The Founder and the Vanderbilt Fortune
The family fortune was founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was popularly known as the Commodore, the son of an impoverished farmer and boatman. Cornelius left school at 11 and made a fortune in shipping and railways in the first half of the 19th century. He managed to transform $100 borrowed from his mother into a multi-million dollar fortune by the time of his death in 1877. It is said that his inheritance to his family was more than was held in the US Treasury at the time.
On his death, he left a fortune worth €150 billion in today’s money, and his son William doubled the family wealth over the next ten years, creating the largest fortune in the world at the time. The Vanderbilts built Grand Central Station in New York.
They had splendid mansions on Fifth Avenue. They bought America’s finest racehorses and yachts. They hosted massive parties, known as the “parties of the century”, and were bountiful philanthropists. But the omens were there: a shrinking fortune accompanied by a ballooning appetite to spend, just how long could it last?
The Commodore had urged that the bulk of the family fortune be endowed upon one descendant, but when his son William died in 1885, William left the family’s stake in the business to his sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William Kissam Vanderbilt. The division of the Vanderbilt fortune in the third generation coincided with a decline in family interest in New York Central – and a gradual increase in philanthropism and downright and wasteful spending.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II managed the railroads until he died in 1899. William Kissam Vanderbilt took over but retired soon after to concentrate on his yachts and thoroughbred horses, while brother George Vanderbilt’s 146,000 acre Biltmore estate ate into his branch of the family fortune. Forbes said that among the Vanderbilt family’s prized assets were an impressive art collection of old masters and a string of houses in Newport, Rhode Island, including The Breakers, and ten mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Within a few short years, his children (the Commodore’s grandchildren) had spent almost all of the Vanderbilt fortune: within thirty years after the death of the Commodore Vanderbilt, no member of his family was among the richest people in the United States. And when 120 of the Commodore’s descendants gathered at Vanderbilt University in 1973 for the first family reunion, there was not a millionaire among them.
The Commodore once said, ‘Any fool can make a fortune. It takes a man of brains to hold on to it after it’s made.’ It’s another way of saying: ‘A fool and his money are soon parted.’
The Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Story
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a member of the famous Vanderbilt family of philanthropists and big spenders, was age 37 in 1915. A millionaire sportsman hailing from New York City, New York, United States, he was travelling with his valet Ronald Denyer on the ill-fated RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool as a first-class passenger. They were going to a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association in England. When Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine, Vanderbilt and Denyer assisted many others, especially children, to safety. Vanderbilt made no attempt to save himself and gave second-class passenger Alice Middleton his lifebelt. Vanderbilt was lost in the sinking on 7th May 1915. He and Denyer were among the 1,198 passengers who did not survive the sinking. Their bodies were never found.
Marriages and Scandal
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was the second son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (himself, the son of the founder ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt), who made a fortune in the United States’ railway boom.
When Cornelius Vanderbilt II died in 1899 (having disinherited his first son), he left the best part of his fortune to the 22-year old Alfred. It is thought Alfred inherited some $70 million – some say as much as $150 billion in today’s money. Horses, rather than business, however, were Alfred’s passion. Alfred Vanderbit spent some of his days (but not too many) in the family’s business empire, travelling the world, or fox hunting, leaving enough time to enjoy romances with beautiful and rich women.
Alfred Vanderbilt inherited a massive fortune of $40 million and control of the Vanderbilt railroading empire at a young age. With no interest in business matters, he squandered his wealth on horses and women on two continents. None of the Vanderbilts gave as much fuel for gossip to the curious public as Alfred.
By the time the extravagant playboy boarded the Lusitania on 7th May 1915, he was the subject of numerous scandals, including the suicide of four different women. Alfred Vanderbilt is a major character in David Butler’s 1983 novel Lusitania. Unlike in actual history (so far as is known), the novel establishes Vanderbilt and Alice Middleton as having a shipboard romance, leading to his final gesture of saving her life.
On 11th January 1901, Alfred had married Miss Elsie French, daughter of the wealthy Francis Ormonde French, and brother of Amos Tuck French, father of Miss Julia Estelle French who married Jack Geraghty, the son of a liveryman. They were married in the Zabriskie Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist, Newport, Rhode Island, by Reverend George Brinley Morgan, a cousin of Miss French, and the Rev. Charles E. Beattie, rector of the Church. Alfred’s brother Reginald Vanderbilt was best man. A son, William Henry, was born to them on 24th November 1901.
