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Book Review: Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt 

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Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Basic Books, October 2007, $27.50

If you want to win at Monopoly, buy all four railroads, assuring a constant cash flow. Cornering the market on the freight and transportation industries (sailing vessels, steamboats, and railroads) was the strategy of notorious capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed the second-greatest fortune in American history. Born on Staten Island to a family of limited means during the administration of George Washington, he died in 1877, two months before the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. Vanderbilt lived through the Louisiana Purchase and influenced the California Gold Rush, ultimately accumulating $105 million in assets, estimated in 2005 to approximate roughly three times Bill Gates’s net worth. Moreover, the 19th-century tycoon’s investments and economic machinations would radicalize mercantilism as well as the stock market.

Acclaimed biographer and Hudson Valley historian Edward J. Renehan Jr.’s Commodore (a title indicating mastery of nautical matters as well as of would-be competitors) is an obsessively researched portrait of a ruthless business operator (on his deathbed, Vanderbilt pronounced himself “insane” on the subject of “money-making”), an overbearing yet distant family man, a notorious penny-pincher, and a coarse anti-sophisticate. One of only four Vanderbilt biographies to date, and the first since 1942, Renehan’s book prominently features the Hudson River and surrounding environs, from which Vanderbilt launched his remarkable career.

A gifted horseman who would later cofound the racetrack at Saratoga, the young Cornelius also “displayed a natural talent for water-borne activities.” At age 16, he purchased and operated his first small vessel, an open-boat periauger, ferrying produce and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Coming of age alongside the New York Stock Exchange and other powerful financial institutions, Vanderbilt established a lifelong principle, applicable to banking as well as to personal morality: “Everything was negotiable. Everything. Always.” Married by 1813 to cousin-once-removed Sophia Hand, with whom he produced 14 children, Vanderbilt was a stern husband and father, demanding household thriftiness and docility in equal measures; he was also a lifelong frequenter of prostitutes.

Detailing the magnate’s rise to power, Commodore studiously describes the acquisition, building, and sale of dozens of Vanderbilt river- and oceangoing passenger-ferry and commerce boats. The minutiae of licensing and legal battles related to his assault on steamship monopolies and trade is likewise explored. When American counterparts attempted to cheat Vanderbilt in his dealings with Nicaraguan authorities to secure access to western waterways, he famously issued the swindlers a public warning in the New York dailies: “I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.” He did.

Vanderbilt’s forays into transatlantic service and investments in the country’s railroad system take up the final movement of the book. Highlights include an intimate account (culled from an eyewitness chronicle) of the Vanderbilt clan’s 1850s European tour aboard the Commodore’s palatial, custom-built yacht, the North Star. Renehan likewise titillates in describing Vanderbilt’s syphilis-induced decline into dementia during his final decade, when he succumbed to the wily Woodhull sisters, whom he financed as Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers, and assisted in publishing the first American edition of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. (It remains uncertain whether “erotic inspiration” or the ubercapitalist’s illness resulted in this supreme irony.)
Though his great wealth was destined to dissipate “through numerous generations of redistribution,” as a final gesture, instigated by his second wife, the Commodore established Vanderbilt University. Renehan absorbingly traces this fascinating endower’s start from the gate and his race to the finish line.

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