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


The book profiles the Vanderbilt heirs. The first chapter, obligatorily about the Commodore, is a tale often told, most recently in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. which led me to this 1989 book. The following chapters describe children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a few great-great-grandchildren. The female scions, who are essentially disinherited, are dropped right away, as are the Commodore's son Cornelius and his progeny. There are a few tales of some high profile disinheritances.The writing takes the reader into the society of Gilded Age with its lavish houses and parties. The descriptions of other major players such as Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Fish, the Lehr's and Ward McAllister are interesting, but I'd rather have had the space devoted to more on the Vanderbilts.One chapter is devoted to Alva (a Vanderbilt for only 20 years) who brought this socially shunned family into society by building the most lavish homes and throwing the most lavish parties. Her sad mother-daughter story appears in several places throughout the book. For more on this relationship I recommend Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.The sub-title implies that the Vanderbilt wealth is gone, as does the discussion at the end. This is not entirely proved since not all Vanderbilts are covered, and not all who are covered are followed up on. The Biltmore, while not a residence, and is now shrunk to 8,000 acres, is still in the contol of Vanderbilt heirs. There are some females, such as Gertrude, who joined their inheritances (modest in Vanderbilt terms) through marriage creating new assets that probably continue to produce great wealth today. The Commodore's plan to keep the wealth together in the male (named) line clearly did not pan out. The Commodore could have never envisioned Doris Duke The Richest Girl in the World: The Extravagant Life and Fast Times of Doris Duke. another outsider to Society, who kept the Duke tobacco and energy fortune together through equally turbulent times.The book is a good read. The writer, Arthur T. Vanderbilt, makes it flow. He never discloses his place in the family tree. I checked the internet and still have no clue. I did find that in 2008, this book had been optioned for a movie. ... 2013- I see that this book came out in a new edition in 2012. Now, there is a bit more info on the internet identifying the author as a distant (to those in the book) Vanderbilt cousin.


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.


Incredible retelling of the major players in the Vanderbilt family. Extravagance was an every day thing for this family, unless you married someone that was not up to par. Incredible wealth, interesting characters (and some of them really were characters!), and an era that didn't last long enough.

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.


I thought this was going to be a more interesting read, but it felt like a dry history textbook.


I picked up this book at the library after a recent trip to Newport, where we toured the Breakers and Marble House, two magnificent 'cottages' built by Vanderbilts for millions of dollars and used by their owners for about 1 year. Who are these crazy Vanderbilts?The saga of the Vanderbilts can at times be mistaken for fiction. The cankerous patriarch Commodore... the social schemer Alva... the unwilling bride Consuelo... the staid Cornelius and Alice... the custody fight over young Gloria... supporting characters like Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister... this is entertaining stuff, and the book provides an excellent historical view of the Gilded Age.I was grossly fascinated by the excesses of this privileged class with nothing to do but find new ways to entertain themselves within their rigid social structure (like having a dinner where every guest is seated on horseback or only baby talk is spoken). Us poor people, at least our lives have purpose... dreary, monotonous purpose...


This was a very informative book and it was an enjoyable read as well. I do love history and the Vanderbilt family history is fascinating. I know that I am supposed to loathe and deplore these people for being wealthy one percenters......but I can't. People are just people and I tend to judge them by their actions rather than their economic class. I felt sympathy for some of them, especially Consuelo and Neil, the son of Cornelius and Grace Vanderbilt.As a house geek, this book was very satisfying. I really liked reading about the construction and furnishing of the Vanderbilt homes. I think George Vanderbilt was the coolest of all; turning his back on New York society and building his little duchy in North Carolina and living the life of a gentleman farmer. (Just what I would do if a big powerball win were to roll my way)It also just kills me that I do not have a time machine and can't go back to the times when all various Vanderbilt descendants were auctioning off all their possessions. Amazing stuff, going for pennies on the dollar and my poor self yet unborn and unable to bid. Maybe someday there will be a repeat of this with other wealthy families, but I have seen pics of Donald Trump's homes......and quite honestly, I'm not spending good money on tacky crap regardless of how much it originally cost.So read this book and live vicariously through the Vanderbilt family for a's fun!


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.

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.


Goog so far


I took a trip to the Biltmore, the largest private home in the US, built by the Vanderbilts. This only happened because it was raining when friends and I were visiting Asheville. I knew nothing about the Vanderbilts, except for what generally happens with an old family that caused a lot of nice stuff in the world, which is a general good feeling like "oh yeah...Vanderbilt. I people with paintings? It was nice they bought that art? And...uh... nice house? They must have been...pretty...friendly?"NO LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NO THEY WERE NOT! THIS BOOK IS FASCINATING.The first clue that there was another story, was how incredibly friendly everyone was at the Biltmore ticket counter, how well appointed the bathrooms close to the Biltmore ticket counter was, and that I paid $70 to get in to tour the house. I asked how the Vanderbilts got their money, and got a suspiciously squeaky clean and book-for-children level story from the tour guide. The great mystery was why in the hell did they open the house up to the public? And who was the guy who built the largest private home in the US--George Vanderbilt? Some kind of a grandson who's job was philanthropist and art collector? How did they lose their money? This obsessed my friends and I, and opened a fascinating door to the world of the Vanderbilts.This book explains the family and is a fascinating explanation of New York City, human nature, history through the lens of a family, and what it took to be popular in the Gilded Age. Just a fascinating tale of the Gilded Age. And wealth. And the creepy, amoral, status conscious, money-above-all feeling that can seep out of New York on a bad day. Cornelius Vanderbilt had two wives, both his FIRST COUSINS. Mark Twain, our pal, MARK TWAIN, talked shit about him publicly. His grandson, who blew a fortune of over $12 million on booze, parties and horses, died when his esophagus exploded. What a fascinating character. My friend and I had fun imagining the Vanderbilt family descendants regularly going in and scrubbing the Wikipedia entries. This is a great book to read after you have hit a point in your life where you love the Great Gatsby. Reggie, Mr. Exploding Esophagus, killed a few people with his car after driving around hopped up on 9,000 brandy punches. He got away with it. Fascinating.


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!


fascinating to see how a huge fortune was desimated in a few generations.Cornelius Vanderbilt left a fortune of $100 million dollars in 1877 when he died, equivalent to $147 billion dollars in 2007. He left $95 million dollars to his son William and almost nothing to his 8 daughters and wife or to charity.William increased his wealth by another $80million dollars before he died 9 years later making him the richest man in the world at the time and also gives him the ranking of 4th richest man of all time behind Rockefeller, Carnegie & Tzar Nicolas of Russia. His children and grand children then proceed to decimate this huge fortune until its finished which makes fascinating reading.


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.

Erica Lawless

Fascinating book! Could not put it down! What a perfect example of money not bringing happiness. So sad how this family spent so much money on themselves and at the same time being so out of touch with reality.

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