Saturday, November 27, 2010

Breaking Away

Magnet # 403:  The Breakers Illustration

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

William Henry Vanderbilt and his wife Maria gave birth to their first son on this day in 1843. They named him Cornelius Vanderbilt II after his grandfather, who had created the family's vast fortune through the shipping and railroad industries.  Better known by his nickname "the Commodore," he had become the richest man in the world at the time of his death and left his family with a vast fortune.  And as he grew up, Cornelius Vanderbilt II came to lead his generation of the Vanderbilt family both in business and personal life.  In 1885, he was named head of New York Central Railroad and the family's other related railroad lines.  He was known as a dedicated worker, but when he suffered a stroke in 1896, he began to take on a less active role in the family business.  He married Alice Claypoole Gwynne, a fellow Sunday School teacher at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, in 1867 and they had six children together.  And when their first child died of typhoid fever while at Yale, they later had Vanderbilt Hall built in his honor.  It's home to the Vanderbilt Suite, perhaps the most lavish college dorm room in the nation.  It features a marble fireplace, dark wood paneling, and even a chandelier and it's an honor for a student to be selected to live there.  The couple also lost a son when the RMS Lusitania went down and disinherited another when he married against their wishes.  Their youngest son, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was left the majority of their estate and though he tried, he was never able to reconcile with his disinherited brother.  He became the father of Gloria Vanderbilt, who would later become famous on her own merit as an artist and pioneer of the designer blue jean industry.  And she, in turn, gave birth to Anderson Cooper, who's become a highly respected CNN anchor.  Interestingly, while Cooper was a student at Yale, he lived at the Vanderbilt Suite, and he's done an admirable job making the most of the opportunities he's been given because of his impressive lineage.  It certainly seems like Vanderbilt's descendants are maintaining the high standards he strove to achieve for so much of his life.

I was able to tour the Breakers, the home Cornelius Vanderbilt left behind in Newport, earlier this year, and it was simply incredible.  While it may not be quite as impressive as the Biltmore, the home his younger brother George created in Asheville, North Carolina, it was also just a summer cottage for his family, not a permanent residence.  That was located on New York City's Fifth Avenue, but it's since been lost because of demolition.  But this home still stands as a testament to the glory of the Vanderbilts during the Gilded Age.  It was completed in 1893 and named after the nearby waves.  After Alice Vanderbilt passed, she left the property to her daughter Gladys, who had loved it the most.  It was partly because of her efforts that it came under the care of the non-profit Preservation Society of Newport County, but the family is still able to maintain the top floor as a private summer home, and they own all of the furnishings in the mansion.  I certainly didn't have a clue that anyone was perhaps living just above me while I wandered around the Breakers.  There was just so much else to keep my attention - fountains, carvings, statues, staircases, and stunning views certainly come to mind.  While this place has an opulence that stands out even amongst some of the most impressive Gilded Age homes Newport has to offer, it also manages to remain elegant without becoming gaudy.  It's easy to see why it has become the most popular tourist attraction in all of Rhode Island, taking in around 300,000 visitors every year.  And this magnet, nice as it is, just doesn't do this majestic structure justice - you should experience it for yourself.  For those of us who will never know what it was like to be a Vanderbilt during the Gilded Age, this may be the closest we'll ever get.


  1. Great posting. I learned a lot, but in an intersting manner. Keep it up!