Money, money, money. And not a cent left. That’s the bottom line to the Vanderbilt family saga, a financial fairy tale so bizarre it dwarfs the antics of modern Midases such as Malcolm Forbes and Donald Trump.
“People who meet me think there has to be money lurking somewhere, a trust fund or some independent wealth,” says Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, scion of Cornelius, once America’s richest man.
But those people are wrong, he says. In fact, Cornelius (Commodore) Vanderbilt’s descendants are so dispersed, so ignorant of their family’s past and so un- rich that many never knew the extent of their ancestors’ fortunes until Arthur, 39, wrote a book chronicling the family’s rise and fall.
Even the author, a New Jersey lawyer who was in Los Angeles last week on a book promotion tour, confessed to “absolute amazement” when he realized just how much money had been earned in two generations of the family, how quickly it was squandered in the next two generations, and what a horrendous legacy it left.
His is not a pretty tale.
It began when he noticed in high school that his name had peculiar clout: “People were impressed when they heard it. I got good tables in restaurants and other benefits like that.”
He read about his “robber baron” ancestors in textbooks, but the dry descriptions didn’t make much of a dent. His parents acted as if the famous fortune hadn’t existed, and there was a strange lack of Vanderbilt relatives who knew anything about the past.
To put it mildly, they were not a Kennedy type of clan. There were no huge Thanksgiving dinners to celebrate togetherness, no family anecdotes passed from mothers to daughters, from fathers to sons.
It’s a pattern the Vanderbilts had from the start, the author says, and it seems to intensify through the generations: “We are an aloof and distant family; my grandfather has 14 grandchildren, my father is one of five sons and we never do get together. Money drives families apart,” he explains. And though none of the original money is left, the lack of closeness and family pride lives on.
It’s no wonder, Vanderbilt adds, recalling the greed, penury and cruelty of Cornelius (1794-1877), who began the infamous family from whose “twisted roots” Arthur sprang.
The son of an English mother and a Dutch father, Cornelius was 16 years old and living on Staten Island, N. Y., when he bought his first boat and began ferrying passengers from Staten Island to Manhattan.
At age 17, he bought two more boats; at 19, he married and began what was to be a family of 13 children. He soon bought an inn, put his wife to work cooking, cleaning and waiting tables in addition to taking care of the brood. She bought their food, sewed their clothes and ran the inn, all with money she earned--and with no money from her husband.
But he was making piles of the stuff as he expanded the routes of his ferry boat lines and drove the competition out.
His strategy, which he continued throughout his career, was to cut passenger rates so low that the competition was forced out of business. Then he would raise the rates again and cut passenger services to the bone. His boats were never insured and life preservers were considered unnecessary.
In many cases, he allowed the competition to buy him out or bribe him, so that he eventually received hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to simply not operate his boats (and later, his trains) along certain routes.
By the 1840s, when he was in his 50s, Vanderbilt employed more men than anyone in the country.
He had his wife committed to an asylum until she relented and agreed to move from Staten Island to New York. He later had one of his sons committed for a short time, simply for disobeying his rules.
Meantime, Vanderbilt saw the future in railroads rather than steamboats and began building an even greater empire. In his own words, he became “insane on the subject of money making.”
Before his New York Central railroad line was built, a traveler from New York to Chicago had to change trains 17 times. But Vanderbilt forced the little lines out of business, built his own lines and consolidated a route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.
He carried 7 million passengers each year and amassed more money in his personal coffers than was held in the U.S. Treasury. He built Grand Central Station in New York and various residential mansions around the town.
At his death, he left a few million dollars to each of his surviving children but wanted to keep the bulk of the fortune intact. He left $95 million to his son William at a time when the finest French chef was paid $100 a month, a butler earned $60 a month and the most successful businessmen earned about $10,000 a year.
William was now rich beyond anything even Robin Leach could imagine. But growing up with Cornelius as a father had left its scars. He didn’t enjoy the money. And although he doubled the fortune in the eight years before his own death, being the world’s richest man, he said, had broken his health.
The magnitude of his wealth gave him no advantage over men of more moderate means and fewer headaches. “The care of $200 million is too great a load,” he told his family. “It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with this terrible burden. There is no pleasure to be got out of it, no good of any kind.”
He divided the wealth between his sons, hoping they could “share the worry.”
And that’s when the saga really heats up. How the sons and their families witlessly whittled away the fortune, so that it disappeared within two generations; how they battled each other, treated their children cruelly and spent unthinkable sums on houses--$11 million for one mansion, at a time when the average U.S. income was $900 a year--are the tales that make one wonder how much money is too much, or whether there ever can be enough.
Within 30 years after the death of Commodore Vanderbilt, no member of his family was among the richest people in the United States.
Within 70 years of his death, all the great Vanderbilt mansions on New York’s Fifth Avenue had fallen to the wrecker’s ball. The vast country estates, meant to become great ancestral homes of the family, were hardly used by those who built them; they never were used by the generations that came next. It was all too meaningless to last.
Vanderbilt’s book, “Fortune’s Children, the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt” (William Morrow), is a recitation of facts and figures without much depth or warmth. But that’s precisely the way the Vanderbilts lived, the author says.
And if it disturbs some people, he’s not surprised: “Tom Wolfe called the ‘80s the Decade of Money. It was a time when people were fascinated with the lives of the rich. Now I think people are starting to be repelled.”