Excesses of the Rich and Wealthy The Vanderbilts

About the excesses of the rich Vanderbilt, biography and history of their extravagent spending.



When railroad magnate Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt died in 1877, he left behind $107 million. His son, William H., left $200 million eight years later. At the turn of the century, total Vanderbilt money was estimated at $400 million. So, in 1945, when Gloria Vanderbilt inherited a piddling $4,346,000, the inevitable question was asked: Where did all the money go?

First of all, the Vanderbilts have rightly been called the greatest house-building family in American history. The Vanderbilt wives competed not only with the Astors but also with each other in house building and party throwing. The Commodore's grandson Cornelius II married socialite Alice Claypoole Gwynne; his brother William K. married Southern belle Alva Smith. Cornelius and Alice dropped $10 million into the Breakers, their Newport "summer cottage." The 70-room cottage included a 45-ft.-high hall, a 70-ton front door, and a green marble billiard room. The wrought-iron fence surrounding the Breakers cost $5,000 a year to paint. Inside, guests could choose between salt and fresh water in the bathrooms. The fireplace in the library, with its mantel from Pompeii, cost $75,000.

Alva built Marble House, so named for its white marble driveway and white marble everything. It was modeled after the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek in Lebanon. Here Alva threw a $250,000 costume party that knocked society off its feet. The Vanderbilts gave a distinguished florist, Klunder, carte blanche, and the tab for flowers alone came to $11,000. Although Alice emerged wearing the crown of the Mrs. Vanderbilt, William K. and Alva built the most formidable house of all, "Vanderbilt Palace," at 640 Fifth Avenue. It was so lavish as to almost defy description. A team of more than 600 American builders and 250 artisans constructed it in 18 months. The ballroom was a replica of the one at Versailles, and an 8-ft. malachite vase in the house came from the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. So ultimately expensive was Vanderbilt Palace that photographs of it were used as models for Tara, Scarlett O'Hara's mansion in Gone with the Wind. William K. built himself yet another house on Long Island called Idle Hour. It had 110 rooms plus 45 bathrooms.

Aside from Marble House and Vanderbilt Palace, Alva made another historical purchase. Completely against her daughter's wishes, Alva "bought" her a husband. In one of the most scandalously arranged marriages in history, she literally forced Consuelo Vanderbilt to marry "Sunny," Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo was kept locked in her room the day before the wedding, lest she try to escape and marry the man she really loved (whom her mother had threatened to murder). Consuelo's dowry was $2,500,000 plus funds to restore the Duke of Marl-borough's family home.

Beginning with the Commodore, many of the Vanderbilt men had enjoyed yachts. William K.'s yacht had a mechanic to take care of the ice-cream machine. His son, William K. II, built a remarkable yacht in 1931, naming it Alva after his mother. It possessed a complete gymnasium and a $60,000 seaplane. The Alva's staterooms were 9 ft. high, and the main living room was 15 ft. high, grandiose dimensions for a mere pleasure boat.

Two tales from John Tebbel's The Inheritors may best illustrate what it means to be a Vanderbilt.

Alice, Cornelius II's wife, was having luncheon one day at the old Ambassador Hotel with her son, Reggie, and his new second wife, Gloria Morgan, when she inquired of the not so freshly minted bridegroom: "Has Gloria received her pearls yet?" He would love to give pearls to Gloria, Reggie answered, but he could not afford the kind he thought worthy of his bride.

"Please bring me a pair of scissors," Alice commanded the maitre d', and when they were produced, she cut off about a third of her own pearls, or roughly $70,000 worth, from the ropes of them that hung around her neck.

"There you are, Gloria," said Alice fondly. "All Vanderbilt women have pearls."

Just as telling is this story about Grace Wilson, who married Cornelius III: "Signing checks one morning which totaled $80,000, Grace casually asked her secretary, `Do I have this much money?'"

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