06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Well-Mannered Vanderbilt Heiress? In Dead End Gene Pool , Wendy Burden Is a Wild Child

The trick to money is to have a lot, but not too much.

What's too much?

I could tell you -- I was once married to the daughter of the second or third richest woman in America -- but you probably wouldn't believe me. Better that you find out for yourself. Just start accumulating wealth. When you have enough, you'll feel great. When you have too much, some new friends -- gloom, anxiety and a nasty sense of meaninglessness -- will show up, and never leave. Guaranteed.

Speaking of misery, let's consider the heritage of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in his day the richest man in America. (Here's just one of his estates.) Wendy Burden is his great-great-great granddaughter. It is astonishing, given her bloodline, that she could pull herself together enough to write Dead End Gene Pool. It's even more astonishing that she's alive.

When Wendy was six, her father killed himself. After that, she writes, "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."

It would be easy to write this memoir from the Valley of Bitterness -- but then you'd have to live there. Wendy Burden chooses to reside on the Mountain of Absurdity. Smart move. Why waste energy on hating your mother when you can rip off lines like this, about Leslie Lepington Hamilton Burden dropping her young daughter at the airport and fleeing the jurisdiction: "She could make it downtown to Trader Vic's in less time than it takes to put on a pair of sheer black stockings and get the seams straight."

So Wendy and her brothers fell, by default, into the care of their grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden II. He had been a successful investor, Ambassador to Belgium (oh, how he craved the post in Paris) and President of the Museum of Modern Art. But "Popsie" and "Gaga" were not exactly homey --- their Fifth Avenue apartment had 14 bathrooms and 21 rooms. The Burdens were ghosts; only their "servants" seemed real.

Bill Burden had a breakthrough art collection. His wife "was a modern woman only when it came to self-medication." By the time Wendy showed up, their marriage consisted of gallons of wine, rich meals, afternoon naps, cocktails and dinner parties. William Burden's favorite word: Mah-velous. Really? You'll decide for yourself.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Wendy and her brother filled the absence of adult supervision with an unending series of pranks. They were, by turns, destructive, cruel, stupid and funny. I lump them all into another category: life-saving.

When you pass unseen through rooms, it's hard not to work at what Erik Erikson called "negative identity" -- "the sum of all those identifications and identity fragments which the individual had to submerge in himself as undesirable or irreconcilable." Mooning boaters who have slowed their engines to gawk at the Burdens house in Maine, stealing every bit of food from the kitchen, stretching Saran Wrap under the toilet seat --- the young Burdens did it all. Do I have to add that Wendy also got terrible grades in school?

Even if you're not of her world, you'll guffaw at the descriptions of meals in Maine and vacations in Florida. Her mother's marital history is a kind of hoot. Wendy's first crush and her efforts to lose her virginity are damn funny. To say nothing of Jacques Cousteau putting the moves on teenage Wendy on the Concorde. And the descriptions of a great meal: "It was sublime, like eating orgasms."

Take the laughs where you can get them, because you knew where this book is going -- adult diapers for William Burden, rehab for Wendy's brothers, more inappropriate marriages for her mother. By the end, if you're like me, you'll find Wendy's survival nothing short of remarkable. And you'll be glad she heads out into her adult life only kinda-sorta rich.

Lovely irony: This hardcover book about luxury and irresponsibility is selling on for $9.99.

Cross-posted from