Culture Entertainment

The High Society Vanderbilt Family Ran Out of Money, Making Them Totally Broke

The High Society Vanderbilt Family Ran Out of Money, Making Them Totally Broke January 4, 2021Leave a comment

No one ever said that getting rich was easy, but few people realize that staying rich is even harder. Just ask the Vanderbilt family, one of the wealthiest families in the United States. Well, they used to be.

Their wealth began to accrue back in the 1800s when patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt started earning revenue from his expanding industrial empire. But this prominent family became a cautionary tale of how quickly one can go from riches to normal.

The Vanderbilts Were Social Climbers on the Rise

WSCOTV

The Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune thanks to the railroad industry, yearned to climb up the proverbial ladder of New York’s society of elites. To do that, they used their fortune to splurge on fancy cars and lavish social gatherings. And for a while, everything went so well that they never saw their eminent downfall.

They Threw a $6 Million Party

PSNC Archives and Special Collections

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt threw a party worth about $6 million and she invited over a thousand VIPs. Naturally, everyone who was anyone came wearing their fancy suits and dresses. And they weren’t worried over how much their hostess had blown on the party because they knew the family was loaded.

They Built an Empire

Wikimedia Commons

Long before Alva was throwing parties, Cornelius Vanderbilt started building his empire when he was very young. This allowed his fortune to grow thanks to his success in the shipping and railroad industries. But he couldn’t have done it without help from his parents.

His Parents Lent Him Money

North Carolina Martime Museusm Beaufort

As a teenager, Cornelius Vanderbilt, or the Commodore as he was known as, asked his parents for $100. It was a loan, but he never intended to spend it on frivolous things. He wanted to buy a boat, which served perfectly for moving cargo.

He Started a Fleet

The New York Times Photo Archives

As the Commodore’s fortune started to grow, he not only repaid his parents for the $100 they let him borrow, but also shared his money with them. And a year later, he had accrued enough money to buy other ships to journey back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island.

He Helped Out During a War

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Philadelphia

Commodore took an interest in sailing and ship design because he figured that the knowledge would help him grow his business. But he really made a difference in the War of 1812 when he used his routes to supply U.S. outposts.

The Commodore Got Sued

Wikimedia Commons

When the war ended, the Commodore and a man named Thomas Gibbons worked together to ferry people from New York to New Jersey. But this led to a dispute with a competitive shipping company, which instigated a lawsuit. The case even went to the Supreme Court, which fortunately ruled in the Commodore’s favor. Eventually, Vanderbilt started focusing on something more important...

He Started a family

Wikimedia Commons

The Commodore married Sophia Johnson, who also happened to be his first cousin. The couple had 13 children, two of whom passed away before they were adults. He only had two male heirs among the group and he disliked them both so much that he intended to leave them penniless. But things didn’t go the way he planned.

One Son Took Most of the Fortune

Touchstone Pictures

The Commodore had a change of heart and left his fortune to his eldest son, William Vanderbilt, claiming, "Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it." And it turns out that he was right. William was able to continue his father’s legacy.

The Other Son Passed on His Inheritance

Wikimedia Commons

Despite his apprehension, the Commodore didn’t leave his other son, Cornelius, penniless. He gave him a small portion of his fortune, which Cornelius passed on to his son, Alfred. He also gave some money to his other sons, Cornelius III and Reginald but they squandered it in less than no time.

Reginald Vandebilt Lost It All

KGTV

Reginald had inherited $15.5 million but lost $70,000 of it gambling by the time he was 21. He died without a penny to his name. His wife survived off the interest of their daughter’s trust fund. Fortunately, his brother had better luck.

William Doubled His Fortune

Biltmore

William was able to grow the family business and their railroads throughout the country. This allowed him to double the Vanderbilt’s wealth. But as is common among the rich, the Vanderbilts’ thirst for money could not be satiated.

