A favourite grandson of shipping and railroad tycoon ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt who founded the family fortune, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899) was president of the Vanderbilt family enterprises and investments between 1886 and 1899 and was noted for his philanthropic activities. He commissioned two of the outstanding architectural achievements of America’s Gilded Age: the palatial Vanderbilt mansion at 57th and 5th Avenue in New York and Italian Renaissance ‘cottage’ The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island.
The eldest of eight siblings, Cornelius II was born to William ‘Billy’ Vanderbilt and Maria Louisa Kissam. The Commodore looked kindly on his namesake who took a clerkship with New York’s Shoe & Leather Bank aged sixteen and forged his early career independent of the Vanderbilt family fortune. Aged twenty-four, Cornelius II entered his grandfather’s firm as assistant treasurer to the New York and Harlem Railroad.
A strict Episcopalian, Cornelius II met and married Alice Claypole Gwynne when both were teaching Sunday school classes. It is a curious contradiction that this seemingly pious couple would prove to be the most extravagant members of America’s wealthiest family and chose to live in splendour to rival a European royal household. The Commodore died in 1877 leaving 95% of his $100 million estate to eldest son Billy. He bequeathed $7 million to Cornelius II who bought a city block on New York’s Fifth Avenue where his Vanderbilt uncles and cousins had chosen to build on ‘millionaire’s row’.
Billy Vanderbilt would survive his father by only three years and on his death in 1880 Cornelius II inherited $70 million. He rose from Vice President to President and Chairman of the New York Central, Michigan Central and Canadian Southern Railroads. In 1883 Cornelius II commissioned architects George B. Post and Richard Morris Hunt to construct a New York mansion that would dwarf the 5th Avenue palace recently completed for his sister-in-law Alva Vanderbilt who was the socially ambitious mother of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough.
The Vanderbilt Mansion was the largest private residence ever built on the island of Manhattan. The façade of the 130-room red brick and limestone mansion was modelled to scale on the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley and was embellished with towers, turrets, Gothic spires and crenellations as imposing as they were unnecessary. Cornelius II said he wanted the Vanderbilt Mansion to ‘dominate the Plaza’ and constructed a grand Porte Cochérè entrance on the East side facing Central Park behind ten-feet high gilded wrought iron gates.
In addition to the fifty-foot ballroom whose painted ceilings took two years to complete, Cornelius II commissioned a monumental Caen stone spiral staircase in the Great Hall, a dining table to seat two-hundred, a Moorish smoking room and pillaged French chateaux for the Rococo paneling and furniture in the Grand and Petit Salons.
This folly was raised to the ground in the 1920s to make way for the department store Bergdorf Goodman. The gates were re-erected in Central Park and the fireplace from the Great Hall acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Little else survives of this humourless monument to hubris. Alice Vanderbilt’s rivalry with sister-in-law Alva was said to be behind the construction of The Breakers between 1893-5. The Cottage, as the Vanderbilts called the Italian Renaissance palace built on a thirteen-acre Newport coastal estate, cost $7 million to build and is now a museum thought the family still retains apartments on the third floor.
The Vanderbilt Mansion was not remembered fondly by Cornelius II’s children who considered it a mausoleum to the family name within which the patriarch and Alice Vanderbilt lived in opulent isolation. In his 1989 book Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt Arthur Vanderbilt II writes that ‘a lifelong acquaintance of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s remarked that he never once recalled seeing him smile’. Cornelius III remembered his father as a joyless man who lived only for work.
In a Times article dated 1893 it was reported that ‘Mr Vanderbilt has no fads or hobbies. He is a man of strong domestic tastes and finds his chief enjoyment in the family circle’. The family circle was, however, broken in 1896 when Cornelius III married his Yale sweetheart Grace Wilson against his parents’ wishes. Cornelius II suffered from a stroke soon afterwards that left him paralysed from the waist down. He disinherited his eldest son and they barely spoke until a second stroke killed the patriarch in 1899. It was reported in The Times that Cornelius II had woken in the Vanderbilt Mansion at 6am, roused Alice and said ‘I think I am dying’ before promptly doing so. He was fifty-five.
The Falkirk Herald syndicated an obituary that read ‘the difference between the shares of Mr Alfred and Mr Cornelius Vanderbilt is the measure of the father’s disapproval of his son’s marriage to Miss Grace Wilson’. The aforementioned younger son Alfred inherited $70 million compared to Cornelius III’s $1 million. Alfred would die aboard RMS Lusitania when a German torpedo sunk the passenger ship in 1915. Alice Vanderbilt inherited the Vanderbilt Mansion and the Breakers. Her daughter Gladys, Countess Szechenyi willed the latter to the Preservation Society of Newport County retaining family apartments for a token $1 per year rent.