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A descendant's lively rehash of the rise and fall of the Vanderbilt dynasty. It all starts, of course, with ""the Commodore,"" Cornelius Vanderbilt, born in 1794 to a Staten Island farmer. At 16, he borrowed $100 from his mother to buy a boat and began a ferry service to Manhattan. By the time of his death in 1877, he'd built a far-flung steamship and railroad empire and accumulated an estate worth over $100 million. The bulk of the money went to his son William, who duly mimicked his father's business strategies and doubled the fortune. And then the Jun--or at least the spending--began in earnest. William's son Willie married restless Alva Smith, who constructed a string of multimillion-dollar mansions, and threw a $250,000 costume ball that bulldozed the Vanderbilts into New York Society. Alva went on to force her daughter into a loveless marriage with the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough, and then became a tireless advocate of women's suffrage. Willie's brother Cornelius married dour Alice Gwynne; their son Neily was disinherited for marrying Grace Wilson, whom his parents thought a gold digger. And so on, as various Vanderbilts built colossal houses, married unhappily, accumulated and then tired of pricey toys (yachts, horses), and blithely partied their vast fortune away. Vanderbilt maintains a breezy objectivity as he tours the decades of conspicuous consumption. As opposed to the oblique character sketches of Louis Auchincloss' The Vanderbilt Era (p. 511), this is facts, minor, and gossip, spun out into a loosely structured and engaging narrative. Once again, the antics of the super-rich keep the pages turning.

Pub Date: Sept. 21st, 1989
Publisher: Morrow