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Vanderbilt Summary

Vanderbilt The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty: One of the Washington Post's Notable Works of Nonfiction of 2021

New York Times bestselling author and journalist Anderson Cooper teams with New York Times bestselling historian and novelist Katherine Howe to chronicle the rise and fall of a legendary American dynasty—his mother’s family, the Vanderbilt.

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.

Now, the Commodore’s great-great-great-grandson Anderson Cooper, joins with historian Katherine Howe to explore the story of his legendary family and their outsized influence. 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.

Written with a unique insider’s viewpoint, this is a rollicking, quintessentially American history as remarkable as the family it so vividly captures.

About the Author

Anderson Cooper joined CNN in 2001 and has anchored his own program, Anderson Cooper 360°, since March 2003. Cooper has won 18 Emmys and numerous other major journalism awards. He lives in New York with his son, Wyatt.

Vanderbilt Introduction

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

For, as William Dean Howells once noted, “Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself,” and it is only a step from this to arrive at something which passes muster for a Society definition of America: that all men may be born equal but most of us spend the better part of our born days in trying to be as unequal as we can.

—Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?

When I was six, my father took me to Grand Central Terminal in New York to see the imposing bronze statue of my great-great-great-grandfather “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt. It stands high on a pedestal on the south side of the train terminal he founded, within sight of Vanderbilt Avenue and a hotel that, back then, was also named after him.

I knew little about the Vanderbilt dynasty. My mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, rarely talked about her tumultuous childhood or the fractious family she was born into in 1924. My father, Wyatt Cooper, grew up on a small farm in Mississippi during the Depression, about as far from the palatial homes of the Vanderbilts as you can imagine. But he wanted me to understand my mom’s extraordinary history and her complicated feelings about it.

When we went to see the statue, my dad told me that the Commodore was a tough businessman and an unforgiving father and that, when he died, he was the richest person in America. I’m sure he said more, but I can’t remember. I was, after all, only six. I do recall, however, that for weeks after our visit, I was convinced that all grandparents turned into statues when they died.

For much of my life, I wanted nothing to do with the Vanderbilts. I very much like the few Vanderbilt cousins I’ve met, but I never wanted to look too closely at the history of the family. I felt it had no bearing on my life. The Vanderbilt dynasty disappeared long ago, and my parents had made sure I understood early on that there was no “Vanderbilt money” or trust fund I’d be inheriting when I became an adult.

They wanted me to be my own person, and I am grateful to them for that. I don’t think I would have been as driven as I have been if I had grown up believing there was a pot of gold somewhere waiting for me.

I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid mentioning my relation to the Vanderbilts. When someone would find out and ask me, “What was it like to grow up a Vanderbilt?” my response was always the same. “I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’m a Cooper.” That is how I viewed myself and still do. I look to my father’s large family, with its deep roots in the Mississippi earth, and I’ve taken their American story as my own.

But my mom’s death in 2019 and the birth of my son, Wyatt, in 2020 began to change my perspective. In the weeks after she died, I began going through dozens of boxes stored away in her apartment and her art studio. They were filled with journals, and documents, and letters. She saved everything. Handwritten notes from her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and schoolbooks my grandfather Reginald Vanderbilt doodled in as a child.

I found old wills and financial records, and as I read the contents of these files stained by time and mold, I began to hear the voices of those people I never knew. They were more than just characters in a history book, more than just one-dimensional members of an American dynasty. They were complex, flush with desire, their inner lives far more compelling than their public personae would have us believe.

When my son was born, I began to wonder, what will I tell him about them? What do I hope he learns from the lives they led, and the choices they made? In order to answer those questions, I began researching these people I had avoided for so long. This family. My family.

The Vanderbilt story somehow manages to be both unique and also, deeply, universally American. It is a saga of wealth and success and individualism, but as it turns out, those aren’t necessarily the universal goods our culture likes to believe they are. A few central myths appear again and again in Americans’ popular imagination: that success is available to anyone who is willing to work hard, for example, and that success is worthier of celebration if it is achieved without help.

(As if any success were truly achieved alone: even the “self-made” Commodore got a crucial early loan from his mother when he was sixteen.)

We still catch ourselves subscribing to this Horatio Algeresque celebration of entrepreneurship, of individualism, and, by extension, of wealth. We somehow, simultaneously, believe that we are all the same, all created equal, and yet we secretly suspect that the rich are somehow more special, that they have something figured out that the rest of us don’t know. We see this embedded assumption play out every day in our modern celebrity culture and in our politics.

In writing this book, my co-author, Katherine Howe, and I wanted to explore how some of the Vanderbilts—people with personalities and weaknesses and foibles, who found themselves living the ultimate American myth—actually felt as their lives were unfolding. The personal stories we recount focus on a few individuals rather than on the grand sweep of the Vanderbilts’ business empire or the expansion of railroads into the wilderness.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt founded a dynasty that would rule the Gilded Age, and his rise was dizzying. He possessed a genius and a mania for making money, but his obsession with material wealth would border on the pathological, and the pathology born of that wealth would go on to infect each successive generation in different ways.

A family story about wealth and triumph becomes, in some respects, a story about sadness and isolation. But it’s also a story of unexpected poignancy and truth that shifts our understanding and expectations about this name “Vanderbilt” that we imagine we already know.

The Vanderbilts were the original new-money arrivistes who burst on the scene, used their wealth to buy prestige and respectability, and churned through their fortune not in the cause of making lasting change, but on massive outlets for conspicuous consumption. Vanderbilt millions bought palatial houses, astonishing yachts, cars in the hundreds, and jewels both magnificent and rare.

But under the buckets of ink spilled on their exploits by newspapers and behind the magnificent, and temporary, marble walls constructed of the Commodore’s money, unfolded private lives both messy and insecure, nuanced and complicated, sometimes irredeemable, but always fascinating. This is the story of the extraordinary rise and epic fall of the Vanderbilt dynasty. This is the story of the greatest American fortune ever squandered.

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Product details:

EditionInternational Edition
ISBN0062964615, 978-0062964618
Posted onSeptember 21, 2021
Page Count336 pages
AuthorAnderson Cooper

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Vanderbilt The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty: One of the Washington Post's Notable Works of Nonfiction of 2021


Author: Anderson Cooper

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