They Went From Riches to Rags: How the Vanderbilts Lost It All

To this day, the Vanderbilts are an intriguing family who made history in the United States. Their name was built up to be associated with business, success, and wealth. However, nowadays, the family name doesn’t have the same recognition it used to. They are known as the family who lost it all. Without their large fortune, the family lost their luxuries and social status. In addition, the media was all over them.

William Kissim Vanderbilt, Timothy Olyphant, Alva Vanderbilt, James Vanderbilt
The first row left to right: William Kissam Vanderbilt in January 1933. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock Timothy Olyphant. Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock. Alva Vanderbilt. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock. Second row left to right: Source: Twitter / MJ Photos, Shutterstock / James Vanderbilt. Photo by Marion Curtis / Starpix / Shutterstock

The public was so interested in the shocking family drama. How could the richest family in America lose their entire inherited fortune and tarnish the Vanderbilt name? The Vanderbilt dynasty got a little bit too comfortable with their wealth and status that careless mistakes and irresponsible behavior led to a shocking downfall. The tale of the Vanderbilt dynasty is truly a riches to rags story.

The Vanderbilt Name

Originally, the Vanderbilts were a Dutch family that lived in a village in the Netherlands called De Bilt. The family can be traced back to Jan Aetszoon, who was a farmer. Aetszoon (some spell it 0Aertson) lived from 1620 to 1705. He moved from Utrecht to the New Netherland, which was a Dutch colony at the time, and worked as a servant for the Van Kouwenhoven family.

An illustration of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his family
Cornelius Vanderbilt and his family. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Strange how the name Aertzoon turned into such a prominent name like Vanderbilt. The name was obviously changed, thanks to power and translation. The word “van” means “from.” Therefore, the name Jan van Der Bilt means Jan from Bilt. Gradually, the name evolved into Vanderbilt.

That’s the origin of the rich New Amsterdam – modern Manhattan – family.

The Man Who Started It All

Cornelius Vanderbilt was the great-great-great-grandson of Jan Vanderbilt, and he was the first family member to bring the family to prominence. Before him, the Vanderbilts were nothing but an ordinary, insignificant family. Cornelius left school at just 11 years old and started working on his father’s ferry in New York Harbor.

A portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

It wasn’t a lavish start, but it was the beginning of a railroad and shipping empire that would eventually generate the family’s early wealth. Given the time – the 19th century –the Vanderbilts were noticeably rich. But Cornelius wasn’t just rich, he was one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

Getting Lucky

In 1817, Cornelius experienced his first stroke of luck, when he met ferry business owner Thomas Gibbons. Gibbons approached him to captain his steamboat between New York and New Jersey. Steamboats were the latest technology, so he was pretty much set up for success.

A portrait of Thomas Gibbons
Thomas Gibbons. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

His new business venture also broadened Cornelius’s economic horizons, which helped him gain social contacts, and, by 1830, Vanderbilt was operating his own steamboats from New York. He had finally made it. “Vanderbilt was extraordinary,” T.J. Stiles says in his biography. “He was poorly educated, intensely competitive, and determined to learn any skill or knowledge required for success.”

Taking Over the Market

In 1849, Vanderbilt got his next big break with the California Gold Rush. Basically, he was involved with moving people from the East Coast to the West Coast, and he had a ballsy idea. “He launched an attempt to build a canal across Nicaragua,” according to Stiles. “The canal, of course, was never built, but he started to combine steamships and transit operations across Nicaragua. It created a truly national and international figure.”

An illustration of Robert Fulton sitting at a table working
Robert Fulton. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When he started off, Cornelius had one major competitor: a guy named Robert Fulton. Fulton is mostly recognized for inventing the steamboat. For a short time, the businessmen were separated geographically, with Fulton holding a monopoly in New York, while Cornelius held a near-monopoly in New Jersey.

Right Place, Right Time

Their arguments were so extreme that they even appeared in front of the United States Supreme Court and set standards for interstate business. This was the beginning of the Vanderbilts’ lasting legacy. One of the biggest advantages for the Vanderbilts was timing. The first Vanderbilt to bring fortune to his family name lived in what was known as the Gilded Age.

