The rich are different than us - Keith Roulston editorial
The famous novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Thank heaven.
This thought comes to mind after reading Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe. I have no doubt that it was Cooper’s name that attracted my wife Jill to the book back when she was choosing a title for her birthday gift from me. Since we seldom read the same books, I was surprised that I wanted to read her selection, too.
Cooper, in case you don’t know, is the primary anchor of the CNN news broadcast show Anderson Cooper 360° and a correspondent for 60 Minutes on CBS News. He is also the younger son of author, screenwriter, and actor Wyatt Emory Cooper and, more famously, the artist, fashion designer, writer, and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt – and, more ‘greats’ than I can print, a descendent of business magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the once-prominent Vanderbilt shipping and railroad fortune.
It’s his own fame, and his direct connection to the Vanderbilt family that caused the book’s publisher to print Cooper’s name at least four times larger than Katherine Howe’s. Still. reading the book, it’s hard not to think she probably contributed more than he did.
The Commodore left an estate of $200 million when he died in 1877, the equivalent of $5.4 billion today. He had been born into poverty in 1794, his family having farmed on Staten Island, off New York, for most of a century. His father had few ambitions, content to farm and fish. Cornelius, even at age 11, was far more ambitious, using his father’s boat to transport vegetables and passengers the five miles between Staten Island and Manhattan.
By the time he was 16, Cornelius, with a loan from his mother, had purchased his own boat, running a ferry to Manhattan. Later, when the British stopped American trade with France during the War of 1812-1814, he made a deal with the British to bring them supplies and brought produce from the Hudson River to hungry New Yorkers.
It was just the beginning. He would go on to build a shipping empire and nearly monopolize the railway business. Cooper and Howe describe his attitude: “As master manipulator, disseminator, and inventor of his own legend, Cornelius Vanderbilt revelled in attention, in being feared by men in business with him and, certainly, by men in business against him. He was feared also by his children, whose lives he dominated with judgement and control.”
Perhaps a more loving father would have been rewarded with offspring who contributed more, but Cornelius’s children and grandchildren seemed most interested in spending the fortune he had left. People seemed to compete to see who could build the largest, most expensive homes, both in the city and on neighbouring islands for summer homes in those days before air-conditioning.
Of note is the ridiculous 1883 ball thrown by Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore. Wanting to outdo her sister-in-law Alice, Alva invited 1,200 to her dinner and dance, a costume ball which had two orchestras. The cost of this alone was $11,000 (about $280,000 today), at a time when a maid earned $350 a year. When you take in the total cost, including the prices of costumes and preparations of the guests, the party is estimated to cost the equivalent of $6.4 million in today’s money.
Alva is an interesting character, if seldom admirable. She wouldn’t let her daughter Consuelo marry New York socialite Winthrop Rutherford. Instead Alva forced her to marry Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough in 1894, when she was only 18. He had a title, but little money. She was the opposite. It was not a marriage made in heaven, and eventually they divorced.
By 1912, Alva, by now divorced herself from Billy, had become a feminist leader.
Also of interest in the book is Cooper’s mother, the famous Gloria Vanderbilt. He was her son by her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper. Gloria had become famous as a designer of blue jeans, and earned her own fortune to replace the last of the Vanderbilt money she had inherited.
She had famously come under threat of being kidnapped in the 1930s and was the subject of a highly-publicized custody battle that saw “little” Gloria separated from her mother.
There are fascinating elements in Vanderbilt that make it worth reading. Then there are long, tedious chapters (for me at least) like the detailed description of Harold Sterling Vanderbilt captaining the America’s Cup defender in 1934. All told, this isn’t a book I’d recommend, yet it remains a startling introduction to a very different world than the one in which you and I reside.