Fortune’s Children: the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt

ISBN: 0747406200
ISBN 13: 9780747406204
By: Arthur T. Vanderbilt II

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About this book

Vanderbilt: the very name signifies wealth. The family patriarch, "the Commodore," built up a fortune that made him the world's richest man by 1877. Yet, less than fifty years after the Commodore's death, one of his direct descendants died penniless, and no Vanderbilt was counted among the world's richest people. "Fortune's Children" tells the dramatic story of all the amazingly colorful spenders who dissipated such a vast inheritance.

Reader's Thoughts


I've been meaning to read this book for years and finally got around to it. I've been facinated by the Vanderbilt family and the Gilded Age since my first trips to the Biltmore Estate as a small child. It was amazing to read just how quickly a few generations managed to lose an enormous amount of money. I mean, it was a HUGE amount of money. And that all of their homes in NYC are gone. Every last one of them. Grand Central Station is the only building remaining, which I think is probably the most fitting monument to their legacy.


I have always thought I was born in the wrong time period, and should have been born in the gilded age. After reading this book I am glad I was born when, where, and in the social class I was!!!!! The grass always looks greener on the other side. I couldn't even look at my Victoria trading catalog with the usual pleasure. I appreciate the time period of industrialization and growth. The tremendous wealth of people and freedom to do as they please, but the treatment of their own families, is what disgusted me! Mothers training daughters only for marrying into titles, more money, etc, while they learned nothing of the true qualities of life...loveless homes, marriages, is all sick...I'm glad I will never have this problem in my life..nor do I want it.


I really enjoyed this book about the rise and heady decline of the Vanderbilt empire of wealth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Author Arthur Vanderbilt withholds no criticism on the foibles and excessive spending tendencies of his ancestors, and is actually a breezy, smart writer. Drawing on newspaper articles and on books and journals written by everyone from the Commodore to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the author pieces together a story of wealth gone wrong that is truly stranger than fiction. And he does an excellent job situating his narrative against the hedonistic backdrop of Gilded Age America. If I were analyzing it as a history monograph, I could probably point out all kinds of flaws. I thought Vanderbilt was a little cruel to women: in his story, men built a fortune, while women like Alva and Grace Vanderbilt got busy squandering it. He did not question and interrogate his sources the way a historian would have. All those things said, this was a fantastic summer read that actually did remind me of some of the most important aspects of the history of Gilded Age Robber Barons. I would suggest it for historians and non-historians alike.Incidentally, I was reading this book when I went to see the orgy of unrestrained consumption that was Sex and the City 2, and the book made me think about the twenty-first century legacies of Gilded Age excessive wealth.


Three and a half stars.

Doug Probst

Having spent significant time near Asheville (and time in Newport RI), I felt it was important to know more about the Vanderbilt family and how they acquired such wealth and built ridiculously enormous homes. It turned out to give a great understanding of business and wealth in the time period. There were a few chapters that went it to too much detail about the things that were purchased, but most of the book was explaining the generational wealth creation - and overspending - of the family through multiple generations. I suspect part of the reason I enjoyed the book was because I have visited New York, Asheville, and Newport, RI to get context of the descriptions in the book.


It is an interesting and sad book. So much was built from nothing and then squandered needlessly. The book is also written by a family member and seems to be told through an honest and rather objective lense.

Mary Bloodworth

What a bunch of loathsome people. Generations of them. I gave the book three stars because it's not the author's fault that the family and spouses were a bunch of creeps. I did not give it more stars because he could have focused on the few somewhat decent characters there were. Did I ever buy anything by Gloria Vanderbilt in the 70s? God I hope not.


Incredibly interesting from a historical perspective. But also very very sad from the shallow lives, the hateful and cruel family relationships and the waste of both money, goods and innovation.

Peg Lotvin

Fascinating study of the Fall of the Vanderbilts. Too many children were their biggest problem. The fortune was diluted with each passing generation. The other problem was too many Vanderbilt men marrying women who loved to spend the fortune. Didn't they know where it came from? The Depression and income taxes did their part to finally finish off the fortune. Many interesting tales of prominent persons and their interaction with the Vanderbilts. Winston Churchill, somewhat in his cups, was hit by a car leaving one of the Vanderbilt parties. His hostess sent him a wreath of grapes as he recovered in the hospital.

Joanne Otto

Well written, enlightening chronicle. Not an encouragement to pursue wealth!

Peggy Graves

I applied for (and got) a job working at the Biltmore in Guest Relations at The House. Oh yeah. Dream job. I am so excited. It's so beautiful.I've been thru Marble House, The Breakers, Hyde Park, years ago so I was quite aware of the Commodore and some of the family history. But what a story! Although the book said very little about George Washington Vanderbilt, the Biltmore Vanderbilt, it was educational to learn much detail about his family.They were the Trumps, Kardashians, And Hiltons of their time all rolled into one. Family drama. Divorce. Disinheritence. Alcohol. Money. More money. Society. Fashion. Parties. Houses and more houses. And boredom that comes from having too much with no struggle. A baby elephant parading thru a dinner party for no reason other than no one else had done it?! I can see why George W. Vanderbilt sought refuge from it all in these wonderful North Carolina mountains!Very well written. Very informative. I read for hours at a time.


I am so glad I read this book. I never really knew how the Vanderbilts had come into their money or how fast and how ostentatiously that squandered their family fortune. This book is a work of nonfiction yet reads like a soap opera. I have seen the Newport Mansions and the Biltmore and the former Florham mansion (now FDU) I would love to go back to see it all now after reading the pages of history!

Mark Slee

I have read this book of and on for 3 weeks, and each time I picked it up it was absolutely absorbing and so interesting to read of the Vaderbilt family. The story of what had been the richest family in the world, through the business acumen of the founder Cornelius (The Commodore) Vamderbilt, to the ultimate squandering of this fortune by subsequent generations in the late 19th, and early 20th, century New York leaders of an elite society of 'nouveau riches'. A fascinating read.


This book gives a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Vanderbilt family and fortune. It is incredibly detailed and really gives the reader a sense of the opulent lifestyle unique to the Gilded Age. I enjoyed learning some lesser known anecdotes about the fouding of Vanderbilt University, the building of the Biltmore Estate, and family pressures to marry for position in society over love, to name a few, as well as the family dynamics and many problems that come with being born into a family of unimaginable wealth.


A story of unbelievable wealth and privilege in the days before the federal income tax, when families were able to keep and pass on all of their wealth to suceeding generations, whehther they deserved it or not.

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