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First printing, April 2010
Copyright © 2010 by Wendy Burden
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eISBN : 978-1-101-18618-3
1. Burden, Wendy—Childhood and youth. 2. Burden family. I. Title.
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For my mother, goddamn it.
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.
The Twomblys had four children: Alice, Florence, Ruth, and Hamilton. The family lived the simple life of the wildly rich; they wintered in New York City, in their town house, the last great private home to be built on Fifth Avenue, and when not traveling in Europe, they summered in Newport, in a fifty-room cottage on Cliff Walk, overlooking the sea.
It wasn’t enough. Hamilton Twombly wanted something within commuting distance of the city. So in 1890 he purchased twelve hundred acres in Morris County, New Jersey, and enlisted the architectural services of McKim, Mead and White. Six hundred laborers were shipped over from Italy, and it took them six years to construct a 110-room rose brick and limestone Georgian house that was a faithful reproduction of Christopher Wren’s west wing of Hampton Court palace. (Emulating the houses of King Henry VIII was not considered a frivolity at the turn of the century.) Thomas Edison, a neighbor and friend, designed the massive electrical generator and heating plant needed to run the estate. Stabling was built to house fifty horses, as were carriage houses and garages, a dozen greenhouses and an orangerie. Frederick Law Olmsted rearranged a hundred and fifty acres of the wild New Jersey rolling hills, and forests of oak and beech, into a series of formal gardens, terraces, and parkland. The remaining 750 acres were designated for the working farm and the dairy operation of several hundred prized Guernsey cattle, the largest such private breeding farm in the country.
The Twomblys named their labor of love “Florham,” a combination of their two first names. It was close enough to the city that you could see the skyline of New York from the east terrace, and for four months out of the year, during the spring and fall social seasons, they lived, and entertained, there.
The opulence of the newly rich was at its zenith in the late 1800s, and no one did it better than my great-great-grandparents. They stuffed their houses full of “important” furnishings: Queen Anne, Georgian, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and Regency furniture; seventeenth-century Barberini tapestries, paintings by Rubens and Vandyke; eighteenth-century colored mezzotints; antique Chinese and Persian rugs; Meissen, and K’ang and Ming Dynasty, porcelains; bronzes and miniatures, and gold and enamel snuffboxes; and Louis XV gilded chandeliers the size of the
. They lured the highest echelon of workers imaginable, like Queen Victoria’s head gardener. They had nonstop weekend house parties, and dances and lunches and teas and balls. In just two generations what had begun as a meritocracy had turned into a lifestyle that could rival that of European royalty. It was all so wonderfully arriviste, so very
Rarely do things go as planned: Alice, the eldest Twombly child, died of pneumonia when she was sixteen. Hamilton, the youngest, drowned a few years later, when he was a counselor at a camp for poor boys.
My great-great-grandfather was inconsolable over the loss of his only son. He suffered a nervous breakdown. It eventually leeched into his kidneys, and he died—a brokenhearted, if extremely wealthy, man.
Grandma Twombly, as she was now known, went on to thrive for another forty years. Tiny and birdlike, autocratic, elegant, frosty, and brittle, she worked like a party animal for her title of the Vanderbilt Hostess. As the undisputed head of old-guard New York society, she entertained lavishly, with the help of her famous French chef and her staff of two hundred, in an imperial style that few could match.
And when she finally died, at the age of ninety-eight, from injuries sustained during a tumble in the living room-like confines of her Rolls-Royce limousine, it was said (by those who cared) that New York Society died with her.
Out of the four Twombly children, two daughters remained: Florence, my great-grandmother, and her younger sister, Ruth.
Ruth was never to marry. After her father’s death, she assumed management of her mother’s empire, and she excelled at running it. When her mother died, she continued to occupy the houses, and devoted the rest of her time to charitable pursuits in the City, and three-martini caviar-foie-gras lunches at Delmonico’s and the Pavillon. A practical girl, she had rung the wine merchant the day she’d heard the Volstead Act was coming, and had stocked her capacious cellars with enough drink to last a hundred years. (We’re still drinking it.)
Florence, on the other hand, did marry. Which vastly benefitted my father’s side of the family, where we will remain, because even though this book is about my father
my mother, the truth of the matter is my mother’s family didn’t have a lot of money, and my father’s family did, and rich people behaving badly are far more interesting than the not so rich behaving badly.
Across and north of the river from the Vanderbilt mausoleum, in a pastoral necropolis known as the Albany Rural Cemetery, within the less imposing ramifications of the Burden family vault, another great-etc.-grandfather reposes away. Born within a few years of the Commodore, Henry Burden was an inventor who emigrated from Scotland and settled in Troy, New York. There he took on a job of managing the local nail and iron factory, and with the same raw talent and unerring work ethic as the Commodore (but a much nicer personality), he rose through the ranks to become proprietor of a massive foundry. The Burden Iron Works was famous for the world’s tallest, most powerful waterwheel, and for the world’s first horseshoe-making machine, which was capable of spitting shoes out at the rate of one per second, allowing Henry, in the entrepreneurial spirit of his adopted country, to sell them (at great profit) to both armies during the Civil War.