Elsie filed for divorce on 1st April 1908 for Alfred’s adultery aboard his private railway car, the Wayfarer, with Mary Agnes O’Brien Ruiz, wife of the Cuban attaché in Washington. The two had met during one of Vanderbilt’s trips to London, when he had saved her life. She had been on a horse in Rotten Row that had run away with her on it, and Vanderbilt, with much style, grabbed the reins and brought the horse to a stop. The divorce papers were sealed, and the divorce reportedly cost Vanderbilt a cool $10 million. Agnes Ruiz was duly divorced by her husband. Devastated, she committed suicide by poison in her London hotel room in 1914.
While Alfred’s friend Charles Williamson was able to testify in court to ensure that Alfred would not be found at fault for the suicide, the scandal dogged Vanderbilt for some time afterwards.
Pressured by family, Alfred married again on 17th December 1911 to Margaret Emerson Smith Hollins McKim, a divorcée herself. She had been granted a divorce from Dr McKim in Reno, Nevada, on 30th April 1910, on the grounds of “drunkenness and cruelty.” Margaret was a daughter of Captain Isaac E. Emerson of Baltimore and heiress to the Bromo-Seltzer fortune. Alfred and Margaret were married in Reigate, equidistant from Brighton to the south and London to the north. Margaret and Alfred both had a passion for horses, and the Vanderbilt estate in Newport had the largest private horse-riding ring in the world.
Vanderbilt was a frequent traveller on the Lusitania, and in some years, he made as many as seven crossings. The 1914 International Horse Breeders’ Association had been cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War, but it was decided that there would be no cancellation in 1915.
Alfred’s other purpose for travelling abroad was to return “to England to offer a fleet of wagons and himself as a driver to the Red Cross Society, for he said he felt every day that he was not doing enough.” Vanderbilt’s wife Margaret and their two children stayed behind in New York City, in the Vanderbilt Hotel on Park Avenue. The night before sailing, Alfred and Margaret saw the Broadway play A Celebrated Case, co-produced by fellow Lusitania passenger Charles Frohman.
The morning of the sailing, a notice from the German Embassy appeared in the newspapers, warning Americans to keep away from Allied ships. Vanderbilt and his wife just laughed the warning off. A telegram arrived for Alfred that same morning saying: THE LUSITANIA IS DOOMED. DO NOT SAIL ON HER. The note was signed simply, MORTE.
On the second day of the voyage, Vanderbilt received a telegram from his wife saying, “FREDDIE DIED EARLY THIS MORNING LOVE MARGARET.” ‘Freddie’ (Frederick Martin Davies, a builder) was an old Yale friend and one of Alfred’s closest. Frederick had wanted to marry Alfred’s sister Gertrude in Autumn 1893 when they were in their twenties, but nothing came of it.
Later in the voyage, Vanderbilt received another telegram, this one from one British woman named May Barwell, saying, HOPE YOU HAVE A SAFE CROSSING. LOOK FORWARD VERY MUCH TO SEEING YOU SOON. From then on, Vanderbilt’s mood improved considerably.
On Thursday afternoon, 6th May, Vanderbilt stopped by Charles Frohman’s suite, where Frohman was throwing a party. Although the Lusitania was not due in Liverpool until Saturday morning, the private parties had been scheduled early so that passengers could pack on Friday night. Vanderbilt was also in attendance at the ship’s concert later that night.
After the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine, Alfred and his valet Ronald Denyer calmly assisted several women and children to safety. Fellow passenger Oliver Bernard was surprised by Vanderbilt’s composure, and Oliver would never forget the grin on the millionaire’s face. Alfred was heard remarking to another passenger, “Well, they got us this time, all right.”
On B Deck, Second Steward Robert Chisholm saw Vanderbilt “vainly attempting to rescue a hysterical woman.” Chisholm shouted, “Hurry, Mr Vanderbilt, or it will be too late!” Vanderbilt did not listen and continued assisting women and children.
