Consuelo and Alva VanderbiltThe Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
All right reserved.ISBN: 0066214181
The family of the bride
As the delay lengthened and nervousness grew, selfappointed society experts in the crowd had time to debate one important question: had anyone seen the Vanderbilt family, whose apotheosis this was alleged to be? There could be no dispute that Vanderbilt gold was a powerful chemical element at work in St Thomas Church on 6 November 1895. It had given the bride her singular aura; it had drawn a duke from England; and without it, Alva would not now be waiting anxiously for her daughter to arrive. Scintillae of Vanderbilt gold dust brushed everything on the morning of Consuelo's wedding, from the fronds of asparagus fern to the glinting lorgnettes in the crowd outside. It was remarkable, therefore, that apart from the father-of-the bride, its chief purveyors should be so conspicuously absent; and even more striking that this scarcely mattered because of the force of character of the bride's Vanderbilt great-grandfather, whose ancestral shade still hovered over the players in the morning's drama as if he were alive.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the House of Vanderbilt, lingered in the collective memory partly because he laid down the basis of the family's extraordinary wealth; and partly because of the robust manner in which he did it. He died in 1877, a few weeks before Consuelo was born, but he left a complex legacy and no examination of the lives of Alva and Consuelo is complete without first exploring it.
Fable attached itself to Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as 'Commodore' Vanderbilt, Head of the House of Vanderbilt, even in his lifetime. He generally did little to discourage this, but one misconception that irritated him was that the Vanderbilts were a 'new' family and he embarked on genealogical research to prove his point. However, he held matters up for several years by placing an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper in 1868 which read: 'Where and who are the Dutch relations of the Vanderbilts?', causing such offence that none of the Dutch relations could bring themselves to reply.1
More tactful experts later traced the Vanderbilts' roots back to one Jan Aertson from the Bild in Holland who arrived in America around 1650. A lowly member of the social hierarchy exported by the Dutch West India Company, Jan Aertson Van Der Bilt worked as an indentured servant to pay for his passage and then acquired a bowerie or small farm in Flatbush, Long Island. His descendants traded land from Algonquin Indians on Staten Island, starting a long association between the Vanderbilts and the Staten Island community of New Dorp. They also joined the Protestant Moravian sect, whose members fled from persecution in Europe in the earlyeighteenth century and settled nearby. The Vanderbilt family mausoleum is to be found at the peaceful and beautiful Moravian cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island to this day.2
In a development that goes against the grain of immigration success stories, the Vanderbilt family arrived in America early enough to suffer a downturn in its fortunes in the mid-eighteenth century. Just at the point when the Staten Island farm became prosperous, it was repeatedly sub-divided by inheritance and by the time the Commodore was born in 1794, his father was scratching a subsistence living on a small plot, and ferrying vegetables to market on a periauger, a flat-bottomed sailing boat evolved from the Dutch canal scow. Historians of the family portray this Vanderbilt of prehistory as feckless and inclined to impractical schemes, but he compensated for his deficiencies by marrying a strong-minded, hard-working, frugal wife of English descent, Phebe Hands. Her family had also been ruined, by a disastrous investment in Continental bonds. They had nine children. The Commodore was their eldest son.
Circumstances thus conspired to provide the Commodore with what are now known to be many of the most common characteristics in the background of a great entrepreneur: a weak father and a 'frontier mother'; a marked dislike of formal education (he hated school and spelt 'according to common sense'); and a humble background.3 A humble background is almost mandatory in nineteenthcentury American myth-making about the virtuous self-made man, but it was a characteristic the Commodore genuinely shared with others such as John Jacob Astor, Alexander T. Stewart and Jay Gould. After his death the Commodore was accused of being phrenologically challenged with a 'bump of acquisitiveness' in a 'chronic state of inflammation all the time', but he was not alone in finding that childhood poverty and near illiteracy ignited a very fierce flame.4 More unusually for a great entrepreneur, the Commodore was neither small nor puny. He developed enormous physical strength, accompanied by strong-boned good looks, a notorious set of flying fists and a streak of rabid competitiveness. Charismatic vigour, combined with a lurking potential for violence, made him a force to be reckoned with from an early age and even as a youth he developed a reputation for epic profanity and colourful aggression that never left him.
The Vanderbilt fortune was made in transportation. Its origins lay in the first regular Staten Island ferry service to Manhattan, started by the Commodore in a periauger, under sail, while he was still in his teens. From there his career reads like a successful case study in a textbook for business students. He ploughed back the profits from his first periauger ferry service until he owned a fleet. He expanded into other waters and bought coasting schooners. Then, when others had taken the risk out of steamship technology, he sold his sailing ships and embraced the age of steam, founding the Dispatch Line and acquiring the nickname 'Commodore' as he built it up.
The Dispatch Line ran safer and faster steamships than any of its competitors to Albany up the Hudson, and along the New England coast as far as Boston up Long Island Sound disembarking at Norwalk, New Haven, Connecticut and Providence. Between 1829 and 1835, the Commodore moved easily into the role of capitalistentrepreneur, profiting from . . .