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American Dynasties

Tycoons have come and gone, but few are the titans that form dynasties. In America, much weighs against the family that seeks to preserve a financial power base for generations.
Jack Bettridge, Bruce Goldman, Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 2)

In the 1890s, George Washington Vanderbilt, a grandson of railroad baron Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, was considering building a modest Southern-style mansion on his 125,000-acre North Carolina spread. Architect Richard Morris Hunt, a family favorite, had other ideas. Millions of dollars and 250 rooms later, the Biltmore Estate was the largest private house in America.  

An epitaph of the Vanderbilt legacy might read, "By their homes shall they be known." For it was in their spectacular mansions that the heirs of Cornelius Vanderbilt poured his fortune.  

In 1810, at 16, Commodore Vanderbilt bought a sailing sloop to ferry freight and passengers from his native Staten Island to Manhattan. He soon graduated to steamboats, and within four decades more than 100 of his ships dominated the New York steamship trade. Vanderbilt was worth millions. To extend his reach, he invested in railroads during the Civil War. Through shrewd management and shady stock dealings, Vanderbilt acquired a vast railroad empire, including the New York Central. When he died, in 1877, he was worth more than $100 million.  

Wanting his empire to survive, he left the bulk of his fortune to only one of his 13 children, his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt. It was a wise choice. Under William's hand, the fortune more than doubled. But William also brought the "robber baron" label upon the clan with his unfortunate response to a reporter's question regarding the public good: "The public be damned!" After William's death in 1885, his son Cornelius II further increased the fortune, which reached more than half a billion dollars by the 1920s.  

Loud and coarse, the Commodore had cared little for New York's high society, and it returned the compliment. His grandchildren, on the other hand, cared very much. From the 1890s to the 1930s they threw excessively lavish parties for hundreds of society's elite at their homes in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Other Vanderbilts made waves as well. Harold Sterling Vanderbilt was a three-time America's Cup winner during the 1930s and the creator of modern contract bridge. More recently, Gloria Vanderbilt, the object of a bitter custody battle as a child, became a leading fashion designer.  

A few Vanderbilts did engage in philanthropy, donating funds to Vanderbilt and Columbia universities, New York's Vanderbilt Clinic, and the Whitney museum, among others. But it was the Vanderbilt passion for homes that brought the clan to a level all its own. In New York City, the grandchildren filled an eight-block stretch of Fifth Avenue with their mansions. In 1892, William K. shelled out $11 million to create Marble House in Newport, while nearby his brother Cornelius II's The Breakers, a 70-room summer "cottage," became the wealthy playground's most opulent mansion.--TF    


Thomas Mellon was a rising young lawyer in Pittsburgh who did things with cool calculation. Before he took a wife in 1843, he drew up a list of attributes suitable to a "helpmate," conducted "interviews," and then proposed. Mellon later reflected that had the lucky girl refused he would have left "neither sad nor depressed nor greatly disappointed, only annoyed at the loss of time."  

That power of cold-blooded assessment was something he would pass on to his sons. He also earned enough money as a judge and a real estate investor to buy them a bank so that they might amass their own fortune. Andrew W. and Richard B. were the progeny who made the most of daddy's largess. Loaning money to the city's burgeoning steel trade, they bought chunks of the foremost industries of the age, installing themselves as members on the boards of directors. They did business with the likes of Henry Frick and the Du Ponts, and made their influence felt in mining, manufacturing, railroads, electronics and just about every other industry.  

In 1889, a young engineer came to Andrew Mellon with a patent that would slash the cost of aluminum. The family backed the company that became Alcoa and virtually cornered the market.  

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