The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Vanderbilt, Alfred Gwynne

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Vanderbilt, Alfred Gwynne

VANDERBILT, Alfred Gwynne, capitalist, b. in New York City, 20 Oct., 1877; d. near Kinsale Head, Ireland, 7 May, 1915, third son of Cornelius and Alice (Gwynne) Vanderbilt, and a grandson of William Henry and Louise (Kissam) Vanderbilt. The first known representative of the family in this country was Jan Aertsen Van-der-Bilt, a Holland farmer, who settled in the neighborhood of Brooklyn, N. Y., about 1650. As the name indicated the family belonged to either the village of Bilt, a suburb of Utrecht, or the parish of Bilt in Frisia. In the second generation, the family divided, one of the sons removing from Brooklyn to New Dorp, Staten Island, in 1715. They were successful farmers and pursued industrious lives. In the fifth generation, the leading member was Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), better known as “The Commodore,” who was the great-grandfather of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. He laid the foundation of the family fortune, when, in 1814, he obtained a contract from the government for the transportation, by water, of supplies to the nine military posts around New York City. His success constantly emboldened him to larger efforts, so that when the gold “fever” was prevalent in California in 1849, he established a passenger line to the Pacific via Nicaragua. In the meantime he became impressed with the importance of great trunk line railways running into New York, and, in 1844, acquired an interest in the New York and New Haven Railroad, by disposing of the Sound steamboats, which he then owned. In 1863 he purchased a large part of the stock of the New York and Harlem Railroad, and eflfected a consolidation with the Hudson River Railroad. Four years later he was elected president of the New York Central Railroad, and his descendants have uniformly maintained an interest in its management. Alfred G. Vanderbilt was prepared for college at St. Paul's School, Concord, N. H., and entered Yale University with the class of 1899. During his college career he was voted the most popular man in the institution, and, although his family had given large sums of money to Yale, he was noted among his fellow students for democracy and unassuming manners. Soon after graduation Mr. Vanderbilt, with a party of friends, started on a tour of the world which was to have lasted two years. When they reached Japan on 12 Sept., 1899, he received news of the sudden death of his father, and hastened home as speedily as possible to find himself, by his father's will, the head of his branch of the family. Soon after his return to New York, Mr. Vanderbilt began working as a clerk in the offices of the New York Central Railroad, as preparation for entering into the councils of the company as one of its principal owners. Subsequently, he was chosen a director in other companies as well, among them the Fulton Chain Railway Company, Fulton Navigation Company, Raquette Lake Railway Company, Raquette Lake Transportation Company, and the Plaza Bank of New York. Mr. Vanderbilt was a good judge of real estate values and projected several important enterprises. On the site of the former residence of the Vanderbilt family, and including, also, several adjacent plots, he built the beautiful Vanderbilt Hotel at Park Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, New York, which he made his city home. Mr. Vanderbilt found great enjoyment in society and in travel. He had keen pleasure in his association with men of note and prominence, and his social gifts and his wealth enabled him to bear his part in that life with grace and distinction. But social entertainment given or received, was by no means the whole of his career. Mr. Vanderbilt was an expert whip, and whether tooling a coach along the roads of this country or enjoying his favorite pastime in England, he was always a genial and enthusiastic sportsman. Although he became an automobilist as soon as automobiles were introduced in this country, he never gave up his great liking for coaching, and developed the sport until it became an art. Even when an undergraduate he had made four-in-hand driving his favorite sport. At his country place, Oakland Farm, Newport, R. I., Mr. Vanderbilt had the largest private riding-ring in the world, and it was there that his horses were trained for public road-coaching, as well as for private horse shows, amateur circuses, and country fairs. In 1906 his coach, “Venture,” gained much fame. When he drove this coach from the Victoria Hotel, London, England, for his first trial run along the Brighton road in 1908, his party received an ovation along the entire route, and Mr. Vanderbilt said that that had been the greatest day of his life. He later established regular daily runs with his famous coach, from Victoria Hotel in London to the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. Some time before he had become one of the most prominent horsemen in America, his horses winning blue ribbons at every show of importance both here and abroad. In looking back throughout his career one is impressed by the modesty of his sportsmanship. If he had chosen, he could easily have taken front rank as an exhibitor of show horses; he preferred, however, to keep only a comparatively small stable with which to be merely represented, and which was so regulated as always to permit others of lesser means an equal chance. In the last analysis, this might be said to have been one of the finest characteristics that a true sportsman could display, unconsciously conforming with the spirit of his country — humanity itself. When the automobile was in its infancy he spent $30,000 for a racing-car for the Florida beach tracks, and awarded many costly trophies to record-breaking automobilists. Mr. Vanderbilt owned a camp in the Adirondack Mountains, New York; a private railroad car, and a yacht, the “Wayfarer.” He was a victim of one of the world's greatest tragedies of the sea as a passenger aboard the great British steamer “Lusitania” en route from New York to Liverpool, England, which was torpedoed by a German submarine, and sunk off the coast of Kinsale Head, Ireland, 7 May, 1915. The last recorded act of Mr. Vanderbilt, who could not swim, was that he nobly removed his life belt and gave it to a woman. The ship sank a few seconds later. The following tribute to his memory appeared in the “Westminster Gazette,” of London: “To most of us the name Vanderbilt suggests the great wealth used in this country in reviving and sustaining the pleasant pastime of coaching, but for the future the name will always remind us of the gallant gentleman who knew how to die. Not the least affecting of the many moving stories which we have read of the ‘Lusitania’ is the story of how Vanderbilt organized searching parties for ‘kiddies’ and got them into boats, and how, just before the end, unable to swim a yard himself, he gave his life belt to an old woman. These are days when it is the commonest thing for men to meet death with coolness and courage, but even in these days we will not forget the story of Vanderbilt's humanity and sacrifice.” To his friends he was ever accessible, cordial, and generous, to strangers he was dignified, courteous, and affable. He was a benefactor of various philanthropies, among them the Y. M. C. A., a building for which organization he erected in Newport, R. I., in memory of his father. Mr. Vanderbilt held membership in the Knickerbocker, Piping Rock, Metropolitan, New York Yacht, Riding, Meadow Brook, Turf and Field, the Brook, Yale, Automobile of America, and Ardsley Clubs. He married, first, 14 Jan., 1901, Elsie French, daughter of Francis Ormond French, by whom he had one son, William H. Vanderbilt; and second, 17 Dec, 1911, at Reigate, England, Margaret Emerson McKim, daughter of Capt. Isaac E. Emerson, of Baltimore, Md., by whom he had two sons, Alfred Gwynne, Jr. (b. 22 Sept., 1912), and George Vanderbilt (b. 23 Sept., 1914).