In the nineteenth century, there was a man who towered over the American economy, ruthless in business yet true to his word, a physical powerhouse who hated needless chatter. His name was Cornelius Vanderbilt.
There was also a man who lurked in gambling saloons, skipping out on his debts and wheedling money out of celebrities, an epileptic full of self-important bombast. His name was also Cornelius Vanderbilt. Or, to be precise, Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the second son of that other Cornelius.
The first Vanderbilt—known as the Commodore—was one of the most powerful business tycoons in American history. But the qualities that brought him such success make him a tough subject for the biographer. He was fierce, unrelenting, and kept his mouth shut about his affairs, let alone his feelings.
Lucky for us—if unlucky for him—he had a son who was his polar opposite, who pulled out a chain of ever-changing emotions. Corneil (as Cornelius J. was called) was addicted to gambling. He issued promissory notes he never intended to pay, pledged his allowance from his father to creditors, and even pawned his wife’s jewelry. He had a knack for convincing famous men to give him money. Horace Greeley became his patron, lending tens of thousands of dollars. Greeley even pestered Abraham Lincoln to grant Corneil favors (unsuccessfully).
Corneil violated everything in his father’s code of conduct, but the Commodore still loved his son. “Stubborn inconsistency” is how Sophia, Corneil’s mother, described Vanderbilt’s attitude toward Corneil. “He said that if Cornelius J. had a little more sense he might be fit for business; if a little less, he could be put into a lunatic asylum out of harm’s way, where he sometimes thought he properly belonged,” recalled Bishop Holland McTyeire, the founder of Vanderbilt University. “Poor unfortunate boy,” said the Commodore on his deathbed. “You make good resolutions but are not able to keep them from here to Broadway”—two blocks away.
The Commodore died on January 4, 1877, and left behind the largest fortune the Untied States had ever seen. Just five years later, on April 2, 1882, Corneil put a revolver to his temple and shot himself, dying bankrupt.
Image: Cover of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, showing Vanderbilt’s personal physician, Dr. Jared Linsly, testifying on the first day of the trial over Cornelius’ will. He left about 95% of his estate to his oldest son, William and one of his daughters sued to break the will. Corneil joined in the lawsuit at one point. William won, but he doubled his siblings’ stake in the inheritance. (New York Public Library)
T.J. Stiles is author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.