Cooper explores the Vanderbilt legacy

NEW YORK (AP) – When Anderson Cooper was 6, his father took him to see the statue of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt near New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The transport mogul was the richest man in America when he died in 1877, the 19th century equivalent of Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates.

He was also Cooper’s great-great-great-grandfather.

For much of his life, the CNN personality shunned his lineage. Now 54 years old and himself a father, Cooper took a second look and, along with historian Katherine Howe, wrote the book “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty” which explores the complicated family inheritance.

The Commodore was obsessed with making money and left $ 100 million behind, a real coin back then. Yet this obsession damaged those around him, and subsequent generations of Vanderbilts, just and unfairly, became symbols of the “idle rich” and squandered a fortune.

“Certainly when I first started working in the news I didn’t want to appear in stories and have people say, ‘Oh, that guy is a Vanderbilt’ or whatever,” Cooper said. “I didn’t think anything good could come of it, personally or professionally. I really worked hard not to do anything that could relate to this.

Researching the family “was like opening a door and finding out all this stuff that I consciously avoided knowing,” he said.

It’s surprising to read that Cooper describes taking extra shifts at CNN to help pay her mother’s nurses when she recovered from a fall. It was Gloria Vanderbilt, nicknamed “the poor little rich girl” in a sensational 1934 custody trial, who inherited $ 4 million when she was 21.

He talks about his mother, who died in 2019 at the age of 95, calling him once because she was in desperate need of two screens for her apartment made of precious wallpaper – a wallpaper she had and which ‘she sold. They cost $ 50,000. Bored with screens six months later, she asked if Cooper had room for them in his basement.

“No one,” write Cooper and Howe, “can evaporate money like a Vanderbilt.”

His mother’s legacy was gone by the time he was born, but she was successful on her own: Most Americans today associate Gloria Vanderbilt with the designer jeans line she launched in 1977. When she died, there was not much left in her estate beyond the apartment she owned, Cooper said.

“I sometimes think if she hadn’t had the name Vanderbilt she would have been better,” he said. “People would have looked at her more like she really was” instead of what they thought.

In the book, the authors focus on a handful of Vanderbilt, from the commodore’s namesake son, who shot himself in the head at the age of 51, to Gladys Vanderbilt, forced in 2018 to leave the mansion of Newport, Rhode Island, which she built in 1895.

The journey of Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, who divorced Commodore Willie’s grandson, is fascinating for what he says about the role of women a century ago. She was eager to establish the Vanderbilts in a New York high society that shunned them, then turned her back on it by becoming a women’s suffrage activist.

Her ex-husband’s life revolved around parties, yachts and horses. He said before he died: “My life was never meant to be completely happy… Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain death for ambition as cocaine is for morality.

Cooper dismisses the reference to cocaine, but said he “absolutely” believes the sentiment regarding inherited wealth. Much of what the Vanderbilts left behind has not survived, he said.

“The things they thought were monuments, that is, the houses they built and spent a fortune on, were demolished in 60 years in many cases,” he said. he declares. “They were just too bloated and impossible to keep up with and times are changing. They couldn’t be sold to other rich people, because they didn’t want them.

The book lacks details of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s commercial success. Cooper believes there are other resources for this. He wanted to explore the personal side more.

It wasn’t pretty. The Patriarch played favorites with his sons and largely ignored his daughters, believing they would marry and not be named Vanderbilt.

“I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have grown up in his house,” Cooper said. “But I admire that he created new businesses – not just one empire but two empires. What he did was extraordinary, but it cost those around him dearly.

He believes he and his mother inherited the Commodore’s work ethic.

“I don’t want money this way,” he said. “But I certainly understand the willingness to make a name for yourself and try to create something in the field of your choice, and do things that seem important.”

After his mother’s death, Cooper began to explore the diaries, letters, documents and photos she left behind and, he writes, “began to hear the voices of those people I never knew.”

When his own son was born in 2020, he wondered what he was going to tell him about the family, what lessons could we learn from it. He does not know if he will retrace with his own son the steps he took with his father to the statue a long time ago, but, no doubt, he has already done something more precious with the book.

“I wanted him to have a sense of who they were as a person,” he said. “For the best or for the worst.”


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