Theodore Roosevelt standing in a carriage tipping his hat while Mayor William Gaynor and Cornelius Vanderbilt are seated
Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mayor William Gaynor. Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

The Gilded Age lasted from the 1870s until the turn of the century. It was a period in American history that was marked by remarkable economic growth and the increase of industrialization. The Vanderbilts were in the right place at the right time to create an empire.

Big Fortune, Big Houses

Just like other prominent families, the Vanderbilts’ wealth and social influence was portrayed through appearances. For them, it came in the form of luxurious properties. However, the first significant property they developed wasn’t even their private home. Instead, Cornelius wanted to give back to the community, and he donated a million dollars to develop Vanderbilt University located in Nashville, Tennessee, right before he died in 1877.

A photograph of Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University, the early 1900s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Investing in education was important for Cornelius, and the rest of the Vanderbilts followed in his philanthropic footsteps. The family continuously donated to charitable organizations, even after their downfall.

Setting Up Future Generations

One of the first mistakes that eventually led to the Vanderbilt downfall was how Cornelius handled his fortune, and what happened to his money after he died. First of all, he didn’t teach his sons how to manage the money they were going to inherit effectively and responsibly.

William Kissim Vanderbilt II, Henry Lehr, and Harold Vanderbilt at Bailey’s Beach in Rhode Island circa 1895
William Kissim Vanderbilt II, Harold Vanderbilt, and Harry Lehr circa 1890. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

On top of that, he didn’t split the money equally between his children. He left his whole fortune to just one of his sons. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of tension and created a feud in the family. Naturally, a legal battle ensued, which ended up lasting about two full years. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only financial errors Cornelius made.

No Rules or Restrictions

The third mistake Cornelius Vanderbilt made was a pretty big one. In fact, it was the reason that rampant spending ultimately led to the downfall of the Vanderbilt family wealth. When Cornelius passed his fortune on to his sons, he didn’t disclose how that wealth could be spent.

Alva Vanderbilt dressed in expensive clothing, posing in a marble entryway
Alva Vanderbilt. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

People who married into the family, such as Alva Vanderbilt, were free to spend their money however they liked. This obviously included clothes, jewelry, and lavish parties. It was all part of the rich lifestyle they were born into, or in Alva’s case, married into. But there were no restrictions.

What He Should Have Done

You’re probably wondering what Vanderbilt should have done. Well, he should have used the same approach that fellow wealthy man John Jacob Astor used. Unlike Cornelius, Astor split his money evenly between his own children and left demands for future generations to follow.

Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil on the wedding day 1924
Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil April 29th, 1924. Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

This is something essential when it comes to such a substantial amount of money. If Cornelius had done the same thing, it would have limited individual control over the family wealth, and there would have been enough for a few more generations to enjoy, at the very least. With great fortune comes great responsibility, and the family should have been given a list of rules and restrictions.

William Henry Vanderbilt

As we mentioned, when Cornelius passed away, most of his fortune was left to his son William Henry Vanderbilt. For the next eight years, William Henry was able to expand the Vanderbilt family name. He managed to increase the holdings of the New York Central Railroad, the railroad company that the family-owned, and he bought the first of many mansions located on Fifth Avenue.

A portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt
William Henry Vanderbilt. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Thanks to William Henry, the Vanderbilts’ popularity increased, and their wealth doubled. This growing fortune furthered their social standing as one of the wealthiest families in the world. Things were looking up, and the family appeared to be unstoppable.

Rich People Hobbies

The Vanderbilt business endeavors were just one factor that held up their family name. Their rise to fame was also due to their support of art and culture. William Henry invested a great deal in the arts. He filled all of his family’s properties with his pretty pricy art collection.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney posing with a feather
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection / Shutterstock

A passion for the arts seems to run in the Vanderbilt family blood, but we’ll get to that later. William Henry also held parties such as the Vanderbilt Ball for his wife, Alva. Ever since then, the Vanderbilts were no longer in the top ranks of New York high fashion.

