Author: Wendy Burden
Publication: Gotham; April 1, 2010
Rating: 2.5 Bookmarks
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gotham Books
Nat’s Single Sentence Synopsis: Born into a family whose name is synonymous with wealth, Wendy Burden, great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, pens a well-written memoir that strips away the facade, showing readers that even bluebloods bleed red.
But first, a little back story.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad and shipping magnate, was born into a large family of modest means on Staten Island in 1794. He fathered 13 children and the family tree exploded from there. At the time of his death in 1877, Vanderbilt’s fortune was estimated at $100 million dollars. In modern economy*, he would have been worth an estimated $143 billion (Klepper and Gunther, The Wealthy 100).
The Vanderbilts continued to be at the forefront of American society until the mid-1950s when a series of event led to the loss of part of their wealth and their social prominence. Wendy Burden’s family heralded her arrival in 1955 with a large-scale auction during which they sold off homes, heirlooms, and furniture to the highest bidders.
I anticipated a fairly written poor-little-rich girl memoir from the heir of the family who built several landmarks I’ve seen in person–namely Grand Central Station, The Breakers in Newport, RI, Florham (now the main building at New Jersey’s Farleigh Dickinson University), and the Biltmore Estate–but Burden surprised me with her wit and her candid prose.
After her father’s suicide, Wendy lived a life of part-time privilege–being shuttled back and forth between her mother’s modest home and her paternal grandparents’ palatial ones (New York, Florida, Maine). Burden deftly juxtaposed the two worlds and provided anecdotes that sometimes painted less-than-flattering pictures of her family as they battled addictions, mental illness, and human flaws and failings.
As much as I enjoyed Burden’s writing and almost uncanny recall of minuscule details, the main weakness of Dead End Gene Pool is that the glory days for the Vanderbilt family were a distant memory by the time Wendy was born. This memoir would have been far more riveting for me if it would have been written by one of the siblings who lived during the Belle Epoque.
To hear first-hand accounts of galas at The Breakers or Florham would have been much more interesting than Wendy’s memories of being invited to Farleigh Dickinson’s campus to tour her great-great-grandmother’s former country house. Admittedly, Wendy’s great-grandmother, Gran, shared her childhood memories of the manse first-hand with Burden as they were ferried by limo to the college campus.
Burden’s family endured suicide, divorce, addiction, and mental illness but maintained appearances for the world at large…until this memoir was published.
The other aspect of this book that didn’t sit well with me is Burden’s detailed accounts of her brothers’ battles with addiction, her mother’s failings as a parent, and her grandparents’ frailties of old age and failing health, yet she only hints at her own issues in the most broad of strokes. The memoir wouldn’t have suffered if Burden would have omitted a few of the more intimate details of the family’s struggles.
Ultimately, Dead End Gene Pool is a well-written memoir that suffers because Burden is too far removed from the Gilded Age when the name Vanderbilt brought to mind more than denim jeans or Anderson Cooper. Younger generations will be able to identify more with the dysfunction of the family unit than with the relevance of the Vanderbilt name; older generations might wish for more first-hand accounts from the family’s zenith.
*This study used 2007 as the yardstick for contemporary time.