A family tale of epic proportions

Featured image
Looking north along Fifth Avenue showing the W. H. Vanderbilt house, foreground, and the W. K. Vanderbilt house, or "Petit Chateau," to the right. Circa 1885.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021. It was very hot and humid in New York yesterday, with more heat and a RealFeel in the 90s and partly sunny today.

Arthur T. Vanderbilt II.

I just spent the past few days in my spare time reading a book called Fortune’s Children; The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt a biography about the Vanderbilt family fortune. It’s a biography, a book about what happened to our country and culture in the great success of its development.

It was written by Arthur Vanderbilt II, a lawyer and writer who was not closely, if at all, related to the Commodore’s family. How and why Mr. Vanderbilt took up the project is probably an interesting story. He is a lawyer by profession, as was his father and his grandfather, all Arthurs, and therefore has a strong sense of heritage.

The tinted color photo cover of the book is of the William Henry Vanderbilt Triple Palace covering the entire block between 51st and 52nd Streets completed in 1880, three years after the death of the Commodore.

The building of the mansion in that location was an important move of the son after a lifetime of being treated with harsh criticism and unkindness by his father. The mansion which extended into 51st and 52nd Streets occupied the entire block on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street — which is now part of Rockefeller Center.

Two years after its completion, across the street, on the northwest corner of 52nd and Fifth there began five years in construction on the limestone chateau of William Henry’s second son William K. and Alva Vanderbilt. The photograph was taken in the 1890s when Fifth Avenue was entirely (and newly) residential with mansions, several of which belonged to the children and grandchildren of William Henry.

William K. and Alva Vanderbilt’s “Petit Chateau.”
The Petit Chateau’s salon.

The press dubbed it Vanderbilt Row. Farther up the avenue, William’s eldest son, Cornelius II with his wife and family occupied a 153 room mansion occupying the entire block between 57th and 58th Streets where Bergdorf Goodman and Van Cleef and Arpels are located today. These Vanderbilts were the new social stars.  This was when the mode of transportation was horse and carriage, and the roadways were dusty and the women’s skirts were full length.

It’s an American story, a story about a family, the result of one man intensely ambitious and industrious and singleminded. Hard working was always a given in those ancient times. So it is a book about Money = Authority, and the arrogance of those who possess that authority. While it is authentic history, the author tells the story.

The Cornelius Vanderbilt II Mansion on 57th Street and 5th Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman and Van Cleef and Arpels stand today. Photo via A.D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library.

It begins with the Old Man himself, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who as a teenager started it all 200 years ago. In the first decade of the 19th century when he was barely a teenager, he was working ferrying people and goods back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island. He came from a family of farmers and fishermen on Staten Island, across the harbor from Manhattan.

“The Commodore.”

He was a single minded boy, probably intense in his interests. By the time he was 11 or 12 he was involved in the boats that transported life back and forth between the city – which then was located entirely on the tip of Manhattan – and Staten Island. In the Vanderbilt family, the father/founder was an Authority, like a dictator with his family. Laws were whatever he decided.

He was not a kindly or loving father, or husband – although he maintained the perfunctory respect  toward his wife that he was taught. He had little regard for his daughters or his sons whom he criticized and overruled to the point of disrespect and neglect.

The Commodore’s first wife, Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt, and mother of their 13 children.

His wife, mother of his 13 children, was of no use or interest to him after her motherhood duties were completed. He had her “put away” so that he could renew his youth with a younger wife who was there to serve him. Ordinary male respect, or the lack thereof for any women, including his wives and daughters, was a given.

I started reading out of vague curiosity, and soon was reading it any spare moment that I had. I was already familiar with almost all of the names in the Vanderbilt family and their 20th century publicity-lives. Their command of public attention was related to their inheritances and their social lives. The man whence it all came was not even a vague memory or thought.

The Old Man’s life was none of that, he was a worker. In this biography, the author gives you the guts of the family. It reads almost like gossip. That is perhaps what gives it its compelling flavor. It is also a simply told tale of money and power and its natural evolution.

It all started in the first decade of 19th century, around the middle of January 1807. The city had a population of about 60,000 in the area, and always growing. Most of Manhattan Island was sparsely inhabited. Cornelius grew up on Staten Island where the major “industry” was boats. They were part of New York but a boat ride away. Staten Island in those days had one of the greatest oyster beds in the world. Everything, including the people, moved by the boats.

Commodore Vanderbilt was born in the house now known as the Harrison Homestead, at No. 125 Richmond Avenue, Port Richmond, where his parents were temporarily living on May 27, 1794.