The Vanderbilt Ball

The Vanderbilt Ball was a luxurious party thrown by Alva Vanderbilt and, of course, supported by her husband, William Henry. The guest list included 1,000 people trying to overcome their overly “nouveau riche” label that they were known for.

A portrait of Alva Vanderbilt dressed for a fancy ball
Alva Vanderbilt dressed for the ball. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The ball was a costume party that was even described as a “fairyland.” It was all pageantry endeavor, and the guests were embellished in beautiful gowns and stunning jewels. Like many luxurious parties, everyone in attendance tried to outdo the other. The ball managed to show off the Vanderbilt’s fancy taste, but not in a snooty way.

Fifth Avenue Loss

Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, Fifth Avenue became the showcase of the rich and famous. It was the prime location for the wealthy, social elites. The Vanderbilts, of course, had a property on Fifth Avenue known as the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House (William Henry’s son).

A view of the street with St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Vanderbilt Mansions on 5th Avenue in New York City
St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Vanderbilt Mansions on 5th Avenue circa 1890. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The 130-room mansion on Fifth Avenue was a symbol of their wealth and status. Unfortunately, the family lost the home, and it was torn down in 1926. William Kissam Vanderbilt’s (Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s brother) home was also demolished later that year. Sadly, it didn’t stop there.

More Property Decline

Little did the Vanderbilt’s know, this was just the beginning of their family home demolition. They quickly lost the rich, powerful status symbols they owned on Fifth Avenue. When 1947 rolled around, the Vanderbilts no longer had homes or properties on Fifth Avenue.

A Vanderbilt mansion circa 1939
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

If you’re ever in New York, you can actually see the gates of one of the mansions that the Vanderbilt family used to own; they are now used as an entrance to a conservatory garden in Central Park. At least the home that Cornelius and his wife Alice lived in didn’t become a Bergdorf Goodman department store.

The Heir to the Throne

William Henry’s oldest son was Cornelius Vanderbilt II, obviously named after his grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was also a successful businessman. He inherited an astonishing $70 million from his father, so he got a pretty lucky start in life. But that’s not to say he wasn’t a hard worker.

A portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt II
Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Cornelius II spent his prime as the President and Chairman of the New York Central railroad lines. The Breakers – a Vanderbilt mansion he built that is located on Ochre Point Avenue, still stands in his memory. It was Cornelius II’s Newport summer home. In 1994, it officially became a National Historic Landmark.

Cornelius II’s Brother was Talented Too

Cornelius II wasn’t the only Vanderbilt descendant who helped take the family to a whole other level. Another prominent figure in the Vanderbilt family history was Cornelius II’s brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt. His contributions are still significant to this day. Like many other people in his high-class family, William was a jack of all trades.

William Kissim Vanderbilt standing behind the yacht controls
William Kissim Vanderbilt in January 1933. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

As the middle child of William Henry Vanderbilt, young William was a philanthropist, businessman, and even a horse breeder. He was vital when it came to the family’s railroad and was even involved in building the Grand Central Terminal. That’s right, the one that is still used by New York residents every day.

The Vanderbilt Hero

One member of the Vanderbilt dynasty lost his life in a tragic way. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr. was an extremely successful real estate businessman. During his prime, he was the director of various companies, including the New York Plaza Bank and the Fulton Chain Railway Company. That’s pretty impressive, even for someone who was born into money.

An illustration of Arthur Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr next to a photograph of his wife dressed in fancy clothing sitting in a chair
Arthur Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr and his wife, Margaret Emerson. Photo by Historia, Shutterstock / Glasshouse Images, Shutterstock

One morning in May 1915, Alfred boarded the RMS Lusitania as a first-class passenger, which was pretty standard for the rich during that time. Unfortunately, he was aboard when German torpedoes attacked the ship. He gave his lifejacket to a mother and her baby and sacrificed his own life. He died a hero.

