Select Vanderbilt Miscellany

Here are some Vanderbilt stories and accounts over the years:

The First Vanderbilts in New York

In the first directory of the city of New York, the only Vanderbilts whose names appeared were not the Vanderbilts.  They were Dutch to be sure and spelt their name “Van der Bilt.”  The most prominent among them was a truckman. 

At that time in the early 1800’s the Vanderbilts were farmers on Staten Island and not listed in New York.

The Commodore and the Bellona

In 1817 at the age of 23 Cornelius Vanderbilt recognized the future, sold his sailboats and went to work for Thomas Gibbons who owned a steamboat.  Once he learned how to operate the steamboat, he persuaded Gibbons to build a steamboat that he himself had designed - the Bellona.  This vessel was to operate in a ferry service between New Brunswick in Canada, New York and New Jersey. 

The ferryboat business was tough; but Cornelius learnt how to survive.  At one point he charged passengers on the New Jersey to Manhattan run just a dollar, below cost, rather than the going monopoly rate of four dollars.  He made up his losses by raising the price of food and drink in the steamboat’s bar.  He went 60 straight days evading the New York City police who were trying to arrest him for violating the monopoly laws. 

While the Commodore ran the boat, his wife was up to business ventures of her own.  The couple had purchased a New Brunswick hotel that was in ill repair and renovated it.  Sophia named it Bellona Hall after her husband’s steamboat.  She apparently did a great job running the hotel for the twelve years it was under her command.  The hotel attracted so much business for the line that it significantly boosted the Commodore’s income.

The Commodore and His Descendants

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), the Commodore

- William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), he died the richest man in the world

   - Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899), the eldest son who assumed the family leadership
     - Cornelius (Neily) Vanderbilt III (1873-1942), eldest son who inherited little
        - Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (1898-1974), a newspaper publisher who married seven times
     - Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), founder of the Whitney Museum in New York
     - Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1875-1915), he died in the Lusitania sinking
        - William Henry Vanderbilt II (1901-1981), briefly Governor of Rhode Island
        - Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr. (1912-1999), equestrian enthusiast
        - George Washington Vanderbilt III (1914-1961), yachtsman and explorer
     - Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880-1925), equestrian enthusiast
        - Gloria Vanderbilt (born 1924), the celebrity who launched designer jeans
           - Anderson Cooper (born 1967), the distinguished CNN reporter

   - William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849-1920), the man who succeeded his brother Cornelius as family head
     - Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964), she married the Duke of Marlborough
     - William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), keen sailor and lover of fast cars
     - Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884-1970), yachtsman and bridge player

   - Florence Vanderbilt Twombly (1854-1952), the Commodore's favorite and his last surviving grandchild

   - George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914), country gentleman at his North Carolina Biltmore estate.

Vanderbilts at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island

The Moravian Cemetery, opened in 1740 in what was then a farming community, was originally made available as a free cemetery in order to discourage families from using farm burial plots. 

The Vanderbilt mausoleum, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and constructed in 1886, is part of the family's private section within the cemetery.  Both the Commodore and his son had donated land to the church.  Their mausoleum is a replica of a Romanesque church in Arles in France.  The landscaped grounds around the Vanderbilt mausoleum were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park in New York.  It is the largest private tomb in America.  In the tomb lie Cornelius and seven other family members. 

The tomb is said to be haunted.  A woman was once killed when trying to open the iron gate of the tomb.  It fell on her.  It has been said that if you bring flowers to the tomb you will be chased by a ghost in a gray suit.  Legend has it that if you take a picture there, either the person in the picture will not be in it when you develop it or there will be another person in the picture who was not there originally.

The Two Mrs. Vanderbilts in New York Society

William Kissam Vanderbilt married twice.  Both of his wives were to make their mark in New York society. 

