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September 1, 2008updated 10 Jan 2016 3:01pm

Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By Spear's

Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Edward J Renehan, Jr
Basic Books

Last year, when the New York Times published its lists of the Wealthiest Americans Ever, Cornelius Vanderbilt came in second. His fortune was given as $143 billion in today’s terms, some way behind John D Rockefeller’s $193 billion oil fortune, but way ahead of the wealthiest living American, Bill Gates ($82 billion).

‘The Vanderbilts have asked us out to tea,’ sang Judy Garland in the film Easter Parade, based on Irving Berlin’s song of the same title, and indeed from the 1880s onwards the Vanderbilts became a proxy for American rich folk as much as the Astors and the Rockefellers.

This post-dated Cornelius Vanderbilt’s death, for he would never have invited anyone out to tea, nor was he a popular invitee, owing to his habit of spitting tobacco juice on the floor wherever he went. He was too busy making money, or as he put it to a reporter, ‘I have been insane on the subject of money-making all my life’. Yet probably few Americans know much about how Cornelius Vanderbilt came by his vast fortune.

In this, the first biography of Vanderbilt for 65 years, Edward J Renehan Jr gives us not only a vivid portrait of the transportation magnate’s mania for capital accumulation but also the most revealing portrait to date of the inner man. Or should I say the private man, for there was precious little evidence of an interior life? Vanderbilt was uncouth, uncultivated, indeed barely literate, and not given to inner reflection. Instead, he was a man of action and a man with a powerful id, a well-developed ego, and precious little super-ego.

Vanderbilt’s friend and physician of many decades, Jared Linsly, said that he was ‘less influenced by the men around him than any man I ever knew. He had a peculiarity, if interrupted while telling anything, of stopping right there and never resuming. This peculiarity stuck to him all his life. He never would take a suggestion from anybody — that is, not directly.’

This assessment is echoed by Vanderbilt’s own assessment of the man whom he considered to be a role model, fellow steamboat entrepreneur Thomas Gibbons: ‘I think he was one of the strongest-minded men I ever was acquainted with… I never knew any man that had any control over him.’ Like Vanderbilt, Gibbons was an ill-mannered philistine, who eschewed philanthropy and social betterment, enjoyed women, horse racing, booze, and feuding. ‘Gibbons’s style — if we can call it that — was something Vanderbilt would emulate with alarming transparency to the end of his days,’ notes Renehan.

Vanderbilt was of Dutch descent (originally Van Derbilt) and his family belonged to the Hussite Protestant sect known as Moravians. His father, also named Cornelius, had begun work as a sailor at the age of sixteen, plying the route between Staten Island and Manhattan on a periauger, a small open sailboat with a shallow draft, whenever someone wanted to deliver a small cargo.

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Our Cornelius started his career aboard his father’s periauger at the age of eleven. Borrowing $100 from his parents, Vanderbilt acquired his own periauger, conveying freight and humans along the same route. During the war of 1812, he avoided military service and benefited from the need to transport soldiers between various points around New York Harbour. He also developed a taste for waterfront wenches that was ultimately to cost him dear.

Vanderbilt was nineteen when he married eighteen-year-old Sophia Johnson, a first cousin once removed on his father’s side. She would bear him thirteen children in all, but he would always be disappointed that a mere three of them were boys. Years later, he would marry for a second time, after becoming a widower, in an arrangement designed to save the family fortune from less reliable suitors.

Gradually over the years, the Commodore, as he became known, created and expanded a fleet, progressing from sail to steam, ever adaptable when it came to choice of cargoes or routes. He allied himself with Thomas Gibbons in his battle against the Fulton-Livingston monopoly along the eastern New Jersey coast, selling his own business and joining Gibbons’s Union Line, where he soon became a valued captain.

The US Supreme Court eventually ruled against the New York state monopoly which forbade out-of-state steamboats from doing business in New York. This opened up the coastal trade with Philadelphia. When Gibbons died, Vanderbilt went back into business on his own. First on the coastal route, then on the Hudson River, and later on Long Island Sound, he started price wars with rival operators, stuck things out till they paid him blackmail not to compete with them, then used the proceeds, with leveraged money, to acquire more steamboats.

As the patchwork of transportation options changed, with small railroads being built, Vanderbilt was always ready to adapt his steamboat routes to exploit gaps, but he also began to acquire a railroad empire and entered the transatlantic shipping business.

Vanderbilt’s protracted struggle for mastery of the Isthmian route to California, which combined fast, ocean-going steamships with an overland journey across the Isthmus of Panama rather than around Cape Horn, and the various political and boardroom machinations that accompanied it, form the thrilling centrepiece of this book. It was in the course of this struggle that Vanderbilt uttered these memorable words to his boardroom rivals: ‘Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.’

And ruin them he did. Vanderbilt was a resourceful and ruthless business adversary, an inveterate stock manipulator, who watered or short-sold stock in various companies when it suited him, but his reputation for shrewd investment decisions towards the end of his life was misplaced, since it was his favourite son Billy who was running the show by then. (Of his other two sons, one died of tuberculosis at 24, and the other, his namesake Cornelius Jeremiah, proved to be a feckless gambler and swindler.)

As for worldly indulgences, Vanderbilt built a four-storey townhouse in Greenwich Village and kept his family there until long after it had ceased to be fashionable. Virtually his only recreation was carriage racing, in which he was as competitive as when racing steamboats. And when he decided to take his family on a grand tour of Europe in 1853, it was not so as to absorb European culture so much as to advertise American wealth and progress.

At a cost of $500,000, he commissioned the construction of a special vessel for the trip, the North Star, which weighed in at 2,500 tons and was the largest steamship in the world. In London, he was lionised as ‘a sign of the times’. The Vanderbilts travelled 15,000 miles in total aboard the North Star, taking in also Paris, Russia and the Baltic, and the Mediterranean.

One of the more bizarre episodes in his life was his infatuation with a peculiar duo, the former prostitute Tennessee Claflin, with whom he had an affair, and her sister Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist and advocate for women’s rights, who enabled him to communicate with his dead mother among others. Vanderbilt backed Woodhull and Claflin as Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers, sending business their way, and even allowing them to make investments for him on the recommendation of voices from the other side.

As Renehan reveals here for the first time, Vanderbilt contracted syphilis from his whoring as a young man, passing it on to his first wife. It was this that killed him many years later, though not before the ‘random diminishment’ of dementia gave rise to ‘unpredictable outbursts and self-destructive (therefore out-of-character) market moves interspersed between moments of suave, sharp, and confident business decision-making’.

Billy Vanderbilt was a worthy heir to his father in terms of wealth preservation. In the eight years between the deaths of father and son, the Vanderbilt fortune nearly doubled – indeed, it exceeded the contents of the US Treasury at the time. However, the subsequent story of the Vanderbilts is one of wealth dissipation rather than wealth preservation. ‘Of the hundreds of Vanderbilt descendants alive today, virtually none control significant wealth inherited from the Commodore’s original pile,’ writes Renehan. ‘When a gaggle of some 120 heirs assembled at Vanderbilt University for a reunion in 1973, there was nary a millionaire among them.’ 

Review by Christopher Silvester

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