Anderson Cooper says that as a kid, in particular, he avoided mentioning his kinship to the Vanderbilts, one of America’s richest families during the Gilded Age. Today, that association still makes him “cringe,” he says, but “after my mom’s death and when my son Wyatt was born, I began to wonder what I would actually tell him one day about that branch of his family tree.”
Cooper admits he didn’t know much about his mom’s side of the family, but after reading some family letters, he set out to understand who the Vanderbilts were, not as business titans, but as people with faults, frailties, ambitions and desires. That journey culminated in a book, “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” which he co-wrote with novelist and historian, Katherine Howe.
Cooper’s mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, was the great-great-granddaughter of railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, nicknamed, the “Commodore.” The first Vanderbilt came to the United States as an indentured servant, with no money, in the early to mid 17th century. Generations later, the Commodore was the first Vanderbilt who made money, more money than anybody ever had made before in the entire world.
In spite of their wealth, the Vanderbilts were “definitely, like, on the outs,” Howe says. “They were the nouveau rich, the really tacky.”
It was Alva Vanderbilt, wife of William K. Vanderbilt, who eventually broke down the door to New York high society for the family by “throwing the greatest party that had ever been thrown in America,” Cooper says.
Cooper says that uncovering the stories of the Vanderbilt women, previously overshadowed by the larger-than-life legacy of the Commodore and his sons, was particularly gratifying. “I feel like one of the things that’s special about this story is that we spend so much time looking at Vanderbilt women,” he said.
“Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty” will be released on September 21. The book is dedicated to Wyatt, Cooper’s son.
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