At one time the Vanderbilts had not been socially acceptable.  While they may have been the wealthiest family in the nation, they had not been recognized by Mrs. Astor.   It was Mrs. Astor's contention that one's fortune had to be at least two generations old and that one had to be unencumbered by work in trade.  Therefore the Vanderbilts were scorned as nouveau riche and unacceptable for admission into New York's elite “400.” 

Determined to bring the Vanderbilt family the social status that she felt they deserved, Alva Vanderbilt – the first Mrs. Vanderbilt - christened their Fifth Avenue chateau in March 1883 with a masquerade ball for 1,000 guests, costing a reported $3 million.  An oft-repeated story, probably apocryphal, relates that Mrs. Vanderbilt purposely neglected to send an invitation to Mrs. Astor's daughter Carrie.  Supposedly this forced Mrs. Astor to come calling in order to secure an invitation for her daughter. 

But the Vanderbilt marriage was not to last long.  Alva was strong-willed, arrogant, and opinionated, traits that were to intensify rather than to moderate over her life.  She and William divorced.  They both subsequently remarried, she to become Mrs. Belmont and he to wed Anne Harriman, the daughter of the banker Oliver Harriman. 

Soon Mrs. Belmont and the second Mrs. Vanderbilt became cut-throat rivals.  Mrs. Belmont opened the feud by refusing to welcome at her Newport home anyone who had entertained Mrs. Vanderbilt.  The ladies would joust for prominence in their own circles and for attention in the society pages of the New York press.  Mrs. Belmont gained an initial advantage by espousing the cause of the suffragettes, thereby putting her name on the front page news as well.  The second Mrs. Vanderbilt made her name with her work with the Red Cross in France during the First World War. 

After the war Mrs. Belmont retreated to France and the second Mrs. Vanderbilt, who divided her time between New York and Paris, assumed the leadership of the so called “400.”  As late as 1935, Mrs. Vanderbilt was listed by Paris dressmakers as one of the 20 best dressed women in the world.  She died in 1940.  Twelve years later, Mrs. Twombly, the last surviving granddaughter of the Commodore, died.  Her death at the age of 98 was said to have marked the final curtain for “real society” in New York.

Death on the Lusitania

In 1912 Alfred Vanderbilt had made a last minute decision not to return to America on the Titanic when it made its tragic voyage. 

Ironically three years later he boarded the Lusitania in New York bound for Liverpool.  On May 7, off the coast of Ireland, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship and the giant ocean liner sank within 18 minutes. 

Vanderbilt and his valet helped others into lifeboats and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. He had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra life-vest for her.  Failing to do so, he offered her his own life-vest, which he then proceeded to tie on to her since she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time.  Many considered his actions to be very brave as he could not swim, knew that there were no other life-vests or lifeboats available, and yet he still gave away his only chance of surviving to the young mother and child. 

He and his valet were among the 1,198 passengers who did not survive the sinking.  His body was never recovered. 

Little Gloria - Happy at Last

Not even Hollywood in its heyday could have dreamed up a melodrama so electrifying as the one that swirled around 10-year-old “Little Gloria” Vanderbilt in 1934 when she became the object of a scandalous custody battle between her beautiful but none too bright mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her rich powerful aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (whose private life included several lovers and a pseudonymous novel about lesbianism). 

What a cast of characters there were, everything from royals (Thelma, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s twin, was the mistress of the Prince of Wales), grande dames and a hideously possessive nurse, to the terrified little girl herself, told that her mother might kill her. 

Little Gloria did survive.  She married four times, to the agent Pat DiCicco, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the movie director Sidney Lumet, and the writer Wyatt Emery Cooper. 

In her fifties she ventured into the fashion business.  In 1976 the Indian designer Mohan Murjani proposed launching a line of designer jeans carrying Vanderbilt's name embossed on the back pocket.  Despite her shyness, Gloria was one of the first designers to make public appearances to promote her product.  And Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were launched.  More recently, she has been the author of four memoirs and three novels and has been a regular contributor to publications like The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Elle.

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