The Family Artist

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was also fortunate enough to be born into the wealthy family. She was really into the arts and had a keen eye for detail. After WWII, the compassionate socialite opened a hospital for injured soldiers. Interestingly, that’s when she started developing the designs for some of her most famous sculptures.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sculpting in an art studio
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney studio portrait 1920. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Nowadays, many of the sculptures that Gertrude made can be found in public areas. Among these is the “Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial of New York City” and “The Monument to the Discovery Faith” located in Huelva, Spain. Gertrude went on to found the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 in New York City.

The Amazing Yachtsman

If you know anything about the Vanderbilts, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of the family members know how to work a yacht. One of the most gifted yachtsmen in the family was Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. In 1930, he defended America’s Cup in the J-Class yacht Enterprise and made it to the very top of the sport.

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt out of view, racing his sailboat
Harold Stirling Vanderbilt crossing the finish line to win July 1937. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

His brilliant achievement landed him a spot on the cover of TIME magazine. He was William Kissam Vanderbilt’s third child, and here is a fun fact for you. Have you ever played the card game Bridge? Well, Harold invented it. I know people only play games on their phones these days, but when cards were a thing, this game was a classic!

Fall of House of Vanderbilt

With the Vanderbilts’ property ownership declining, it eventually became known as the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. As you can tell from the name, this fall kicked off the Vanderbilts drop to the bottom. Years later, by the middle of the 20th century, the prominence and status of the Vanderbilt family had crumbled.

Rita Hayworth and Gloria Vanderbilt dressed up for an event circa 1940
Rita Hayworth and Gloria Vanderbilt circa 1940. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

The downfall coincides with incidents that we have noted: the loss of their Fifth Avenue home, as well as some other ones. The main reason the Vanderbilts were so well-known was because of their “richest family in the world” reputation. As their wealth declined, so did their powerful status in society.

Losing Their Status

A huge part of the losses took place when the family sold a significant portion of their railroad holdings to companies that went bankrupt throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1973, when the Vanderbilts held a family reunion, 120 family members showed up, and none of them were millionaires anymore.

Gloria Vanderbilt with her twin sister wearing fur
Gloria Vanderbilt with her twin sister. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

This was shocking considering just a few generations ago, their grandfather was one of the richest people in the world. This was extremely hard on the entire family. I mean, they were used to a lavish lifestyle. But you know what they say, the only thing worse than having nothing is to have everything and lose it all.

No Fortune, No Fame

The Vanderbilts’ main issue was that their power and social status rested on their wealth. Without the financial backing that they were born into, the family didn’t have much to hold on to. At the time of his death, Cornelius Vanderbilt had more money than the United States Treasury.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Laura Kilpatrick Morgan photographed together circa 1934.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Laura Kilpatrick Morgan. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

It didn’t take long for his family to waste a large part of the Vanderbilt wealth. Some of the family that inherited this old money made smart, responsible decisions and increased their fortune. Unfortunately, not everyone handled their money responsibly, and overspending ultimately led to the downfall of one of the country’s wealthiest families.

Spending It Away

Calling it excessive spending is an understatement; it wasn’t just a matter of foolishness. When it comes to family money, to have a continuous income for future generations, it’s about how the money is spent. They were already born into a luxurious family and were used to having nice things.

Gloria Vanderbilt posing for a photograph
Gloria Vanderbilt at the opening of East of Eden New York Astor Theatre. Photo by Globe Photos / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

However, unnecessary spending didn’t stop at instantaneous personal pleasures. The family loved to keep up appearances and spent tons of money on parties and businesses. After all, looking wealthy is just part of elite life, and looking the part meant the family could hold on to their social status.

Family Competition

Despite their concern about maintaining the family fortune and status, the Vanderbilts didn’t exactly hold a united front for the public. There wasn’t a collective approach on how they would spend their money. Instead, there was some family rivalry.

