Friday, 02 March 2012 00:00
It was a Vanderbilt rule of succession that the eldest sons inherited the bulk of their father’s property, along with the responsibility of managing it, increasing it and perpetuating it. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr.’s father, William H., had inherited about $100 million from Cornelius, “The Commodore,” who had founded the shipping and railroad fortune. William H. doubled the fortune, making him the richest man in North America, and he left $70 million each to his eldest sons. With the sudden death of the eldest son, Cornelius, in 1899, William K. was in general control of all the Vanderbilt railroad interests. And those interests were the talk of the United States.
To the crown jewels of the New York Central and the Lake Shore railroad systems were added the Lehigh Valley, the Erie, the Reading. The entire Boston & Albany was leased and others became officially or unofficially allied with the Vanderbilt roads. William owned massive amounts of stock in dozens of lines, and each year he was earning millions of dollars in dividends alone, at a typical rate of 3 to 4 percent. The accumulation of this kind of wealth, so fast, was new to Americans, possible only with mass industrialization and new kinds of corporate structures. They were fascinated, and newspapers followed every Vanderbilt business and social activity. Every move. Every transaction that could be tracked down.
It turns out that the elder William K. had also been nicknamed “Willie K.” as a young man, and because of his many travels and hobbies there had also been whispers about him not being suited to run a large enterprise. Now it was time for his eldest son to begin taking his intended place in the dynastic line.
Even the royalty of Europe, who had always considered it crass and distasteful to participate directly in commercial affairs, were impressed at what these Americans had accumulated in one or two generations. A few American families, like the Vanderbilts, were accepted as a new kind of royalty, and William’s daughter, Consuelo, married the Duke of Marlborough (she was the 9th Duchess).
Willie, Jr. would also be married well, to the daughter of U.S. Senator and silver magnate James Graham Fair. Alliances were being made. Interests aligned. Circles within circles.
Enough was becoming enough, and Willie the Younger was encouraged to take his place at the adult’s table. In August 1901, he purchased Lawnfield, a respectable six-acre mansion property at Newport. He was leasing a four-story brick house at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue (the “Vanderbilt Section”) as a primary residence, but was already scouting surrounding lots and houses for a permanent home. With all the yachting and automobile racing, he and his bride, Virginia, had not been spending much time in Society, but it was expected that soon they would be playing their role as proper hosts. Willie and Virginia went off to Europe in the spring of 1902 for what some relations were hoping would be a final automobile racing fling.
And now, we jump cut back to Lake Success. Remember the lake?
There were no scratch farmers in North Hempstead. Over generations, many of these families had become quite well-off, and they were sending their children to good schools and academies in the city. Some came back, but a lot of them didn’t, and they were marrying into leading families in Manhattan and Brooklyn and they just weren’t coming back to the farm except to visit. Some of the properties around Lake Success were leased out or only being partially worked. There were several old farmhouses and summer cottages that were part of ancient family homesteads with which the next generation didn’t exactly know what to do.
Just as the young Vanderbilts left for the racing tour, Sidney J. Smith of the Smith & Stewart real estate brokerage of Roslyn, began buying up some of these loose properties. Three years before, Mr. Smith had brokered the purchase of the Harbor Hill property, where young Clarence Mackay had built a fabulous palace atop Long Island’s highest point.
Mackay had inherited an incredible fortune from the same Comstock silver lode that made the Fair family rich, and his best friend was Virginia’s husband, Willie.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org