The Rise and Fall of the Vanderbilt Family – Lessons to Learn

Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as “The Commodore,” had about 100 million dollars of fortune throughout his life.

In today’s value, that will be around 2.5 billion dollars.

When he passed away in January of 1877, he left 95% of his money to his eldest son William Henry Vanderbilt.

Ninety-five million dollars equates to an estimated amount of 2.1 billion dollars.

This eldest son doubled the money he received as his inheritance.

Vanderbilt Family - How they lost their money

He managed to be the wealthiest during that time.  [This is wild to me – sliiiggghhtttly more cash than I have, but then again, my goal is a life of flexibility and adventure].

As for the other children of Cornelius Vanderbilt, he left a smaller fortune for them to inherit. 

And for the following years, William Henry Vanderbilt’s children spent almost all of the fortune he made from The Commodore’s inheritance.

Let’s discuss the stories from the book “Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt” to know what happened to the Vanderbilt Family and their fortune.

According to the book, Vanderbilt’s luxurious and privileged lifestyle became a short-term golden for them.

After 30 years since Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, the following generations of the family hit rock bottom. 

It didn’t matter that The Commodore has left an enormous fortune for his family.

None of the descendants maintain the wealth in the end.

Nobody from the Vanderbilt family made it into the wealthiest people in the United States.

When 120 members of the Vanderbilt household gathered at Vanderbilt University for their first family reunion in 1973, none of them even had a million fortune left.

It is surprising to know that the world’s most enormous fortune came to the Vanderbilt family, yet they did not end up as millionaires in the end.

The fortune that The Commodore made during his life and passed down to his children went down the drain.      

Vanderbilt Family Biltmore

Anderson Cooper’s Book – Vanderbilt: The Rise & Fall of an American Dynasty

I want to take a quick moment to share a new project by Anderson Cooper called Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty. Anderson Cooper is a part of the Vanderbilt bloodline.

I didn’t know this until recently.

It’s probably because he doesn’t associate with them.

He recently launched a project to share more about their story of how they came into power and fell from it.

Cooper’s book on the Vanderbilts might also have you wondering, “What is Anderson Cooper’s net worth?

Anderson Cooper’s net worth is approximately $200 million that mostly comes from journalism.

He makes a salary of $12 million a year from CNN and clearly has additional streams of income, such as writing his book.

Notable Vanderbilt Women

A prominent feature of the Vanderbilt family is the contribution of women to their legacy.

From philanthropy to art collection and social activism, Vanderbilt women have played a significant role in the family’s history. Here are some notable Vanderbilt women:

Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt

Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt, the wife of William Henry Vanderbilt, played a significant role in the Vanderbilt family’s philanthropic legacy.

After William’s death in 1885, Sophia inherited a substantial part of his fortune, and she became a leading philanthropist in New York City.

She was a founder and supporter of many charitable organizations, including the Vanderbilt Clinic and Vanderbilt University.

She also supported the construction of the Grand Central Terminal and donated funds for the establishment of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Maria Louisa Vanderbilt

Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, was an avid collector of art and supporter of the arts.

She contributed significantly to the art collection of her husband’s family and was known for her social contributions.

She was a patron of many artists and a member of various art organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt

Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, the wife of John F. A. Strong was an activist and philanthropist.

She was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and supported women’s rights.

Overall, Vanderbilt women have made significant contributions to society and the Vanderbilt family’s legacy.

Their philanthropy, art collection, social activism, and support for various causes have had a lasting impact on American culture and society.

What Happened To The Vanderbilt Fortune?

At the time of their peak, they had the world’s greatest fortune.

If we equate that to today’s value, it’s still significant as it amounts up to billions of dollars.

But what happened? How did the family manage to lose it?

As discussed in the book:

During the Gilded Age, where materialism and corruption were rampant in the U.S, Vanderbilt gained popularity due to its wealth.

The extreme desire for greatness and irrationality ruled the family that led to the establishment of various properties.

The Vanderbilts’ once dream houses are still standing as a masterpiece.