A photograph of one of the master bedrooms at the Vanderbilt’s mansion in Rhode Island
The Newport Mansion. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Unfortunately, oftentimes, old money leads to family fights, and the Vanderbilts were no exception. It was like each family member wanted to out-do the other. One specific example of a family dispute revolved around the Fifth Avenue properties. Family members started competing with each other to have the biggest, fanciest mansions, even though they never even lived in them. The homes were usually unoccupied or rented out to other people.

Empty Homes

It was more than just empty mansions that led to the downfall of the Vanderbilts. It cost a ton of money to build them and weren’t really making money off them either. This doesn’t sound like a smart business investment. It looks like the family members only wanted the homes because they wanted to compete against each other.

One of the empty Vanderbilt mansions
Vanderbilt summer home. Photo by Stephanie Colasanti / Shutterstock

When a home is passed down through the generations, younger family members get the chance to move into a house with little to no cost. Sadly, the Vanderbilts lost an opportunity to save money. By leaving these mansions empty most of the time, family members paid the expense of living somewhere else.

Cornelius Didn’t See This Coming

As we mentioned, Cornelius didn’t make the best decisions when it came to his large fortune. However, the reason he didn’t foresee future issues was because of his personality. Since he started the family wealth, he was the Vanderbilt, who wasn’t born into money. He worked hard, watched his company grow, and never bought something just so that he could claim ownership.

Jeanne Vanderbilt withdrawing money from a London bank
Jeanne Vanderbilt withdrawing money. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

He once said: “I can have a steam yacht if I want to, but it would give me no pleasure, and I don’t care for it.” Because of his humble beginnings, Cornelius was worried about keeping his wealth. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with his descendants.

Famous Last Words

As the first rich Vanderbilt, Cornelius was quick to say, “Any fool can make a fortune. It takes a man of brains to hold onto it after it’s made.” This really sheds light on his personal money worries throughout his life… despite being incredibly rich. As you can imagine, the family’s attitude toward money evolved throughout the years.

Amy Vanderbilt sitting at a desk with her book propped up next to her
Amy Vanderbilt. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

Cornelius’s heirs were used to living a luxurious life. That’s not to say they didn’t work, but they certainly didn’t work as hard as the man who had built the family fortune. It makes sense that they weren’t concerned about money. It was always constant for them, so they seemingly had nothing to worry about.

The Beginning of the End

What they didn’t realize was that their social endeavors and lavish parties took more than they gave. Ironically, to stay afloat in New York and general American high society, the family ended up spending more than they earned. Spending more than you make is an obvious mistake when it comes to your finances.

Gloria Morgan, Sophie Tucker, and the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia sitting around a table at a charity event in April 1935
Gloria Morgan, Sophie Tucker, and the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia at a charity event in April 1935. Source: Shutterstock

However, with such huge sums of money, it wasn’t completely detrimental. However, it did put a burden on their inherited wealth. Many onlookers thought some of their endeavors were foolish. But the spending that really drained the family went into their philanthropy.

Philanthropic Endeavors

Of course, the Vanderbilt’s fortune earned them their societal standing as near royalty, but there was another contributing factor. The family’s fame and recognition were largely due to their philanthropy. Instead of investing in properties and embarking on new business endeavors, the Vanderbilts donated a ton of money to libraries, art galleries, and museums.

Louise Vanderbilt posing on a fancy chair
Louise Vanderbilt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

They even supported greater causes like Louise Holmes’ contribution to Red Cross, opening and developing a chapter focused on emotional and financial support. As Fredrick Vanderbilt’s wife, Holmes used her acquired wealth for good. Holmes’ supported numerous other causes, including education, and she often donated to schools.

Philanthropy Fame

Today, the family is no longer made up of the richest people in the world; however, they haven’t stopped their philanthropic work. Their efforts kept the Vanderbilt name relevant and on people’s tongues. William Kissam Vanderbilt donated a million dollars to help develop tenement housing in New York, for folks less fortunate than he was.

William Kissam Vanderbilt II driving in an imported German car
William Kissam Vanderbilt II. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Later, George Vanderbilt II spent his share of the family wealth on building and supporting libraries as well as other educational institutions in New York City. It’s important to note that despite their family feuds and irresponsible spending, the Vanderbilts have helped a lot of people.

