Part of the fun of preparing these monthly “favorite books” essays is getting to revisit books I haven’t read in way too long. This month, an added delight is in finding what might best be termed a new old favorite, i.e. a book that came out in 1989, but had gotten by me until now. It is Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, by a descendant, Arthur T. Vanderbilt II. And it’s a corker.
When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, his empire was worth a hundred million dollars, or one out of every twenty dollars then in circulation including cash and demand deposits. He was not just the richest man in the United States – America’s first centimillionaire – but the richest man who ever lived in this country, scaled to the total amount of money in circulation. He left virtually his entire fortune to his dutiful son William, who in six years doubled it.
Yet within 48 years of the Commodore’s death, one of his descendants died penniless. Within 70 years, the ten great Vanderbilt family mansions on Fifth Avenue – which once included the largest private residence in New York City – had all been torn down. When some 120 of the Commodore’s descendants gathered at Vanderbilt University in 1973 for the first family reunion, there was not a single millionaire among them. And just last year, sixth generation descendant Anderson Cooper said of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.”
The way in which the world’s greatest private fortune could have come to nothing well within a hundred years is the spine of Mr. Vanderbilt’s scrupulously researched and lively book. Along the way, it is nothing less than a natural history of high society from the Gilded Age down to relatively modern times, with a cast of vivid characters living lives that are unimaginable in our era of income and estate taxation.
Fortune’s Children is thus a hugely entertaining read and the ultimate case study of the phenomenon Andrew Carnegie called shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. It is a fascinating story, well told by someone able to view it from the inside. After you’ve read it, you may very well wish to learn more about the Commodore himself, the rags to riches founder of the fortune. In that case, the definitive biography is that written by T. J. Stiles, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It, too, is a corker.
© 2015 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Nick reviews current books, articles and research findings in the “Resources” feature of his monthly newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download the current sample issue, visit www.nickmurray.com and click on “Newsletters.”