These houses are Biltmore, Idlehour, Florham, The Breakers, and Marble House.

Not only were these masterpieces more significant than other millionaires’ houses, but they also competed to be as big and beautiful as the famous country houses in England and castles in France.

The properties were good enough to rival mansions built since the Middle Ages.

They were the U.S. equivalent of some of the grand old palaces around the world. 

It aims to withstand through time to carry the prominence that the Vanderbilts had during their golden era. However, that was not the case today.

Even with the family’s spacious, expensive and elegant ancestral homes, none of them hardly used the mansions, not even the next generations.

The next generations of the Vanderbilt family, The Commodore’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, started building large estates using their riches.

They were colossal country properties, in particular, that cost about millions of dollars each.

The Vanderbilts rarely used any of these properties, just for a few weeks each year as their summer home.

At present, some of these large houses are available for the public to tour.

If you’ve been to the Biltmore estate, you may agree that it is timelessly beautiful.

The house is on private land that was 10 square miles big.

The house itself is around 170,000 square feet big that costs a whopping $5 million to construct.

Biltmore estate costs $138 million in today’s value of money. Imagine how big and beautiful this house is when you are visiting it.

Remember, these houses cost a lot of fortune to construct, and they were the most expensive estates in their country back in the day.

But, the Vanderbilts hardly ever used them.

Why Did The Vanderbilt Family Fall?

Cornelius Vanderbilt worked his way up to have the immense fortune in his time.

He can even set a plan for the Vanderbilt family’s future generations but ruined the chance to do so.

The Commodore As A Father

We can directly blame the grandchildren for wasting their fortune on vacated estates they built, but it all comes down to The Commodore.

As a father, he was not precisely hands-on in disciplining his children.

He did not have the best reputation as a father and did not train his children to manage their family’s wealth.

They could’ve saved their fortune if they knew not to spend everything they have and use the interest in their original wealth.

Inheritance Distribution

Another probable reason is that he left a large part of his wealth to only one of his children.

Presumably, this caused a legal battle between the other children that lasted for almost two years.

But somehow, the eldest son managed to pull off the responsibility. He grew the fortune left with him.

No Inheritance Condition

The Commodore did not put conditions on how the children will use the money.

Another business magnate, John Jacob Astor, made a lot of fortune through real estate.

He established his wealth years before Vanderbilt started. 

He put a 50/50 condition under his wealth and split his money equally to his children and grandchildren.

The same term applied even to future generations. 

If only The Commodore tried the same approach, the Vanderbilt family could maintain their wealth even today.

Related Reading: How To Make 200 Dollars In One Day – Read All The Ways Here.

Alva Vanderbilt’s Marriage

Alva Vanderbilt’s marriage to the grandson of The Commodore is another reason why they lost their fortune.

At that time, New York elites did not generally accept Vanderbilt’s fortune because it newly emerged.

Therefore, they did not invite the Vanderbilts to social gatherings.

Alva Vanderbilt, who badly wants to join the elites, did not like the situation.

She spent the Vanderbilts’ riches on building a mansion, the largest in New York, on being accepted by the crowd.

The architect in charge of the mansion grasped what Alva wanted to happen to the new mansion.

He knew the reason why Alva desired to build a large estate.

Alva wanted to use the house as a key to enter the wealthy society.

She didn’t want another home, but just a place to show off to the high community so she can be part of them.

The estate opened its doors three years later with a total cost of 3 million dollars to build.

That would be around 70 million dollars by now. 

However, the elegant mansion didn’t get Alva what she desired.

The Vanderbilts were still not invited to big parties that the Astors held.

That’s why Alva hosted her party at the new mansion with over 1,000 noble families in New York except the Astors.

Mrs. Astor didn’t want to let the chance slip away and called Alva.

The said party cost 5.8 million dollars in today’s value.

The mansion and the party paid off as Alva was finally in the elite.

Social Acceptance

With the acceptance from wealthy families, other Vanderbilts wanted the same status.

The Commodore’s son started his mansion on Fifth Avenue, along with other family members.

