A remarkably unflattering life of the 19th-century transportation magnate who amassed the largest private fortune in American history.
“Distant,” “quarrelsome,” “forbidding,” “parsimonious,” “vindictive,” “ravenous,” “braggart,” “boor”—these are some of the words Renehan uses to describe Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose business cunning kept him always a step ahead of the competition in sailboats, steamships and railroads. Oblivious to any concept of the public good, uninterested in anything remotely cultural, devoid of generosity, he appears to have committed only two charitable acts—purchasing a church and endowing what became Vanderbilt University, both at the behest of his second wife. He briefly banished his first wife to an insane asylum for her refusal to move with him from Staten Island to Greenwich Village. He disdained his dozen children. Indeed, he appears to have had no interior life whatsoever, finding amusement only in drinking, horseracing and whore-chasing. His too-public, late-life liaison with Tennie Claflin, sister of the notorious clairvoyant/spiritualist/prostitute Victoria Woodhull, prompted the family to engineer a “face-saving” marriage to a woman 44 years his junior. Meanwhile, the Commodore finished out his days sporadically demented from syphilis. Renehan (Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons, 2005, etc.) convincingly presents Vanderbilt as the prototype of the purely economic man, a real-life Ebenezer Scrooge unclaimed by any cult of idealism and driven purely by profit. Renehan meticulously tracks all the brilliant, often shady business transactions—he’s especially good on Vanderbilt’s controversial role at the heart of Gibbons v. Ogden, the famous Supreme Court case establishing the supremacy of the Commerce Clause—that placed the Commodore at the top of the economic heap. In a public letter to partners he felt had cheated him, Vanderbilt wrote, “I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.” And then he did exactly that.
A warts and more warts portrait of a brilliantly successful, genuinely despicable man.