NEW YORK – When Anderson Cooper was 6 years old, his father took him to see the statue of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt near New York's Grand Central Terminal. The transportation magnate was America's richest man when he died in 1877, the 19th century equivalent of Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates.
He was also Cooper's great-great-great grandfather.
For much of his life, the CNN personality shunned his lineage. Now 54 and a father himself, Cooper has taken a second look and, with historian Katherine Howe, written the book “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty” that explores the family's complicated legacy.
The Commodore was obsessed with making money, and left behind $100 million — real coin back in those days. Yet that obsession damaged those around him, and succeeding generations of Vanderbilts, fairly and unfairly, became symbols of the “idle rich” and frittered away a fortune.
“Certainly, when I started working in news, I didn't want to show up on stories and have people say, ‘Oh, this guy is a Vanderbilt’ or whatever,” Cooper said. “I didn't think any good could come of it, personally or professionally. I really worked hard not to do anything that would associate me with that.”
Researching the family “was like opening a door and discovering this whole history that I consciously avoided knowing about,” he said.
It's startling to read Cooper describe taking on extra shifts at CNN to help pay for his mother's nurses when she recuperated from a fall. This was Gloria Vanderbilt, given the hated nickname “the poor little rich girl” during a sensational custody trial in 1934, who inherited $4 million when she turned 21.
He tells about his mother, who died in 2019 at age 95, calling him once because she desperately needed two screens for her apartment made of valuable wallpaper — wallpaper she once had and sold. They cost $50,000. Bored with the screens six months later, she asked if Cooper had room for them in his basement.
“No one,” Cooper and Howe write, "can make money evaporate into thin air like a Vanderbilt.”
His mom's inheritance was gone by the time he was born, but she had success on her own: Most Americans today associate Gloria Vanderbilt with the designer jeans line she launched in 1977. When she died, there wasn't much left in her estate beyond the apartment she owned, Cooper said.
“I sometimes think if she didn't have the Vanderbilt name, she would have been better off,” he said. “People would have looked at her more like she really was'' instead of what they assumed.
In the book, the authors zero in on a handful of Vanderbilts, from the Commodore's namesake son, who shot himself in the head at age 51, to Gladys Vanderbilt, forced in 2018 to move out of the Newport, Rhode Island, mansion that her great-grandparents built in 1895.
The journey of Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, who divorced the Commodore's grandson Willie, is fascinating for what it says about the role of women a century ago. She burned to establish the Vanderbilts in a New York high society that shunned them, then turned her back on that by becoming an activist for women's suffrage.
Her ex-husband's life revolved around parties, yachts and the horses. He said before he died: “My life was never destined to be quite happy ... Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.”
Cooper takes a pass on the cocaine reference, but said he “absolutely” believes the sentiment about inherited wealth. Much of what the Vanderbilts left behind didn't survive, he said.
“The things that they thought were monuments, which were the houses they built and spent a fortune on, were torn down in 60 years in many cases,” he said. “They were just too bloated and impossible to keep up and times change. They couldn't be sold off to other rich people, because they didn't want them.”
The book is short of details on Cornelius Vanderbilt's business success. Cooper figures there are other resources for that. He wanted to explore more of the personal side.
It wasn't pretty. The patriarch played favorites with his sons and largely ignored his daughters, figuring they would get married and not carry on the Vanderbilt name.
“I certainly would not have wanted to have grown up in his house,” Cooper said. “But I admire that he did create new businesses — not just one empire but two empires. What he did was extraordinary, but it came at great cost to those around him.”
He believes he and his mother inherited something of the Commodore's work ethic.
“I don't have the drive for money in that way,” he said. “But I certainly understand the drive to make a name for yourself and try to create something in your chosen field, and do things that feel important.”
After his mother's death, Cooper began to explore the journals, letters, documents and photos she left behind and, he wrote, “began to hear the voices of those people I never knew.”
When his own son was born in 2020, he wondered what he would tell him about the family, what lessons could be learned. He doesn't know whether he'll retrace with his own son the steps he took with his father to the statue long ago but, arguably, he's already done something more valuable with the book.
“I wanted him to have a sense of who they were as people,” he said. “For better or worse.”