March 2010

Joan Quigley


Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

Long before toxic assets entered the lexicon, before bank bailouts and Bernard Madoff stoked populist outrage at Wall Street’s excesses, Cornelius Vanderbilt mastered his 19th century universe, amassing dynastic wealth. On his death in 1877, Vanderbilt -- known as the Commodore -- had parlayed his shipping and railroad empires into a fortune worth $167 billion. His son and only heir, William H. Vanderbilt, died eight years later, after doubling his inheritance. William’s heirs, in turn, embarked on an epic building spree, tapping marquee architects to erect palaces up and down the East Coast, from The Breakers in Newport, R.I. and a smattering of Manhattan townhouses to The Biltmore in Asheville, N.C.

Now Wendy Burden, the Commodore’s great-great-great-granddaughter, has penned a memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, about growing up in her branch of the clan in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, many of the Vanderbilt mansions had been razed, sold, donated to charity or converted into museums -- including the New York, New Jersey and Newport edifices once owned by her great-great-grandmother, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly. But the fortune, Burden suggests, remained intact, as did the penchant for luxury, from household servants and high-end real estate to Givenchy finery and Verdura baubles.

Burden, whose paternal lineage included the Vanderbilt line and a link to a Scottish emigrant industrialist, Henry Burden, grew up in Washington, D.C., raised by a Scottish governess. (She and I attended the same private girls’ school, Washington’s National Cathedral School, but not at the same time). Her father, William A. M. Burden III, a former Washington Post reporter, committed suicide when she was six. Her mother, who descended from Plymouth Colony stock, fled for Miami, Palm Springs and Tijuana, burnishing her tan. On rare visits home, she called her daughter “nitwit” and “Birdbrain,” chiding her for eating potato chips. As a fourteenth birthday present, Burden’s mother gave her the Pill.

On weekends and school vacations, Burden and her brothers bunked with their grandparents, Popsie and Gaga, whose Fifth Avenue apartment, lined with Mondrians and Mirós, boasted 21 rooms and 14 bathrooms. Her grandfather, William A. M. Burden II, a financier and former Belgian ambassador, looms over the tale as her nemesis, a mid-century Voldemort who believed only her brother -- the oldest male and namesake -- should see a psychiatrist after their father died. When the chef behaved inappropriately toward Burden, her grandfather refused to fire him, saying good chefs were hard to find.

Burden, meanwhile, acted out on a scale worthy of her role model, Wednesday Addams, nursing grievances and plotting revenge. She beheaded her Barbies, boiled her brother’s pet turtles and pan-fried the hamster. A self-described control freak, she rummaged through desks in her grandparents’ four homes, snooped in the maids’ quarters and reorganized the office supplies, finding, in her reconnaissance, calm amid the chaos, not to mention fodder for future memoirs. At its best, her prose offers a slew of telling details, from the Turnbull and Asser collars lining her grandmother’s drawers to the red plaid sleeping masks Gaga and Popsie donned in their country home.

Still, Burden’s narrative needed a sterner editorial hand. She struggles with inconsistencies in tone, careening between the witticisms of a detached observer, bemused by her tribe’s WASP eccentricities, and the petulance of a wounded teenager, smarting from sibling rivalry. She shares tidbits better left undisclosed, especially about her grandparents’ bodily functions and the Burden male anatomy. And she tests the reader’s sympathies, plunging, without apparent irony, into bigotry and stereotype. In one passage, she describes her grandparents’ Irish maids as the butler’s “half-witted sisters,” who “needed explicit guidance from the moment their bunioned feet got out of bed to when they said their Hail Marys in the same spot at the close of the day.”

Notwithstanding these lapses, Burden’s account of her family’s decline is wrenching. Her grandfather, felled by alcoholism and Parkinson’s disease, never snagged the French ambassadorship he coveted. Her grandmother, who once stockpiled Mainbocher and Dior, yielded to a team of nurses, who outfitted her in tracksuits and Reeboks. Her mother died of breast cancer. Her brothers landed in rehab.

Burden provides few insights into her own adulthood, or how she navigated the wreckage. In the late 1970s, she purchased a Soho loft with part of her trust fund and dabbled in New York’s downtown art and party scene. And, despite the book’s title, in her acknowledgements she thanks her two daughters.

In fact, Dead End Gene Pool is a misleading title, an effort to finger the Commodore’s genome for havoc just as plausibly linked to his fortune. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Burden notes, disinherited all but one of his 13 offspring. In retrospect, it is tempting to wonder about his motives, and the fate of those he stiffed. Did he -- the sixth of nine children, a self-made man who dropped out of school at 11 and piloted his own ferryboat at 16 -- disdain inherited wealth? Burden doesn’t say. Given her harrowing tale, though, perhaps he was onto something.

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden
ISBN: 1592405266
288 pages