05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Dead End Gene Pool': Hilarious Dysfunction At The End Of The Vanderbilt Line

From "Dead End Gene Pool" by Wendy Burden


It's a testament to his libido, if not his character, that Cornelius Vanderbilt died of syphilis instead of apoplexy.

In 1794, a few miles from where his powdered bones eternally lie, within the eight-foot-thick walls of the largest tomb ever built in America, the origin of my family's fortune was born into what would prove to be a very material world. As the sixth of nine children, Cornelius was expected to pull his weight. At eleven he had dropped out of school, and at sixteen he was piloting his own small ferryboat. At nineteen he married his cousin Sophia Johnson (an act of consanguinity that arguably heralded the start of our genetic troubles) and set about fathering the first of thirteen children. By twenty-one the Vanderbilt name was on several schooners, and by thirty-five Cornelius had earned the sobriquet of Commodore and controlled a network of steamboat routes that traveled up and down the East Coast. At seventy he had the wherewithal to switch from steamships to railroads. And at seventy-five he eloped to Canada to marry a thirty-one-year-old woman named Frank.

Many colorful adjectives have been used to describe my great-times-four-grandfather: egomaniacal, unethical, coarse, brilliant, vulgar, ingenious, pigheaded, underbred, ruthless. Only one is necessary: rich. And not just a little rich; at the time of his death--in the midst of a blizzard, which caused the glass roof of Grand Central Terminal to collapse, even as its creator lay rasping his final, philandering breath--the full market value of the Commodore was in the neighborhood of 167 billion bucks.

Call it syphilitic dementia; in his will the Commodore disinherited all of his offspring--save one. William H. Vanderbilt, already in possession of the world's largest muttonchops, was ceded control of his father's fortune. To show his appreciation, he repaid his father with the monumental morgue he now resides in, a replica of the French twelfth-century church of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard in Arles, designed by the favorite architect of the Vanderbilts, Richard Morris Hunt. William H. had his father's corpse exhumed and transferred posthaste, post-construction, and interred beneath an elaborate stone relief carving of the Creation.
Eight years later, William H. was no doubt surprised at his own removal to the family vault. He now lies across the apse from his father, reposing in a kindred niche, beneath a depiction of Paradise. And whereas the Commodore died the richest person in America, his son managed to double his inheritance in the corporeal time he had left, and he died the richest person In The World.

Thankfully, William H. was more egalitarian than his father. Instead of stiffing his children, he divided his wealth (however misogynistically) between his four sons and four daughters, one of the latter, Florence, being my great-great-grandmother.

The sisters, Margaret, Emily, Florence, and Eliza, all married, and spent the remainder of their lives outbuilding one another. If a sister built a summer cottage with forty rooms, the next had to build one with forty-two. In 1877, the year her grandfather, the Commodore, died, Florence married a financier named Hamilton McKay Twombly. The groom came with his own money, and proved to be no slouch at making lots more of it. He invested all of their assets in mining ventures and transportation, and multiplied them. Florence went on to be the wealthiest of her siblings, as well as the longest lived, and she was without a doubt the biggest spender of them all. Which would explain why we, her descendants, carry the malignant code for extravagance in our genomes.

From Chapter 1

My brother Will and I were en route from Washington, DC, to New York's LaGuardia Airport to visit our grandparents. In spite of our youth--I was seven and Will eight--we were traveling alone, as we'd been doing for as long as I could remember. Our grandfather's secretary, Miss Pou (satisfyingly pronounced pew, as in pee-yoo), had been forced to book us seats in the midsection of the cabin. The humiliating rear, that quarantine semicircle reserved for losers and the grandchildren of safety-conscious men who sat on the boards of TWA and Pan Am, had already been taken by a group of dark, glittering Indian women and their children. Will and I were thrilled not to be back there and, up until this recent announcement, had been deliberately out of control--which is understandable when you've consumed five Coca-Colas in under an hour.

I couldn't decide whether to cry or hit my brother. I'd been in a horrible mood ever since that morning when I'd noticed our tickets were printed out as "Master William A. M. Burden IV and companion." Being a girl meant squat in my father's family. Honestly, you'd think I'd been born to Chinese peasants. So there hadn't been any of us for a couple of generations; you'd have thought everyone would be delighted. I liked to think that my grandmother was, but her efforts were curtailed by my grandfather. It was obvious that he would have preferred me to
have Will's quieter disposition--and vice versa. He was forever telling me to stop talking and let my brother speak, and wanting only Will with him in the photo when my grandmother pulled out her Brownie.

My mother's advice was to (quote) shut up and put up. Leslie Lepington Hamilton Burden (and eventually Beer and Tobey) was not one to coddle her children with parental guidance. She'd lectured me one evening while I was lying on her bed making snow angels on the striped Mexican bedspread.

"The sooner you figure out how to deal with being a female in your father's family, the better." I'd admired her covertly as she'd cinched a wide calfskin belt over her narrow black sheath, yanking it into an extra hole with a slight grunt. Her waist was smaller than mine and she made sure I knew it.

"I'll figure it out, I guess," I'd grumbled. My mother's way of dealing sure wasn't going to be mine. On the rare times I got to see her around my grandparents, she was weirdly unlike herself and acted as sweetly subservient and dumb as Snow White. It was so fake.

"If I were you, Toots--"

"Don't call me Toots!" I said. I hated the nickname she used interchangeably on my brother and me. It was like some stupid moll-speak. But she had her own little language, a kind of lexicon she substituted for the vocabulary of humor she lacked; adages and names and twisting up of words that I guess she thought were funny. I found it unfunny and embarrassing. And I was already missing her. These days, it seemed I only spent time with my mother when she was getting ready to leave. My brother and I had recently come to view her as a glamorous lodger who rented the master bedroom suite.

"Why do we have to visit Gaga and Granddaddy so much, anyway?" I whined. "I feel like I live on Eastern Airlines." Dusty Springfield sang from the phonograph in the corner and I waggled my legs in time to "Wishin' and Hopin'." Ever since our father had abruptly died the year before, Will and I had become virtual commuters shuttling back and forth from our home in Washington to those of our grandparents in New York, Maine, and Florida.

"Oh, don't be so bratty," my mother replied, blacking in her eyebrows with a red Maybelline pencil. "There are lots of little girls who'd give up growing tits for a chance to hang out on Fifth Avenue and be waited on by servants. Hand me my lipstick?" She passed the frosted tube across her mouth and smacked a Kleenex to set it. Fabergé Nude Pink was her lifelong color of choice, a pastel shade that brings to mind Sun Belt drag queens and leather-faced Junior Leaguers. She would die wearing it.

"Anyhoo," my mother said, giving a blast of Final Net to her French twist, "you know your grandparents have insisted on this visitation schedule ever since your father turned up his toes. And so have their goddamn lawyers." She walked across the room and stood over me then, a tanned blond bombshell in a cocktail dress, fishnets, and stilettos, reeking of Diorissimo. When she leaned down, I was afraid she was going to kiss me or something, but instead she remarked with disbelief, "That can't be a pimple on your chin already!" I clamped my CREEPY comic book down over my head as the doorbell chimed.

Then she and Dusty sang their way down the stairs, leaving me to search my reflection in the mirror for the dreaded signs of preprepubescent acne.