Vanderbilt was seen putting a lifebelt on a woman’s shoulders and then walking away without saying a word. The truth was, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the renowned sportsman and ladies’ man, couldn’t swim. Even so, Alfred did not attempt to push his way through the mad crowd and into a lifeboat. One of the last people to see Vanderbilt was Owen Kenan, on the port side near the verandah café. Owen jumped with Denyer, the valet, at the last minute. Denyer would not survive. Nurse Alice Middleton, a second cabin passenger, accepted Vanderbilt’s offer of a lifebelt.
The New York Times contained a tribute to Alfred Vanderbilt purported to be by a Mrs Ethel Lines:
“People will not talk of Mr Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure. He will be remembered as the children’s hero, and men and women will salute his name. “When death was nearing him, he showed gallantry which no words of mine can describe. He stood outside the palm saloon on the starboard side of the Lusitania with Ronald Denyer by his side. He looked around at the scene of horror and despair with pitying eyes. I hope the young men of Britain will act with the same cool bravery for their country that Mr Vanderbilt showed for somebody’s little ones.”
Alfred’s wife Margaret shut herself in her room of the Vanderbilt Hotel, refusing to believe that her husband was dead. She told her sister-in-law Gertrude, “I will not believe Alfred is dead until I get conclusive proof.” Margaret continued to send cables to friends in England and Ireland, desperate for any news they might have. On Saturday afternoon, Margaret was persuaded to move into the Vanderbilt mansion on 57th Street. Before the weekend was over, a $5,000 reward was posted for the recovery of Alfred’s body. Vanderbilt’s body was never found. Of Alfred’s $26 million estate, his eldest son William inherited $5million and the Congressional Medal. Margaret received eight million dollars worth of properties in England and America, and the remaining sons, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and George Washington Vanderbilt received the rest.
Fate had two bites of the cherry
Returning home from a trip abroad in 1912, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt booked passage on the Titanic, but changed his mind at the last minute and decided to stay on in London. He may have thought that he had cheated fate in avoiding death when the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, but fate finally caught up with him in 1915, when a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania as it was passing West of Cork en-route for Liverpool.
Picture Credit: “File:Bundesarchiv DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17, Untergang der ‘Lusitania’.jpg” by Unknown is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Sussex and Surrey connections
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was a member of The Sussex Motor Yacht Club (in Ship Street, Brighton), one of the oldest such clubs. It was founded in April 1907. In 1908, Alfred presented the Club with the Venture Challenge Cup – a handsome and very large silver trophy.
Alfred’s passion was carriage racing. He was often seen racing his carriages at great speed up from the South Coast to London, recreating the great days of private coach travel. His guard would be attired on these excursions in a gold-braided red coat and top hat. For the Holmwood stretch of the route, Vanderbilt had a particular fondness. His coachman blew his horn to bring out local children in hopes of pennies or sweets.
An Anglophile with family connections in England and, particularly, the Dorking/Holmwood area, Alfred Vanderbilt spent as much time in Britain as in the United States. He is recorded as a regular guest at the Burford Bridge Hotel near Box Hill in Surrey. When driving from London to Brighton, he would stop to take lunch and collect telegrams. A memorial was erected on the A24 London to Worthing Road in Holmwood, south of Dorking in Surrey. The inscription reads, “In Memory of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a gallant gentleman and a fine sportsman who perished in the Lusitania, May 7th 1915. This stone is erected on his favourite road by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers”.
Alfred Vanderbilt was married in Reigate in 1912 at a private ceremony with just four witnesses. He and his bride, another wealthy American, Margaret Emerson McKim, had been previously married, his first wife having divorced him for adultery with the wife of the Cuban Ambassador to London who subsequently committed suicide.
World War 1
On 7th May 1915, less than 20km from the Old Head of Kinsale off County Cork, Ireland, the German U-boat U-20 fired a single torpedo against the Lusitania, triggering a secondary torpedo explosion that sank the giant ocean liner within 18 minutes.
The sinking caused international revulsion and condemnation, but the Germans argued that the Lusitania’s manifest showed it was carrying a secret cargo of 50 tonnes of high-explosive munitions destined for Britain and was a legitimate target.
The Germans had introduced unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915 in retaliation for the British naval blockade of the English Channel and North Sea, which they claimed was strangling German commerce.
