Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dead End Gene Pool

The abstract city skyline en route to JFK. 7:50 PM. Photo: JH.
March 10, 2010. Yesterday was sunny and warm in New York with temperatures in the low 60s. People were leaving their overcoats at home, and even their jackets, to walk in the bright sunshine.

I spent the day running errands to prepare for the trip across the Atlantic JH and I were making to visit Maastricht in the Netherlands and TEFAF a/k/a The European Fine Art Fair.  By  the time this Diary is posted (which is very late for us) we will have completed the six and a half hour crossing and the three hour drive from Amsterdam to our destination.

Although it was an overnight flight, I’m not much of a sleeper while traveling on these journeys. Attempts to overcome that were also hampered by a new book someone sent me called “Dead End Gene Pool; a Memoir” by a writer named Wendy Burden. The pub date isn’t until the end of the month so we won’t be reading much about it until then.  However.

The book cover with the author's grandparents dressed for a costume party, and Florham, the estate of the author's great-grandmother. And backcover: the author and her mother on her wedding day.
I opened it when I received it just to get a look at what was inside, and found it so compelling that I finished it (on the flight across the Atlantic) three days later. That’s fast for this slow reader with a daily sked chock full of deadlines and engagements.

The Burdens were well known in New York society by the end of the 19th century, the original fortune having come from ironworks in Troy, New York.

In 1901 and 1904, two Burdens, William A. M., and James A., cousins, married great-granddaughters of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilts have been a boon to the book business throughout the last century for two reasons. One is they were the richest family in America a century ago – according to Wendy Burden, the final tally of the Commodore’s estate when he died in 1877, was  $167 billion in today’s dollars, and the Commodore’s son William H. doubled  that before his death eight years after his father in 1885.

The second reason was their lifestyle. There were so many of them, and they married into a number of rich and prominent families as well; living high, wide and handsome, leaving a long trail of marital couplings, de-couplings, high-jinks, dissipated lives on the downswing and fantastic palaces on the way up.

Two standouts from their bibliography are Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s “The Glitter and the Gold” published in the early 1950s, and Barbara Goldsmith’s snappy and can't-put-downable biography of Gloria Vanderbilt “Little Gloria Happy At Last.” Gloria Vanderbilt herself has also produced several tomes including more than one memoir.  Mid-century – late 40s, early 50s, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV did the same.

Wendy Burden’s story is the 21st century successor to these. Personally I’ve read so many of these kinds of books that I opened Ms. Burden’s memoir with no more than residual curiosity about the vast house on the cover. “Florham” is a mansion in New Jersey that I’d written about in the past, and I wondered what I might learn of some heretofore untold details about it.

The house was built by a granddaughter of the Commodore’s, Florence Vanderbilt and her husband Hamilton Twombly (Flor-Ham, get it?). It is now the administration building for Fairleigh Dickinson University. Mrs. Twombly was famous in her family as the last living grandchild of the Commodore. born in 1854 and she lived like an empress until she died at ninety-eight in 1952. (Florham was only one of her residences.)
The author in wedding dress showing a modicum of patience with a troubled mother.
The Twomblys had four children, two of whom – daughters – lived to majority – and one of them, Florence (named for her mother) married William A. M. Burden in 1904. The Burdens had two sons – Shirley Carter Burden (father of the late Carter Burden) and William A. M. Burden Jr., who was the grandfather of Wendy Burden.
Mr. Burden plays a very important role in his granddaughter’s life, aside from any inheritance,  because her father, William A. M. Burden III, committed suicide when she was a small child, and so she and her siblings were often sent to visit their grandparents.

This was in the late 50s. The Burden grandparents lived in grand style in a 20 room apartment on Fifth Avenue as well as an estate in Mount Kisco in Westchester, a house in Northeast Harbor, Maine, and a house in Hobe Sound, Florida, with a retinue of servants (which is what they were referred to as) and secretaries to see that their daily lives ran properly and efficiently (as well as comfortably). They were fifth generation and still rich. Mr. Burden had been a lifelong collector of “modern art,” was president of the Museum of Modern Art, and they lived in a very large apartment that was designed by Philip Johnson (his only private apartment commission) in one of the best buildings on the avenue.

Shortly after the beginning of “Dead End Gene Pool,” with the death of William III the children are often sent off to stay with grandmother and grandfather. This was when the author’s life really began.
The 121-room main house of Florence and Hamilton Twombly's "Florham," now part of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
Mr. and Mrs. Burden led very ordered and old-fashioned lives of luxury (once Mr. Burden, who pretty much planned the menu for their dinners, called his secretary, Miss Pou, and had the following conversation):

“Miss Pou, the president of MIT is arriving tomorrow at three and I would like to serve grouse for dinner.”

“Certainly sir. Though I believe it may be a bit early ...”

“Miss Pou. My food calendar states that mid-August is the season for grouse, so I am certain you’ll find a resource.”

“Yes, Mr. Burden. I suppose I can call Scotland.”

“Marvelous. Catch the eight-thirty flight. Good-bye.”

And so they were delivered. Oh, also: He specified “females.” Better tasting.

Now, oddly enough  “Dead End Gene Pool” is very funny. Ms. Burden is a wit, a champion of one-liners and set up that can leave you guffawing to the point of distraction.  Her childhood which moved in and out of that world which is still thought of as Society in America is fraught a premature cynicism about the world of manners and money. It helped that after her father died, she and her mother and brothers lived in somewhat straitened circumstances when the grandparents were not hosting them. That is the background, the scenery in the life of the development of this character Wendy Burden.
the author's grandparents dressed for a costume party.
I did not expect to find myself immersed in this woman’s story of growing up and suddenly reading something that made me laugh out loud. Guffaw to the point of stopping to get my bearings before I could go back to reading. This happens again and again. Out of nowhere. The girl is. This brat, oh god her grandparents must have been saints to endure her rigorous path of (life) discovery.

Wendy Burden we soon learn is a contemporary American woman, an artist, a writer, funny lady. While telling us what is in many ways a bittersweet, even sometimes tragic story of a life, of lives, of a family, of families, she shows us just how different the rich are than you and I. What she shows us is that Ernest Hemingway just about got it right in that famous exchange with Scott Fitzgerald: “they have more money.”

Aside from the utter luxury of her grandparents’ life, the young girl and her brothers were also living in a somewhat hardscrabble emotional life with their mother who was an alcoholic as well as devoted to her sex life.

The girl early on finds her solace in the macabre. (Charles Addams wrote her bible. It was surreal). The blurbs on the book refer to the “decline” of a family’s wealth and position but that “decline” had more to do with the scourges of modern American life: drugs and alcohol, found everywhere including with the grandparents.

In terms of emotional turmoil, I was reminded of Brooke Hayward’s  seminal 1977 memoir “Haywire,” which brought the private lives of Show Business elite (movie stars, producers, agents) into the realm of reality. Another Vanderbilt – Consuelo – broke ground with her memoir but she was the child of Victorians and already in her seventies when she wrote it. Wendy Burden is a late boomer, very much a woman of her generation, of the let-it-all-hang-out age. And she does. She really does. There’s great tragedy and sadness that runs through the last three generations of the book's characters, and yet as I write this I find myself laughing at the memory of reading her descriptions and reactions to the world presented to her by fate (and genes). You will too.

The book doesn’t come out until the end of the month, so you’ll have to put in the order with your book seller or Amazon now.
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