They Were Richer Than the US Treasury

Metropolitan College of New York

By the time Commodore died, his family had $100 million, which his son William doubled to $200 million. At the time, they were richer than the U.S. Treasury. But they had one obsession that was quite costly.

They Blew Their Money on Mansions

Instagram/@i.am_.thepassenger

The Vanderbilts had a thing for buying and expanding their mansions. In fact, Cornelius II expanded the estate he had bought in Newport, Rhode Island, which most people know as The Breakers. But did he go too far?

They Planned to Retrofit The Breakers

Instagram/@nelaporrass

The Breakers had been retrofitted by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who Cornelius II had hired. After talking it out, the men decided to "create a 70 room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th-century palaces of Genoa and Turin." But this wasn’t the only palace the Vanderbilts ruled.

The Built a Palace in New York

Library of Congress / George Grantham Bain Collection

The Vanderbilts built a palace from the ground up in New York called the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House. The property had 130 rooms, of which one room was a two-story ballroom that seemed like a fairytale dream come true.

They Gave Their Money Away

Wikimedia Commons

Although the Vanderbilts had earned a reputation for spending their money on a lavish lifestyle, they were also known for being do-gooders who gave their money to charity. Unfortunately, their philanthropy was poorly managed, which played a role in their financial woes.

They Were a Generous Bunch

National Park Service

Louis Holmes wasn’t born a Vanderbilt but she did marry one and she had a generous heart. She created a Red Cross chapter and provided young women with financial support so that they could have an education. Other family members used their philanthropy to help art institutes and aspiring artists. Unfortunately, they came to regret their generosity.

Their Legacy Came to An End

Wikimedia Commons

The Vanderbilts were so used to being rich that they didn’t see the end coming until it was too late. In 1926, the once powerful empire fell and their famous Vanderbilt House was torn down. And things only got worse from there.

They Lost Their Railroad Business

Pinterest

The Vanderbilts had made a fortune in their railroad business, but by the 1930s, cars and buses had weakened their earnings. Left with no other choice, they sold their holdings. This allowed their competitors to buy their shares and bankrupt their railroad business in the 1950s and 1960s. But were there any remaining millionaires in the family?

They Retained Their Reputation

HBO

The Vanderbilts had lost their millionaire status by 1973. But Gloria Vanderbilt, who was Reginald’s only child, became one of the 20th century’s biggest socialites and designers. And her son, Anderson Cooper, became pretty famous, too.

Cooper Learned That Money Can’t Stop Tragedy

CNN

Cooper discovered at an early age that fame and wealth weren’t powerful enough to prevent the loss of a loved one. When he was 10 years old, his father, Wyatt Emory Copper, passed away. A few years later, his older brother lost his life, too.

Tragedy Led Him Towards His Future Career

CNN

As he got older, he asked himself a major question: “Why do some people thrive in situations that others can’t tolerate? Would I be able to survive and get on in the world on my own?” This led him to make a name for himself in journalism.

He Made History by Coming Out

Melanie Acevedo/People Magazine

While his family had made history as one of the richest families in the United States, Cooper continued the legacy of standing out by becoming the first broadcast journalist to publicly come out of the closet in 2012. And he made sure that his family’s legacy would continue.

He Introduced the Next Generation

Melanie Acevedo/People Magazine

On April 27, 2020, Cooper became the proud father of a baby boy named Wyatt Morgan Cooper thanks to a surrogate. On his Instagram he wrote: “He is named after my father. I hope I can be as good a dad as he was.” So, while the Commodore’s family fortune may have been squandered, there’s one priceless legacy that continues to thrive in the Vanderbilt line: family.

The Letter Revealed the Facts of 1918

Public Domain

The letter was discovered in the collection of someone who had recently passed away, which was why it took over 45 years before the public had any knowledge of it. And why the mystery took over 100 years to solve. But, the subject matter was something that millions of people were intimately aware of.

