Weird History

How The Vanderbilts Blew Their Fortune And Went From American Royalty To Flat-Out Broke  

Melissa Sartore
1M views 13 items

During the Gilded Age, the mass accumulation of money by families like the Vanderbilts changed the economic, social, and physical landscape of the United States. The Vanderbilt family's wealth grew out of the shipping and railroad industries, both of which were largely monopolized by the the family patriarch, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, in the late 19th century. His hard work set the foundation for his sons and grandsons to continue making money, but their descendants became less inclined to earn and more likely to spend.

As it goes in many wealthy families—such as the Rockefellers, for instance—the Vanderbilts were prone to excess. The houses, the luxury, and the spectacle that defined the Vanderbilt family eventually brought about their decline from atop the financial and social ladders they once dominated.

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Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt's Son, Has No Access To His Family's Fortune

CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, has known for some time that he won't be getting any of the family money, and he's okay with it. He told Howard Stern, "My mom's made clear to me that there's no trust fund... [and] I don't believe in inheriting money." He called inherited money an "initiative sucker" and "a curse."

Cooper, who makes millions of dollars a year working for CNN, said he always had a job growing up and, despite his mother's wealth, identifies with his father who grew up poor in Mississippi.

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Photo:  Eastman Johnson/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Commodore Vanderbilt Didn't Think His Sons Were Worthy Of His Money

Commodore Vanderbilt married his first cousin Sophia Johnson in 1813. The couple had 13 children together, 11 of which survived to adulthood. The Vanderbilts had three sons, although one boy, George, died in 1864. At the time of his death, the two living boys, William and Cornelius, did little to inspire their father. He often called William a "blatherskite," or a fool, and had Cornelius committed to an asylum on two occasions. The Commodore opted to leave William the bulk of his money, but not before telling him "any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it."  

William Henry Vanderbilt suffered a mental breakdown at a young age after working with one of his father's business rivals. After that, he spent most of his time at the family farm in Staten Island where he was successful in boosting its profits. Slowly, William was given more opportunities to work within the Commodore's railroad empire and took it over after his father died.

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Photo:  Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Reginald And His Brother, Neily, Were The First Vanderbilts Who Didn't Increase The Family Fortune

Cornelius Vanderbilt II's youngest son, Reginald, inherited a small sum from his father, but the bulk of the family money went to his older brother, Alfred. The eldest son, Cornelius III, or Neily, spent large amounts of money before falling out with his family and once commented that "every Vanderbilt son... has increased his fortune except me."

Reginald was a playboy who gambled and drank often. On the night Reginald turned 21 years old, "he celebrated coming into his $15.5 million inheritance by losing $70,000 at the gambling table." He later died of cirrhosis of the liver due to his alcoholism. Reginald had little ambition and didn't make any money for his family, preferring to spend it instead.

In 1922, Reginald married 17-year-old Gloria Morgan. She gave birth to their daughter, also named Gloria, in 1924. Reginald died the following year broke and in debt, leaving his wife and child with only the interest from his daughter's future trust fund. 

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Photo:  Unattributed/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt Started Building The Family Fortune From A $100 Loan

The Vanderbilts, native to the Netherlands, got their start in the United States sometime during the late 17th century. The Dutch immigrants were farmers and lived in relative obscurity until Commodore Vanderbilt came onto the scene in the early 19th century.

Commodore Vanderbilt was born in 1794, and at the age of 16, he borrowed $100—around $2,000 today—from his parents to purchase a flat-bottomed sailing barge called a periauger. Vanderbilt was working with his father, ferrying goods back and forth from Staten Island to Manhattan, but he decided to branch out on his own. He agreed to share the profits with his parents and began transporting cargo in the New York harbor, out-advertising and undercutting the competition. The shrewd businessman made about $1,000—approximately $21,000 today—in his first year and soon had several ships, then eventually a small fleet at his disposal.