From Goodreads: “New York Times bestselling author and journalist Anderson Cooper teams with New York Times bestselling historian and novelist Katherine Howe to chronicle the rise and fall of a legendary American dynasty—his mother’s family, the Vanderbilts.
When eleven-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt began to work on his father’s small boat ferrying supplies in New York Harbor at the beginning of the nineteenth century, no one could have imagined that one day he would, through ruthlessness, cunning, and a pathological desire for money, build two empires—one in shipping and another in railroads—that would make him the richest man in America. His staggering fortune was fought over by his heirs after his death in 1877, sowing familial discord that would never fully heal. Though his son Billy doubled the money left by “the Commodore,” subsequent generations competed to find new and ever more extraordinary ways of spending it. By 2018, when the last Vanderbilt was forced out of The Breakers—the seventy-room summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island, that Cornelius’s grandson and namesake had built—the family would have been unrecognizable to the tycoon who started it all.
Now, the Commodore’s great-great-great-grandson Anderson Cooper, joins with historian Katherine Howe to explore the story of his legendary family and their outsized influence. Cooper and Howe breathe life into the ancestors who built the family’s empire, basked in the Commodore’s wealth, hosted lavish galas, and became synonymous with unfettered American capitalism and high society. Moving from the hardscrabble wharves of old Manhattan to the lavish drawing rooms of Gilded Age Fifth Avenue, from the ornate summer palaces of Newport to the courts of Europe, and all the way to modern-day New York, Cooper and Howe wryly recount the triumphs and tragedies of an American dynasty unlike any other.”
I’ve long known that Anderson Cooper was son of the famous designer Gloria Vanderbilt, but he never seemed to want to talk about his family. That changed after his mother died and he became a father. Now, with the help of historian Katherine Howe, he delves into his family history and highlights some of the major players in this family that was at it’s height of power during the Gilded Age. Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty (Abebooks) (Amazon) is by no means a thorough history of the Vanderbilt family.
This is exactly the type of biography I like to read or listen to. In this case, I listened to the audiobook at work just a day or two after it’s release. Cooper himself narrates, and seeing as how he does this stuff for a living, it’s no surprise he does a very good job. There’s history, but without the minutiae of a typical historian that sometimes bogs down books of this type.
The most interesting parts of the book were about Gloria herself and the famous custody case I’d read about in Little Gloria… Happy at Last (review here). Cooper discusses the book and the subsequent movie made with Angela Lansbury as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Gloria’s aunt, which I loved, and set the record straight and either confirmed or denied what was featured in both. That alone was worth the cost of the audiobook.
The audiobook contains a PDF with a basic family tree so you can see exactly how the Vanderbilt family is laid out and how the branches go from Commodore Vanderbilt, who built the empire, down to Cooper. Commodore started his empire with a $100 loan from his mother to start a boating business. He built that into a shipping empire, and wisely got out of the shipping business at the dawn of the railroad era, making even more money as a railroad magnate and becoming one of the richest men in the world.
The only thing I thought was a little weird, basically because it’s narrated by Anderson Cooper himself, is when he talks about himself and his family in the third person. It makes sense in a biography, but when hearing it, it’s a little odd.
There are many books written about the various Vanderbilts and their vast homes, but this book is a real treat coming from one of their own.
This is the 56th Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.
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