The British and Russian Royals Were Intricately Linked

Public Domain

Lord Louis Mountbatten was Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin and uncle to Prince Philip. But it was his connection to the Romanov family from Russia that peaked everyone’s interest after a long-forgotten letter was discovered that shed light on the British Royal Family’s connection to Anastasia’s disappearance and the execution of her family.

The Man Who Wrote the Letter

Public Domain

Lord Louis Mountbatten is Prince Phillip’s uncle, so he has close ties to the current Royal Family. He has also been described as Prince Charles’s mentor, so they have been seen together often. So, why was he so interested in the disappearance of the youngest daughter of Russia’s Imperial Family, and why did this matter interest him for decades?

He Has Ties to the Royal Family

PR Photos

Mountbatten is also Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin, further cementing him in the history of the Royal Family. The letter that he wrote also shows that he had knowledge of facts that most members of the public weren’t aware of regarding the disappearance of Anastasia Romanov.

He Had Family Ties to the Russian Imperial Family

National Portrait Gallery

Mountbatten had cousins in the Russian Imperial family from his mother’s side. His aunt was Empress Alexandra and his godfather was Emperor Nicholas II. But having such a strong lineage didn’t keep him from looking for love in all the wrong places.

He Fell for His Cousin

Public Domain

Mountbatten had fallen hopelessly in love with the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, who happened to be his cousin. He was 10 and she was 11 at the time, and he claimed he wanted to marry her. And it seems he continued to hold feelings for her up until his death. According to rumors, he kept a photo of Nikolaevna in his room. But tragedy had ended any hope of a future with his cousin.

They Were Remembered Fondly

Public Domain

In the biography of Mountbatten’s life titled “Mountbatten: Hero of Our Time,” which was written by Richard Hough, the Royal Family member remembered his Romanov cousins, “Oh, they were lovely, and terribly sweet, far more beautiful than their photographs show.”

His Family Was Murdered

Wiki Commons

In 1918, the Romanovs were executed, which left Mountbatten emotionally ruined. He knew that Nikolaevna was among the fatalities, but the motive behind the murders weren’t clear. And ultimately, he was left with the same question that everyone else had, where was his other cousin, Anastasia?

Anastasia’s Dad Wasn’t Happy She Was a Girl

Wiki Commons

Long ago, Tsar Nicholas wasn’t a happy camper when he learned that his wife, Empress Alexandra had given birth to yet another little girl. The reason for this was that he wanted a male heir to inherit the throne. But eventually, he got over it and embraced Anastasia.

The Little Pair

Public Domain

Mountbatten’s future crush Maria and his other cousin, Anastasia were the youngest in the family. So, naturally, they earned the nickname, “The Little Pair.” But the fact that Anastasia was a royal didn’t stop her from being a total nightmare.

She Was a Total Pest

Public Domain

Anastasia gained the reputation of being a total pest. In fact, she was known for hitting other kids. And as far as the palace’s staff was concerned, they were always falling victim to one of her pranks. But perhaps the reason she acted out was because of a series of health issues.

She Was a Sick Child

Public Domain

Despite being a handful, Anastasia had experienced a few illnesses as a child, which included hemophilia, which her family also had, as well as other ailments like problems with her back muscles. But that didn’t explain why she was such a rotten student.

She Had Chores to Do

Public Domain

Even though the Romanov daughters were literal royalty, they still had household responsibilities, like chores and other housekeeping tasks. They were all taught to sew and in their spare time, they sewed clothes for their dolls. Their mother, Empress Alexandra, ensured that they wouldn’t be spoiled.

Her Mother Ensured That She Wouldn't Be Spoiled

Public Domain

In fact, Empress Alexandra also ensured that her daughters weren’t too entitled by forcing them to take cold baths and sleep on beds made of iron because it was what her mother made her do as a child. She made sure that her children didn’t come to expect too many luxuries.

She Was the Youngest Daughter

Public Domain

Anastasia was often called an “imp,” which meant a small demon or mischievous child, but she was tough enough to handle any nicknames or teasing that came from her family. She often misbehaved to make her siblings laugh, and her three older sisters weren’t afraid to put her in her place. 