The Lusitania sinking was a major factor in building support in America for a war. Whilst the attack on Lusitania turned American public opinion against Germany, war was eventually declared some two years later only after the Imperial German Government resumed the use of unrestricted submarine warfare against American shipping in an attempt to break the transatlantic supply chain from the USA to Britain, and after receipt of the Zimmermann Telegram also called The Zimmermann Note or Zimmerman Cable. It was a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico if the United States were to enter World War I against Germany. The communication said that Mexico would be rewarded with recovering United States territory (Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico). The telegram, issued by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, von Eckhardt, was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence, which completely scuppered Germany’s plans.
Gloria Laura Vanderbilt
Best known for her fashion design and tumultuous personal life, actress, writer and artist Gloria Laura Vanderbilt (1924 –2019) became an iconic figure in American popular culture during the 20th century. She was a member of the Vanderbilt family (once the richest family in the world) of New York and the mother of CNN television anchor Anderson Cooper.
Gloria’s father, Reginald Vanderbilt, was the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the creator of a railroad empire and one of America’s first millionaires. Her mother, Gloria Morgan, was a young woman who loved parties more than parenthood.
During the 1930s, Gloria was the subject of a high-profile child custody trial in which her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, each sought custody of her and control over her trust fund. Called the “trial of the century” by the press, the court proceedings were the subject of wide and sensational press coverage due to the wealth and prominence of the involved parties and the scandalous evidence presented to support Whitney’s claim that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was an unfit parent.
Her Life and Loves
Gloria was married four times, divorced three times, and had four children (all sons). She maintained a romantic relationship with photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks for many years until he died in 2006. Other relationships included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Roald Dahl, with other relationships along the way.
Her 4th marriage, on Christmas Eve 1963, was to author Wyatt Emory Cooper. The marriage lasted 15 years until he died in 1978, undergoing open-heart surgery.
In the 1970s, Vanderbilt launched a line of fashions, perfumes, and household goods bearing her name. She was noted as an early developer of designer blue jeans and set new trends in fashion marketing.
Her death on 17th June 2019 was announced in the New York Times:
“Gloria Vanderbilt, the society heiress who stitched her illustrious family name into designer jeans and built a $100 million fashion empire, crowning her tabloid story of a child-custody fight, of broken marriages and of jet-set romances, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 95.”
Great Uncle George and Biltmore
George Vanderbilt was Gloria Vanderbilt’s great uncle and a grandson of the industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was an intellectual, fluent in several languages, well-travelled and knowledgeable about art, architecture, music, agriculture, horticulture and literature.
In the late 1880s, George, then a young man of 25, came upon the perfect spot in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains for a 250-room French Renaissance chateau to be built by his friend, architect Richard Morris Hunt. The great château would come to be called “Biltmore.”
Vanderbilt’s decision to locate his mountain mansion near Asheville, NC, led to his purchase of a total of 125,000 acres surrounding the site. Today, Biltmore Estate encompasses approximately 8,000 acres, including formal and informal gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America.
While the incomparable beauty of Biltmore Estate is the result of the combined creative talents and vision of all three men—Vanderbilt, Hunt and Olmsted—it is Biltmore House, which continues to be the centerpiece of Vanderbilt’s legacy. This great house remains the largest private residence in America, a National Historic Landmark.
George Vanderbilt officially opened the home to friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1895. He had created a country retreat to pursue his passion for art, literature and horticulture. After marrying American Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (1873–1958) in Paris during the summer of 1898, George and his new bride came to live at the estate. Their only child, Cornelia (1900–1976), was born and grew up at Biltmore.
The scale of Biltmore continues to be astounding: the house contains more than 11 million bricks, and the massive stone spiral staircase rises four floors and has 102 steps. Through its centre hangs an iron chandelier suspended from a single point, containing 72 electric light bulbs.
Main descendants (by birth date) of Cornelius Vanderbilt (‘the Commodore’) and relationship with him.
- Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877), 1st generation
- William Henry Vanderbilt (1821–1885), 2nd generation, son
- Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt (1830–1882), 2nd generation, son
- Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899), 3rd generation, grandson
- Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt (1845–1924), 3rd Cornelius Vanderbilt generation, granddaughter
- William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849–1920), 3rd generation, grandson
- Emily Thorn Vanderbilt (1850–1946), 3rd generation, granddaughter
- William Knapp Thorn (1851–1911), 3rd generation, grandson
- Florence Adele Vanderbilt (1854–1952), 3rd generation, granddaughter
- Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856–1938), 3rd generation, grandson
- Eliza “Lila” Osgood Vanderbilt (1860–1936), 3rd generation, granddaughter
- George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862–1914), 3rd generation, grandson
- Cornelius Vanderbilt III (1873–1942), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Emily Vanderbilt Sloane (1874–1970), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- Alice Louise Vanderbilt Shepard (1874–1950), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- Elliott Fitch Shepard Jr. (1876–1927), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1877–1915), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877–1964), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878–1944), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880–1925), 4th generation, great-grandson
- James Watson Webb II (1884–1960), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884–1970), 4th generation, great-grandson
- Gladys Moore Vanderbilt (1886–1965), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- Flora Payne Whitney (1897–1986), 5th generation, great-great-granddaughter
- John Spencer-Churchill, 10th Duke of Marlborough (1897–1972), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (1898–1974), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- William Douglas Burden (1898–1978), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (1898–1956), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (1899–1992), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- Muriel Vanderbilt (1900–1972), 5th generation, the great-great-granddaughter
- Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt (1900–1976), 4th generation, great-granddaughter
- Governor William Henry Vanderbilt III (1901–1981)
- Mary Cathleen Vanderbilt (1904–1944)
- Frederick Vanderbilt Field (1905–2000)
- William Armistead Moale Burden II (1906–1984)
- Shirley Carter Burden (1908–1989), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- John Henry Hammond Jr. (1910–1987), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr. (1912–1999), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- George Washington Vanderbilt III (1914–1961), 5th generation, great-great-grandson
- James Watson Webb III (1916–2000)
- Sir Richard Thorn Pease, 3rd Baronet (1922–2021)
- Whitney Tower (1923–1999)
- Gloria Laura Vanderbilt (1924–2019)
- George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil (1925–2020)
- John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough (1926–2014), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil (1928–2017)
- Flora Miller Biddle (born 1928)
- Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill (born 1929)
- Christopher Denys Stormont Finch-Hatton, 16th Earl of Winchilsea (1936–1999), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- John Wilmerding (born 1938), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- Shirley Carter Burden Jr. (1941–1996), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- John Paul Hammond (born 1942), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- Kenneth Peter Lyle Mackay, 4th Earl of Inchcape (born 1943), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- Jonathan Edward Pease (born 1952), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- John LeBoutillier (born 1953), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- Sage Sohier (born 1954), 7th generation (4 × great-granddaughter)
- Charles James Spencer-Churchill, 12th Duke of Marlborough (born 1955), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- Sir Richard Peter Pease, 4th Baronet (born 1958), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- Lady Henrietta Mary Spencer-Churchill (born 1958), 7th generation (4 × great-granddaughter)
- Nichola Pease (born 1961), 6th generation (3 × great-granddaughter)
- William Douglas Burden III (born 1965), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- Anderson Hays Cooper (born 1967), 6th generation (3 × great-grandson)
- Daniel Finch-Hatton, 17th Earl of Winchilsea (born 1967), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- Timothy David Olyphant (born 1968), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- James Platten Vanderbilt (born 1975), 7th generation (4 × great-grandson)
- George John Godolphin Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (born 1992), 8th generation (5 × great-grandson)
NOTE: The Vanderbilts featured in the text of this paper are shown in bold above.
Sourced and Excerpted from and Further Reading
- Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-vanderbilts-how-american-royalty-lost-their-crown-jewels/ ↑
- On Tuesday, 11th May 1915, page 2. ↑
- But Wikipedia puts it at 11 miles (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lusitania ↑
- But Wikipedia says says the Lusitania was carrying 173 tons of war munitions and ammunition. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lusitania ↑
- See: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/zimmermann, https://www.britannica.com/event/Zimmermann-Telegram and https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/zimmermann-telegram ↑
- Source: https://www.biography.com/personality/gloria-vanderbilt ↑
- This section is taken from: https://www.romanticasheville.com/biltmorececil.htm ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanderbilt_family ↑