Young Cornelius naturally fell into the business of the boats. In his early teens, his mother lent him $25 to buy a passenger boat. That was a large sum in the economy of the time. This was not a luxury vessel and its capacity was limited, but Manhattan across the water (and Brooklyn too) was the destination for the Staten Islanders, and the possibilities were endless to a young man with imagination and drive.

He was immediately successful, and in a few short years owned more than one boat. He was obsessive about his business, always serious and driven like a hungry entrepreneur. The boat business grew with the population of the area, and the boats got bigger. More passengers, more revenue. By the time he was in his early 20s he was in the business of passengers and freight all over the area and along the coast of the Northeast.

C. Vanderbilt, Hudson River steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt (oil on canvas by James and John Bard).

His intense personal interest was the moving/transportation business. Growth was its absolute certainty back then. The country was growing and prospering. More people to move and move for.

By 1825, the Staten Island boy was something of a tycoon. He had married and had a family. She had 13 children in 15 years. His interest in his wife and his family was almost nil. He was responsible in what was expected of a man with a family, but he was obsessed with his business. He obviously had no interest in his children’s future and had little respect for them or their lives as they were growing up. He was busy.

The Commodore’s eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt, was never quite good enough for his father. Photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

He was a numbers man. He kept his numbers — cash, boats, properties — all in his head. As a young man he was naturally attracted to opportunities in the business of moving people. The Hudson and the East Rivers were well traveled routes to other parts of the states around them. There were immense changes occurring in New York and the northeast in the early 19th century.

This was before all of the inventions and discoveries such as telephones, electricity, machine engines that are part of our everyday world. Cornelius Vanderbilt had the natural instincts that came from his hard working youth. When the steam engine and the railroad came into the picture, the man who was a major people-mover in New York City and interstate environs could only see the possibilities. It must have been a natural instinct.

It’s a magical story of bookstraps-American enterprise, but as Arthur Vanderbilt’s book reveals, the Old Man is a compelling character, ambitious almost to the point of madness; willful to an extreme, yet also clever, to the point of wonder and amusement.

He could be cruel with his words and often his actions with his own children. Girls didn’t matter; they weren’t going to be carrying on the family name. Boys were either idiots or worse and treated that way. He loved his mother who lent him the money to buy his first boat — something like $25.

He was almost completely uneducated, and his language was lacking. He couldn’t really read. He ignored all of those details. He didn’t need them to get ahead because getting ahead was what he was. He was his own religion. And a zealot.

The familiar Cornelius Vanderbilt statue by Ernst Plassmann in its original location at the Hudson River Railway Freight Depot (where the Holland Tunnel now exists). The familiar statue now stands at the center of Grand Central terminal’s south facade, facing the Park Avenue Viaduct.

It was a way of life that was not entirely comprehensible to those of us born in the 20th century. Everybody worked. Labor. There were no conveniences that we are so used to they even seem natural to us. The young Cornelius was fascinated with boats from the time he was a kid in the late 1700s. By his very early teens he was working on these boats that sailed the bay from island to island, and up the Hudson River, picking up, delivering.

He was already a transportation tycoon in his late 50s, early 60s when the opportunity to invest in railroad trains came to him. Now a rich man, his family had grown, and whose wife was installed in a “home” making room for new wife, he was living in a mansion (still standing) in Washington Square.

The success of the railroad business for Cornelius Vanderbilt had already begun and was booming when he died in 1878, leaving a fortune that today would be in the several billions, and greater than the previous richest American before him, John Jacob Astor. The business he created continued, naturally expanding and would prosper for another hundred years. His heirs, mainly from only one of his many children, would accumulate even greater fortunes from the Old Man’s business. But he was a mean man, never kindly or loving, like a dictator with his children and his wife.

Burial of Cornelius Vanderbilt; from a sketch by Charles Mente.

Uninterested in his family, he did not conceal his lack of interest or respect. However, as his businesses grew and prospered, and he was getting older, he needed someone whom he could trust and control. He took on his eldest son William Henry for that role.

He had always treated this son with his signature lack of respect. William was never good enough in one way or another. This was not true of course, but it was the natural way of this father toward his children. The son, however, accepted it, didn’t argue, and made a life for himself with his wife and also a burgeoning family of sons and daughters — who would later become famous in 20th century American social history.

And as the years passed, the Commodore, growing older, began to observe that son William was not only dutiful but a good administrator of his father’s wishes. By the 1870s, the New York Central and all the other railroads in the Commodore’s portfolio were doing big business under William’s guidance. Now the father admired the son’s behavior in his position. So when the Commodore died, he left his entire estate to William, and the family tales began. It’s a book about what happened to our country and culture in the great success of its development.

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