forced denial of empathy,” Anderson and Howe write. One of the betrayed swans was Gloria Vanderbilt, so there’s an element of payback here. Cooper attended the Plaza ball, in utero. Mother was three months’ pregnant with him. “She wore a simple, chic maternity dress — black velvet, with a high and wide starched white Puritan collar.” And I’d bet she looked fabulous.
At times, the prose can get a bit overheated: “But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we talk about the ball, and the flowers, and the food, and the quadrilles, and the money — good lord, the money!” But this is a quibble, weighed against the book’s abundant virtues, which, despite the occasional whoosh-chop! of the guillotine blade, reveal a warm heart and a flavor of well-earned catharsis.
The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty
By Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
317 pp. $30