Salvaging the Family Name

Interestingly, the rise of philanthropy actually helped the family, almost as much as the family helped others. Even though their donations and over-spending resulted in the Vanderbilts losing it all, some good came from it.

William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil in a living room at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina
William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil. Source: Shutterstock

As the Gilded Age came to an end, the United Stated entered the progressive period, which partly led to the public looking at the problems stemming from industrialization. The Vanderbilts definitely experienced some scrutiny at the time, but they avoided a ton of backlash and criticism thanks to their charitable donations and philanthropic efforts. It pretty much saved the reputation of the Vanderbilt name. See, kindness always pays off.

Taking Smart Risks

The Vanderbilts always held the most influence in New York, but it didn’t mean family members didn’t broaden their horizons and try leaving the state. George Washington Vanderbilt II is an example of one of the Vanderbilts who spread his wings and left the state.

A portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt II
Source: Pinterest

William Henry’s son explored other parts of the country and constructed the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. The endeavor was certainly worth it. Today, the estate spans over 120,000 acres! It is considered to be one of the biggest houses in the country. Very impressive, George; it’s good to get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

Declined Inherited Wealth

As the wealth of the Vanderbilts continued to decrease, there was less money left for future generations. Still, the family didn’t completely give up. A number of the Vanderbilt family members were ready to step out of their family’s shadow and make it on their own. Of course, their inherited money didn’t hurt.

Carter Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt at an event
Carter Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt. Photo by Adam Scull / photolink / Shutterstock

Even though being born into Vanderbilt royalty may have given them a head start, many of them did manage to separate themselves from their family’s ultimate downfall. Some of them have become household names in their own right. You may not even know that some famous faces are part of the Vanderbilt dynasty.

The Vanderbilts Now

The family reputation has evolved. The Vanderbilts were known for their wealth, philanthropy, and social status. On the other hand, they experienced scrutiny, ridicule, family disputes, and eventually lost everything. But some family members were recognized for more than just the family name they inherited.

Barbara Walters and Gloria Vanderbilt in 2009 at Gloria’s book signing
Barbara Walters and Gloria Vanderbilt. Photo by Amanda Schwab / Starpix / Shutterstock

William Henry Vanderbilt II, for example, was the Governor of Rhode Island from 1940-1941. His political notoriety brought the family to prominence in other industries. Other members of the family used their own interests and talents to create a steady, comfortable income. They didn’t need their family’s wealth or status to make it.

Talent Is in the Vanderbilt DNA

It appears that the Vanderbilt family has become a shadow of its former glory and no longer has the social status that it once enjoyed. Although this may be true, there are still Vanderbilts around. Despite not being given the wealth that their parents and grandparents were born into, family members are still thriving.

Consuelo Vanderbilt on the red carpet in 2016
Consuelo Vanderbilt. Photo by Mediapunch / Shutterstock

If you look at the heirs of this once powerful lineage, there are some talented people with a wide range of interests. Despite losing their social status, some Vanderbilt descendants have gained celebrity status as TV personalities, athletes, actors, and in other notable professions.

Timothy Olyphant Is a Vanderbilt

Other than Anderson Cooper, one of the most famous Vanderbilts is Timothy Olyphant. As it turns out, the actor is the fourth great-grandson of the patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt. Cornelius is probably rolling around in his grave over the diminished family wealth he worked so hard for, but I’m sure he’s proud of the grandkids.

Timothy Olyphant on the red carpet in 2017
Timothy Olyphant. Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock

Whether or not you knew Olyphant was a Vanderbilt, he certainly has carried on his family legacy with ease and composure. He has starred in many successful Hollywood films, including Gone in 60 Seconds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The actor didn’t need his Vanderbilt name to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, thanks to his incredible performance in Deadwood.