These homes cost millions of dollars but turned out useless.

One by one, the mansions on Fifth Avenue built by the family crumbled when the auctioneer demolished the homes.

The first house on Fifth Avenue stood in 1882 but fell in 1914. By 1947, the remaining Vanderbilt properties followed the fall.

Despite this, Alva was unstoppable. She was starting to blow the fortune of the Vanderbilts. 

William figured that the only way to please his eruptive and commanding wife was to let her spend his money.

Even The Commodore tolerated the lavish lifestyle Alva wanted.

To satisfy her, they provided her with the fortune she could consume.

This point is where it all went downhill for the Vanderbilt family.

The family members competed to have the largest estates until Alva and William divorced.

Final Thoughts On The Vanderbilt Family

It is unbelievable to think that the Vanderbilt family’s fortune turned into stones because of social acceptance.

It wasn’t about the homes anymore but the craving for belongingness in the prestige class.

Arranged marriages turned them into unhappy couples.

The greed destroyed the family and the fortune of the future generations of the family.

The eldest son complained about the burden of inheriting the majority of the fortune.

He said there’s nothing good about being the richest compared to the moderately rich.

He came to realize that he had a house, horse, and pictures, but the moderately well-off people also have them.

Even having a yacht, but it will not make him happy, and he wouldn’t care about it.

He talked about his neighbor, who isn’t half as rich as him, but that neighbor experienced the real pleasures of life more than he did.

Their house was not as big as his, but both were comfortable.

His neighbor’s house didn’t cost as much as his. But the people who built it were as good as his.

Willam also thought that his neighbor’s health was better than his and that he could grow older than William. 

William cannot trust anyone, even his friends.

The fortune that made him the wealthiest person in the world gave him nothing but anxiety.

William Vanderbilt said these words when he was still the richest man in the world.

He was unhappy despite being wealthy because of his failing health and concern over money.

He also wanted his eldest son to inherit his fortune but speaking from his experience, he didn’t want his son to experience the burden too.

So, he gave his wealth to his two sons equally.

The Commodore said that anyone, even a fool, can make lots of money.

However, it takes intelligence to maintain the fortune for the following years.

And to think, I traveled to Guatemala for six weeks on less money than it cost me to live at home in Alabama. Wild.

Related Reading: Get Shit Done – Learn How To Be An Executor Here.

Some FAQs About The Vanderbilt Family

Who was Cornelius Vanderbilt?

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was an American business magnate and philanthropist who amassed a great fortune through his leadership in the shipping and railroad industries during the 19th century. He is considered one of the wealthiest Americans in history and was known for his aggressive business tactics and shrewd investments. He was the founder of the Vanderbilt family dynasty, which continued to amass wealth and power through the generations.

How did the Vanderbilt family make their money?

The Vanderbilt family made their fortune through shipping and railroad businesses during the late 19th century. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the family patriarch, started with a single boat and eventually built a shipping empire. Later, his descendants expanded into the railroad industry, which was booming at the time, and further grew their wealth.

What is the net worth of the Vanderbilt family today?

It’s difficult to determine the exact net worth of the Vanderbilt family today as their wealth has been distributed over the years and some of their assets have been sold. However, it’s estimated that the current net worth of the Vanderbilt family is around $100 million.

What happened to the Vanderbilt fortune?

The Vanderbilt fortune was distributed among the descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt after his death in 1877. However, over the years, the family faced a number of financial setbacks, including mismanagement, overspending, and costly legal battles. The family’s wealth declined significantly throughout the 20th century, and while some Vanderbilt descendants remain wealthy, the family as a whole is no longer as wealthy as it once was.

Who are some famous Vanderbilt descendants?

Some famous Vanderbilt descendants include CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, fashion designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, and her son, CNN correspondent Carter Vanderbilt Cooper.

What is the Biltmore Estate?

The Biltmore Estate is a large private estate and tourist attraction located in Asheville, North Carolina. It was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II, a member of the Vanderbilt family, between 1889 and 1895. The estate covers over 8,000 acres and includes a 250-room mansion, gardens, a winery, and a village. Today, the estate is open to the public for tours and events.

