Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

January 2, 2022 at 8:25 pm (Book review, books)

  I figured this would be one heck of a story. I was right. – it is.

In Part One, we are introduced to Jan Aertson van der Bilt. (He was born in the village of Bilt, in the Netherlands near the Belgian border.) From the beginning, from his home base on Staten Island, Jan was a dynamo. He entered the ferry business, became a success, and from there there was no stopping him. It was the classic American immigrant story, in which the newcomer starts with almost nothing and gradually, by way of relentless drive, achieves the summit of success:

The last of the protected Dutch-era monopolies were washed away in the unfettered competitive churn of steamboats plying between New York and New Jersey. That seawater churn would froth higher and higher, heaping up great clouds of profit around the descendants of Jan Aertson van der Bilt, to a level that a seventeenth-century indentured servant or an eighteenth century farmer who owed one horse to his militia could never have possibly imagined.

Born on Staten Island in 1794, Cornelius Vanderbilt began his business enterprise by working in his father’s ferry business. He then started his own ferry business. From there, he went on to acquire great wealth in the railroad and shipping industries. His sobriquet “Commodore” came about because of his unstoppable acquisition of wealth and status, and the iron hand with which he ruled – or attempted to rule – his large family (thirteen children).

Cornelius Vanderbilt, ‘The Commodore’ 1794-1877

Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe cover the Vanderbilt story by highlighting its most memorable moments. We learn of the ferocious rivalry between Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor for the (unofficial) position of Queen of New York Society. One of Alva’s trump cards was marrying off  her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough. It was a union between  two people who not only did not love each other but could barely stand to be in the same room together. Consuelo was in love with someone else, but her mother’s relentless pressure won out. Consuelo and the Duke married in 1895 and separated in 1906. They divorced in 1921; the marriage was ultimately annulled at the Duke’s request in 1926. (They had two sons.)

The Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo, and their sons

The story of the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania in May of is recounted in fascinating detail; Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished in this catastrophe, after committing numerous acts of heroism, as recounted by survivors.

The 1934 battle between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother and her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for custody of ‘Little Gloria’  was one of the sensations of its day. (At the time, ten-year-old Gloria was referred to as ‘Little Gloria,’ because her mother had the same first name.)  There was a TV miniseries in 1982 that told the story; it was entitled Little Gloria…Happy at Last, based on the book by the same name by Barbara Goldsmith. (I read the book, but didn’t see the miniseries.)

The one section in this  book that I found rather tedious was the description of the America’s Cup yacht race that took place in 1934 (an eventful year for the Vanderbilt clan, for sure). Harold Stirling Vanderbilt won the trophy in that contest. I think that Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe were trying to portray this as a suspenseful event. No doubt it was, for the participants and those cheering them on from the sidelines. But for this reader, there was simply too much minutiae about yacht racing. It just did not translate well onto the page.

One chapter that definitely did shine was entitled “Gloria at La Côte Basque.” This was a famously upscale restaurant in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. A group of wealthy and glamorous women used to dine there regularly, frequently accompanied by Truman Capote, who called them his ‘Swans.” Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Vanderbilt – all were part of  this charmed circle.

The women confided in Capote rather recklessly. (Their husbands did not begrudge them the time they spent with him, as he was gay and thus presented no threat.) Eventually, he made use of their confidences in a notorious essay entitled “La Cote Basque 1965” It was published in Esquire Magazine in 1975. Their deepest secrets betrayed and exposed to the world, the Swans turned their backs on their erstwhile confidante.

This story is told in meticulous and – I just have to say it – delicious detail in the recently published Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer.   Here you will encounter not only a festival of gossip, but also a portrait of a time and a way of life that is truly gone with the wind. (As I eagerly devoured the pages of this, I  kept thinking, what planet are these women from? Exactly what are we to make of a world in which, by tying her scarf around the strap of her handbag, a woman starts a style revolution?)

I’d like to recommend a documentary called Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.  This film was made in 2016 and contains some fascinating footage; it also provides a glimpse into a vanished world. But most of all, it recounts moments of reckoning and reconciliation between a mother and her son. Those moments culminated in an affirmed bond of affection.  I found this depiction intensely moving.

The Howard County Library owns this DVD.

 

2 Comments

  1. Rose Johnson said,

    Thanks R. I too have seen the doc. “Nothing left unsaid” and read Capote’s Women. Glad you found this story worth your time. (Minus yacht detailing). R.

  2. Laura Violand said,

    Appreciate your (reviews) and I had marked “to read” on my Goodreads app. Happy New Year..!! Laura Violand

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