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Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

When learning about the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one is forgiven for wondering if Dickens already had a model for Ebenezer Scrooge when he published A Christmas Carol in  1843. It seems by all accounts that Vanderbilt thoroughly out-scrooged Scrooge himself, for even Scrooge ended up seeing the error of his ways; the Commodore, however, who died an old man in 1877as the second-richest American ever after John D. Rockefeller, gave only a paltry amount of his wealth to philanthropy, leaving the bulk of his fortune to the one son he berated the most. Bah, humbug indeed. But although he was an infamous miser, at least he wasn’t a boring one: far from content to sit and count his money as it rolled in, the Commodore had an undeniable thirst for adventure. In the heat of the Civil War, for example, he not only offered Lincoln his prized ship to ram the famous Confederate ironclad Merrimac, but suggested he captain the mission himself.

In his new biography Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, noted historian Edward J. Renehan, Jr., uses meticulous research to piece together the business life of one of the most notorious characters of a nascent nineteenth-century America. Vanderbilt’s importance to modern American business is undeniable—New York City would be more like Teaneck or Providence today if Vanderbilt hadn’t almost singlehandedly made it a crossroads of commerce—and Renehan’s work gives us the first authoritative account since 1942of the man who put the robber in robber baron. Vanderbilt was not alone, of course, in this exclusive club of American tycoons, but his contemporaries such as Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie seem to have had at least some modicum of charity for their fellow man. In Commodore, however, Cornelius Vanderbilt is depicted as a man whose sole motivation was profit. His business acumen is clearly the focus here: through the numerous transactions and dealings that the author uncovers, we see Vanderbilt as a brilliant bully, an abusive and lonely man whose peerlessness in finance was in direct contrast to his boorishness in social circles.

Renehan’s depth of research here is nothing less than astonishing. He tracks down the smallest clues to help depict Vanderbilt’s business affairs, and includes new evidence that posits Vanderbilt’s erratic behavior toward the end of his life was the result of a long deterioration due to syphilis. Renehan is known for his attention to detail, and it is formidable here; Commodore will undoubtedly be of great value to the serious student of American history and finance. However, at times the research piles up; making some sections of the book feel more like an inventory of facts than a crafted historical portrait. The casual reader might be looking for a more compelling story; offering a warts-and-all portrait of a historical figure is important, but at some point those warts should be attached to a face.

Fans of Renehan’s moving and passionate investigation of Theodore Roosevelt, the 1999 masterpiece Lion’s Pride, might be disappointed here with the lack of a compelling narrative that made that earlier work such a pleasure to read. Of course, Vanderbilt is a less-admired subject than someone like Roosevelt, but that does not make him any less interesting: after all, here was a man who abused his family but also dabbled in spiritualism in the desperate hope of contacting his beloved son from beyond the grave. Here was an inscrutable miser who also chose to set up his favorite saloon girls on Wall Street as the first female stockbrokers. Renehan’s account of Vanderbilt’s business dealings is undeniably exhaustive, but one wonders if he couldn’t have explored Vanderbilt’s personal nature with that same vigor.  

Nevertheless, Renehan’s account is a valuable and commendable one. A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt is no easy task given the fact he was largely illiterate; a lack of personal correspondence makes it nearly impossible to explore his intimate thoughts and desires.

Commodore is a worthy complement to Renehan’s previous investigation of Vanderbilt’s contemporary Gould in Dark Genius of Wall Street. Throughout his celebrated career, Renehan’s primary strength has been his ability to provide clear and valid research in uncovering new viewpoints on his subjects. In that regard, Commodore will not disappoint.

 

-- Tommy Zurhellen

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