How did George Vanderbilt make his money?

George Vanderbilt inherited his wealth from his father, William Henry Vanderbilt, who in turn inherited it from his father, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt family made their fortune through investments in railroads and shipping during the 19th century. George Vanderbilt himself did not have a career or make significant investments, but instead focused on his passions such as art collecting and the creation of the Biltmore Estate.

Are there any Vanderbilts left?

Yes, there are still Vanderbilt descendants alive today, although the family’s prominence and wealth have greatly diminished over time. Some notable living Vanderbilt descendants include CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and his brother, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper.

Who owns the Biltmore Estate today?

The Biltmore Estate is still owned by the Vanderbilt family, specifically by the descendants of George Vanderbilt. The estate is managed by The Biltmore Company, which is owned by the family.

How did the Vanderbilt family spend their wealth?

The Vanderbilt family spent their wealth on various endeavors, including philanthropy, art collections, lavish homes, and luxurious lifestyles. Some members of the family were known for their extravagant spending habits, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built the opulent Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The family also invested heavily in railroads and other business ventures, such as the New York Central Railroad, which helped to expand their wealth. Additionally, the family donated significant amounts of money to institutions such as Vanderbilt University and Columbia University.

What contributions did the Vanderbilt family make to American society?

The Vanderbilt family made significant contributions to American society, particularly in the areas of transportation and philanthropy. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s success in the shipping and railroad industries revolutionized transportation in the United States and helped to spur economic growth. The family’s philanthropic endeavors include the founding of Vanderbilt University and the donation of millions of dollars to various charitable causes. Additionally, the family’s lavish spending on art, architecture, and fashion helped to shape American culture and the concept of high society.

Where did the Vanderbilt family live?

The Vanderbilt family lived in various places throughout their history, but their primary residence was in New York City, specifically in a mansion on Fifth Avenue known as the “The Vanderbilt Triple Palace.” They also owned homes in other locations such as Rhode Island and Hyde Park. The Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, built by George Vanderbilt, also served as a residence for the family.

What is the relationship between Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper?

Gloria Vanderbilt was Anderson Cooper’s mother.

What is the net worth of Cornelius Vanderbilt II?

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s net worth is difficult to estimate in today’s dollars as he lived during the late 19th century. However, at the time of his death in 1899, his estate was valued at approximately $100 million, which would be the equivalent of several billion dollars today, adjusting for inflation.

What is the relationship of Richard Morris Hunt with the Vanderbilt family?

Richard Morris Hunt was an American architect who was closely associated with the Vanderbilt family. He designed many of the Vanderbilt family’s prominent residences, including the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Hunt’s designs for the Vanderbilt family helped establish their reputation as one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Who was Emily Thorn Vanderbilt?

Emily Thorn Vanderbilt was the wife of William Henry Vanderbilt and the mother of three of his children, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II. She was a prominent member of New York City society and a philanthropist who donated to numerous charitable causes. Emily also oversaw the construction of Vanderbilt houses, including the Breakers in Rhode Island and the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. She died in 1946 at the age of 92.

Disclosure:  this article might contain links to the resources discussed.
Some of the links are affiliate links, meaning that I will make a small commission if you purchase a product or service by using the link. You get the same price whether you use our special link or not, and sometimes I’m able to get you an even better deal through my relationships!  More info in my privacy policy.

Brooks Conkle Banner Image
Brooks Conkle

Brooks is an entrepreneur, father, husband, & follower of the golden rule. He has over 15 years of experience as an entrepreneur after graduating with a Finance degree from Auburn University. Addicted to starting new business projects, he believes in creating multiple income streams and a life of flexibility. Business should work around your life, not the other way around. He creates content on his website, sharing his projects to help other hustlers in marketing, personal finance, and online business. 

100 Side Hustle Ideas!

Join 3,300 hustlers that have received my free list of curated ideas.

Great! Check your inbox for the goodies (check the promotion tab if you're a Gmail user!) Talk Soon.