She Was a Troublemaker in School

Public Domain

Anastasia was more of a rebellious little leader and not a follower. So, she had a tough time following school rules or even staying in her seat for too long. She wasn’t a fan of school work either, so she often climbed a tree to evade her school responsibilities. And on occasion, she manipulated her teachers to get out of trouble.

She Bribed Her Teacher

Public Domain

She knew she wasn’t going to stop being a rebel, but she had to find a way to get into her teacher’s good graces. So, whenever she didn’t feel like doing her school work, she tried bribing them with flowers. And if they refused, she simply gave them to another teacher who was more easily manipulated. But sadly, her tactics couldn’t save her life in the end.

They Didn’t Have Enough Facts

Bettmann / Contributor

In a 1969 interview, Mountbatten stated: “We had very little news of the family after the Bolsheviks took over. We all hoped that they would ultimately be sent into exile, but we feared the worst. Even when it happened, it was a long time before we heard the details, which were quite horrible." But why wasn’t Anastasia found with the rest of her family?

Her Remains Weren’t Found

Wiki Commons

Investigators searched for Anastasia among what was left of her family’s lifeless bodies, but she wasn’t among them. But Mountbatten, the British Royal family, and the surviving members of the Russian Imperial family, weren’t entirely convinced that she was alive either. And yet, many women throughout the years claimed to be Anastasia.

There Were Lots of Imposters

Getty Images / Heritage Images / Contributor

Over the years, many women claimed to be Anastasia, particularly a woman named Anna Anderson. Mountbatten was able to discredit her claims and made sure that she never received the recognition she tried to steal from the real Anastasia. But Anderson never let up.

Anderson Claimed to Be the Real McCoy

Shutterstock

Anderson’s claims were quickly dismissed despite having a small group of supporters that claimed she was legit. Sadly, Anderson spent decades walking in and out of mental institutions, and some people claimed that she was actually a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska. But what did a surviving member of the Romanov family have to say about Anderson’s claims?

Anastasia’s Relatives Didn't Believe It

Wiki Commons

Dowager Empress Marie was Anastasia’s grandmother and she refused to meet Anderson, claiming that she was not her granddaughter. This sentiment was later shared by Anastasia’s Aunt Olga, who did agree to meet Anderson. But after the visit, Olga said, “I was looking at a stranger.” But could the family’s staff identify the real Anastasia?

Mountbatten Didn’t Think She Was Anastasia 

Mountbatten never publicly spoke about Anderson’s claims, but in private “He lobbied hard for her not to be recognized or be given publicity and spending large some of money challenging her claims in court,” according to historian Andrew Lownie.

Staff Members Were Used as Witnesses

Wiki Commons

For nearly 100 years, hundreds of people had claimed to be Anastasia. But when the Romanov’s former staff members were called in to identify the alleged Anastasias of the world, they called out all the pretenders as total fakes. Meanwhile, Mountbatten still wanted to know what happened to the Romanovs, so he visited the place they took their last breaths in.

He Visited the Romanov’s Former Homes

Images / Historical / Contributor

In 1975, Mountbatten visited the Romanov’s former homes at the Imperial Russian palaces in the (then) Soviet Union. He reportedly brought up Nikolaevna. He was quoted saying: "I was over-powered by the emotion of going back to a country I had known fairly well as a child, where so many of my closest family had lived in such tremendous splendour, and then been murdered in this ghastly way." The same year he wrote a letter that seemingly clarified what happened.

He Set the Record Straight

Unique Auctions / BNPS

The letter was dated “11th March 1975,” and clarified that Anastasia had suffered the same fate as her family. The only difference was that she didn’t die right away so they found a more aggressive way to murder her. But did Mountbatten blame his late uncle for the Romanov’s brutal murder?

