Ward McAllister said that it took three generations to become a gentleman. As Mrs. Astor’s cohort and guide to the highest of high society of New York City during the Gilded Age, he always had the last word when it come to matters of society. It was up to him to decide who qualified to be a member of society, especially a member of New York’s top 400. That sounds like a satellite package now, but it was the creme de la creme of society in the late 1800s. Unfortunately for the Vanderbilt family, nouveau riche families did not automatically become part of high society. Even the richest family in the world couldn’t buy their way into the world inhabited by the likes of Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister.
Fortune’s Children, written by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, is a detailed account of the rise and fall of the Vanderbilt fortune and family. The Vanderbilt family fortune began with Cornelius Vanderbilt, otherwise known as the Commodore. He began amassing his fortune after his mother loaned him $100 in a deal they struck a few weeks before he turned sixteen. He used the money to buy a flat bottom boat, called a periauger, which he used to haul freight and passengers across the waters of the New York Bay. It was there that he earned his nickname Commodore.
He was a sharp businessman who soon owned a fleet of boats. He’d start to take over established routes until a price war broke out. He’d then drop his rates until the other company went bankrupt, at which point he’d buy the company. Other times he’d start the same thing until the established company would pay him money to stop being their competition. He branched out from ferries to steamboats and eventually railroads. By the time he died he was the richest man in the world.
However, no matter how much money he had, he was never accepted into polite society. To be honest, I rather suspect that he didn’t want to be part of polite society with his gutter mouth and vile manners. What he did want was for his family to build an unassailable tower of wealth and power. With this in mind, he decided to leave most of his money to one son, William H. Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilts were on their way. William turned out to be a pretty good businessman himself. He grew his fortune until he became the richest man in the world.
Almost all of his grandchildren died broke! How can that happen?
This book is fascinating. I didn’t know that much about the Gilded Age so this book was very eye-opening. The author did a wonderful detailing the rise of the family and its fortune. The account of the family’s breakthrough into society is priceless. The maneuvering and conniving that Alva Vanderbilt did to position herself as the leader of society was breathtaking. The houses they built and the money they spent were incredible. The feuds fueled by society position and money tore the family apart within three generations.
I felt like the author did a fabulous job of detailing the excesses of the family. The fighting and the clawing that took place so they could be considered top drawer by Ward McAllister and Mrs. Astor is astounding. The story of the two Gloria Vanderbilts was heart wrenching. I cannot believe the amount of money that they spent within a hundred years.
The one thing that would have made this easier to understand would have been a genealogical chart of the family. There were so many Williams and Corneliuses that it was confusing sometimes. I did learn a lot. I am interested in reading other books about that same time period.
I think that I am not interested in ever having that much money.