I bought an old oil painting. It’s not a large painting or an important one, but it came from the private collection of the founder of the Whitney Museum.
I bought it because I’ve always admired Cornelius Vanderbilt and his great-grandson, Willie K. Vanderbilt II, and I consider the delightful Gertude Vanderbilt-Whitney, the great-grandaughter of Cornelius, to be the third, truly interesting Vanderbilt.
The First Vanderbilt:
The fourth of nine children, Cornelius was in the first grade when George Washington died. At sixteen, he borrowed $100* from his mother to buy a little sailboat to haul passengers and freight between Staten Island and New York City.
By the time he was forty, the Vanderbilt fleet was hauling passengers and freight to ports all along the Atlantic coast, earning Cornelius the nickname “Commodore.” He then began buying up struggling railroads and turning them around.
The difference between Vanderbilt and his competitors was that his boats and trains ran on schedule and the service was always excellent. If Cornelius Vanderbilt was running an airline today, you would no longer dread going to the airport.
The Second Vanderbilt:
Willie K. Vanderbilt II (1878–1944), was often seen covered in grease with an automobile engine spread out in pieces around him. Young Willie K outran Henry Ford in 1904 to set a new world land speed record of ninety-two miles per hour. Later that year, Willie held the first Vanderbilt Cup Auto Race and singlehandedly changed the course of American auto making.
By offering a first prize of about a million dollars (by today’s standards), Willie K inspired more than 3,000 entrepreneurs to leap to the task of manufacturing stronger, better, faster cars. The Vanderbilt Cup was discontinued after its seventh year because the crowds of more than 400,000 spectators could no longer be safely controlled.
He then built a modest home for himself with an excellent wharf and boathouse. His energy was forever after focused on marine life in all its strange and wonderful forms. Every day was a new adventure in the waters of the deep. Prior to his death in 1942, Willie K. Vanderbilt II discovered and documented sixty-eight species of ocean life previously unknown to science.
The Third Vanderbilt:
Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942,) married a thoroughbred horse breeder named Harry Whitney when she was 21 years old. Harry was a descendent of Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin in 1839.
Shortly after she got married, Gertrude began studying sculpture in Paris with Auguste Rodin. Her love of the arts, her skill as a sculptor, and her Vanderbilt fortune allowed Gertude to become one of the world’s foremost collectors of art. Her artistic fever inflamed New York’s Greenwich Village and caused it to burn brightly as a new bohemia in the early 1900s.
In 1931, Gertrude donated 600 of her most precious paintings to create the Whitney Museum of American Art.
She kept only a few paintings for her private collection at home.
Pennie and I plan to hang the one we bought in Alchemy, the Renaissance coffee and cocktail bar being built by our son, Rex. The painting is of two young women in a kitchen, painted in that style for which Frans van Mieris is famous. If those women aren’t twins, they are obviously sisters.
When you visit Wizard Academy next year, perhaps Alchemy will be completed, and you’ll see it there.
Roy H. Williams
PS – Of the 111 descendents of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I consider Timothy Olyphant, the actor, to be The Fourth Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, the broadcast journalist, to be Vanderbilt #5. You can see the entire list on WIKIPEDIA.
*$100 was the equivalent of about $1,900 today.
In 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal: “If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” In time, his words were somehow conflated as the oft-cited quote: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Carina Ramirez Cahan is testing Emerson’s thesis, having worked with her husband, a respected breast surgeon, to build a better bra. Relying on a patented polymer insert that eliminates the need for rigid underwires, Carina promises that her bra will be the most comfortable, supportive, and flattering bra her customers have ever worn. But as she tells roving reporter Rotbart — a lesson relevant to all budding inventors and entrepreneurs — she’s still awaiting the hoard of customers that Emerson forecast, at MondayMorningRadio.com