James Vanderbilt Is Hollywood Royalty

Olyphant isn’t the only Vanderbilt who is making his rounds in Hollywood. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt III and Alison Campbell welcomed their son James Vanderbilt into the world in 1975. Unlike his cousin, James spends most of his time behind the scenes. The successful screenwriter is known for creating huge blockbuster hits like Zodiac, Independence Day: Resurgence, and both installments of The Amazing Spider-Man film franchise.

James Vanderbilt on the red carpet in 2015
James Vanderbilt. Photo by Marion Curtis / Starpix / Shutterstock

Ironically, James wrote the fifth installment of the Scream series, the franchise that Timothy Olyphant has been a part of. What a small world. But there are many more successful Vanderbilts. It looks like money isn’t the only thing they inherited; talent seems to be in the Vanderbilt DNA too.

Winning Olympic Medals

Another Vanderbilt family achievement is winning Olympic Medals. William Douglas Burden, otherwise known as Doug Burden, is a Vanderbilt heir. Despite not being born into a pool of cash, he definitely inherited something money can’t buy: raw talent and incredible determination.

The rowing Olympics team in Moscow 1980
Photo by Colorsport / Shutterstock

Burden was part of a rowing team, and, if you don’t know, rowing is an extremely difficult sport and requires tons of hard work. He helped his team earn the silver in the coxless four competition in Barcelona. He was also part of the team that won the bronze in South Korea during the men’s eight competition.

The Rebellious Heiress

Sure, the most prominent Vanderbilt descendants happen to be men. But Consuelo Vanderbilt Coston is here to prove that Vanderbilt women are stronger than ever. Consuelo got the talent genes. She is what you would call a jack of all trades. Consuelo has found success around Hollywood as well as in other industries.

Consuelo Vanderbilt sitting at a table with the bottom of a sign behind her reading ‘for women’
Consuelo Vanderbilt. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

She is an accomplished actress, spokesmodel, singer, songwriter, and philanthropist. The Vanderbilt lady gained some notoriety in the media, and journalists have been known to refer to her as the “Rebel Heiress.” She once revealed that as a member of the Vanderbilt dynasty, she’s “been able to access these places that nobody gets to see.” Lucky Girl!

A Famous Art Collector

Another prominent Vanderbilt offspring is John Wilmerding, who has had a massive influence in the world of contemporary art. Despite not being a Hollywood celebrity like some of his cousins, Wilmerding is recognized for his contributions to the art field. He is a true lover of the arts and is currently working as a successful art professor, art curator, and art collector.

John Wilmerding standing in a yard
John Wilmerding. Source: Pinterest

His impressive collection contains some substantial pieces: “The Chaperone” by Thomas Eakins, “The Newbury Marshes” by Martin Johnson Heade, and the “Mississippi Boarman” by George Caleb Bingham, are just a few of the artwork included in his remarkable collection. Thanks to his contribution to art history, in 2016, a fund was established in his honor.

Grammy Award Winner

In addition to art scholars and Hollywood actors, the Vanderbilts also have some talented musicians in their families. A prime example is John P. Hammond. He has Vanderbilt blood (and talent) through Emily Vanderbilt Sloane Hammond, his paternal grandmother. He has become well known in the blues music scene for over half a century.

John P. Hammond with a guitar leaning against the back of a pink and white car
Source: Twitter

The Cornelius Vanderbilt descendent is musically gifted, and his biggest achievement was winning a Grammy Award. That’s right; this guy won the award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1985. Believe it or not, Hammond is still performing now. Needless to say, he didn’t need the Vanderbilt name to earn recognition.

Princess Diana’s Connection

James Spencer-Churchill is a surviving member of the Vanderbilt family and has made a name for himself across the pond. Yes, he is also a member of the Spencer family, meaning he is not only part of the Vanderbilt lineage, but also has some royal blood. He is related to Winston Churchill and Prince Charles’ late ex-wife, Princess Diana.

Charles James Spencer-Churchill outside in a suit and bowtie
The Duke of Marlborough. Photo by Graham Wiltshire / Shutterstock

Despite his family background, he was born after the Vanderbilt family wealth dwindled and is not an heir to the throne. Luckily, he didn’t need it. In his younger years, James was recognized as the Earl of Sunderland, before taking on the Marquess of Blandford title. But nowadays, he is known as The Duke of Marlborough.