His Uncle Might Be to Blame

Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of the letter, Mountbatten hinted that his uncle’s lack of leadership may have been the reason the Romanovs were so easily disposed of. “The Emperor Nicholas II was a charming and kind man but too weak to be a successful autocrat,” he wrote in the last line. But who was the letter addressed to?

The Purpose for the Letter

Wiki Commons

The letter was addressed to Mr. Woodcock-Clarke, but no one really knows much about him or why Mountbatten felt the need to share the news about Anastasia with him. But he seemed eager to put an end to the mystery of his cousin’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, he never lived long enough to see this chapter of his family’s history get put to rest.

He Never Saw the Anderson Case Close

Getty Images / Express / Stringer

The debate about whether Anna Anderson was in fact Anastasia continued over the years, but Mountbatten never got the chance to see the Anderson case officially close. Unfortunately, his life came to an end in an eerily similar fashion as his cousins.

He Was Assassinated

Getty Images / Evening Standard / Stringer

In 1979, Mountbatten had taken his family out to his summer home on the outskirts of Northern Ireland. It was supposed to be a day of relaxation over by the water until they all met a terrible end when the IRA bombed their fishing boat. But was his cousin really dead like his letter suggested?

DNA Testing Helped Close the Case

Getty Images / Wojtek Laski / Contributor

The mystery of the Romanov case came to a shocking conclusion 28 years after Mountbatten’s horrible death. With the use of DNA testing, scientists were able to identify Anastasia’s remains as well as those of her younger brother, Alexi. But why did it take so long to solve this mystery?

Clues Were Found in the Basement

Pinterest

The family met their untimely death in the basement of their home. In an effort to protect themselves from bullet wounds, they all sewed precious jewels into their clothing as protection. Sadly, they met their end in this basement, which is exactly where scientists have come looking for evidence about this crime.

Forensic Techniques Were Limited

Wiki Commons

Bayonets and two separate rounds of gunfire were used to dispose of Anastasia’s family. Their bodies were then found in Yekaterinburg, Russia. But forensic techniques weren’t quite as advanced in those days, so it took many years to identify all the bodies. But what of Anderson’s claims? Was she even related to the family?

Anderson’s Claims Were Officially Debunked

Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor

As far as Anderson was concerned, she had claimed to be Anastasia from 1928 to 1994, but there was no way to confirm or deny it. And yet, after her death, DNA testing proved that she was actually not related to the Romanovs in any way and put any and all doubts to rest.

Her Story Became an Animated Film

20th Century Fox

Many young people today are probably aware of the story of Anastasia because of the 1990s animated film “Anastasia.” The film from 20th Century Fox Studios tells the story of an orphan who is secretly the daughter of the royal family, but there are a few historical inaccuracies in the plot.

There Were a Few Historical Inaccuracies

20th Century Fox

One detail that was completely based in fact was the yellow dress depicted on Anastasia’s character. There are records that show the real Anastasia wearing a similar gown just days before her death.

The Family Assisted in the War Effort

In the midst of the tension of World War I, the Romanov family tried their best to assist in the war efforts by assisting wounded soldiers and even visiting them at their bedsides. Anastasia and her sister Maria were too young to do much helping, so they played checkers with wounded soldiers instead.

They Knew Many Luxuries

Getty

The Royal Family knew a lot of luxury, even though they didn’t always flaunt it. They had a yacht called The Standart which had chandeliers inside and mahogany wood detailing. But their many luxuries would cause tension between the Royal family and the government, and also tension between the family and the people of Russia. 

The End of a Royal Era

Public Domain

There is no longer a Royal Family in Russia. Nicholas II was the final emperor of Russia and after his failures during World War I, which lead to dire situations for his people, he abdicated his position. This portrait was taken just moments before he was imprisoned by the government.

"The Most Shameful Chapter in Russia's History"

Public Domain

In 1998, the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, describe the killings of the royal family as one of the most shameful chapters in Russian history. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime, because it was only in in last decade that DNA evidence made the details of the situation evident. And nowadays, Royal families have far more protection.