George Spencer-Churchill Is a Polo Star

One of the youngest members of the Vanderbilt dynasty has made a name for himself. For a long time, George Spencer-Churchill was recognized as Earl of Sunderland. Nowadays, he is known as the Marquess of Blandford. I had no idea he was a Vanderbilt!

George Spencer-Churchill and his mother at an event in 2016
George Spencer-Churchill with his mother. Photo by Alan Davidson / Shutterstock

Aside from his aristocratic endeavors, George is also an incredible polo player. He played on his high school team before going on to join the Cirencester Park Polo Club in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, George is an ambassador for La Martina, an Argentinian polo clothing brand. That’s pretty impressive if you ask me.

The Youngest Family Member

There are probably younger members of the Vanderbilt clan, but the most famous person of the younger generation is undoubtedly Tobias Finch-Hatton. He is related to the infamous family through Christopher Finch-Hatton, his paternal grandfather. Like many other Vanderbilts, the last name changed along the way.

Tobias Finch-Hatton sitting with one arm upon a wooden bench
Tobias Finch-Hatton. Source: Twitter

Currently, Tobias has the title of Viscount Maidstone, but there is more to this Vanderbilt offspring than just his aristocratic roots. In addition to talent, he also inherited brains. Recently, the impressive young man graduated from the University of Cardiff with a BSc in Mathematics.

Making Her Own Paycheck

As we know, many Vanderbilt family members had no concept of money and wasted their wealth away. But there were some people in the family who wanted to make their own cash flow- outside of the money they inherited. One of the first ones to do so was Gloria Vanderbilt.

Gloria Vanderbilt posing sitting on a desk with her hands full of papers and flowers surrounding her
Gloria Vanderbilt. Photo by Globe Photos / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

Gloria is the best-known example of stepping away from the family business and making her own money. The socialite had a lavish early life but eventually branched out to study art and acting. When the 1970s rolled around, she started designing clothes and made her own manufactured fortune. I think it’s safe to say she got the Vanderbilt talent gene.

Family Name Usage

The main reason why the Vanderbilt name isn’t really heard regularly is because last names tend to change through marriage as well as other reasons. For example, Gloria Vanderbilt didn’t pass down her family name. However, some members of the family dropped their tarnished family name on their own, as to not be associated with the family who lost it all.

Anderson Cooper on the red carpet in 2015
Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

The best example is Anderson Cooper. The journalist is a household name recognized by Americans everywhere. I mean, he has been anchoring the news for years. Many people don’t know that he is actually a Vanderbilt because he chose to take on the last name Cooper- a name with less drama behind it.

No More Trust Funds

On top of all these points, the Vanderbilts don’t exactly have the same level of inherited wealth they used to. This is obviously because of availability, but also because of individual choice. Cooper confirmed that not everyone has a trust fund waiting for them.

Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt on the red carpet in 2016
Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt. Photo by Stephen Lovekin / Shutterstock

The 6th generation Vanderbilt made an appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show after Gloria Vanderbilt passed away. The news reporter stated that “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund,” and he was totally okay with that. He obviously didn’t need the family name or family money to have a successful career and make a name for himself.

The Family Evolution

Sadly, the Vanderbilt name has fallen far from their original pedestal in American society. Even though there are a bunch of famous Vanderbilts, the name, in general, isn’t on any “wealthiest families” list. After mismanaging money, the Vanderbilts lost their fortune and the social standing associated with it.

Mr. and Mrs. William H Vanderbilt and Mr. Kurt Brenner posing next to their car in front of Hotel Stephanie in Germany
Mr. and Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt on vacation. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

Even though the name doesn’t have the social standing that it once had, the surviving members tied to the family legacy managed to climb back up in society. Many of the family members proved that there is talent in the Vanderbilt blood, and they used their own natural abilities to create a name for themselves, apart from their family history.