The Sad Saga of the Vanderbilts

Wendy Burden.

WASHINGTON—The lifestyle of the nation’s wealthiest families has long been a source of fascination for ordinary mortals. Their opulent mansions, the massive summer “cottages” they built in the 19th century, their entertainments and their comings and goings seem glamorous beyond compare.

One family that enjoyed this exaggerated lifestyle was the Vanderbilts, the descendants of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest man in America at the time of his death in 1877. Vanderbilt, who left a sum of $200 million in those pre-income tax days, started out as a teenager with one barge, and went on to establish his wealth through railroad and shipping empires.

Descendants built Fifth Avenue mansions, Newport, R.I., summer cottages, the Biltmore House and other exclusive homes. Family members were leaders of Gilded Age society until the early 1900s, when their good fortune changed and their prominence declined, known as the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt.

One branch of his family, the Burdens, were among the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to their inherited fortune, according to Wendy Burden, Vanderbilt’s great-great-great-great granddaughter. Ms. Burden, born in 1955, knows the downfall of the family all too well, and she documents every detail about her “tragically flawed family” in her memoir, “Dead End Gene Pool.” She will return to Connecticut (she lived in Roxbury for three years) when she conducts a book-signing Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington.

“When I lived in Roxbury, which was quite secluded, going to Washington Depot was like New York City,” Ms. Burden said in a phone interview from her Portland, Ore., home. “I can’t wait for a slice of chocolate cake at the G.W. Tavern … and to get a bite at the Sandwich Construction Company [in Woodbury].” Her first stop is the Hickory Stick.

Ms. Burden described “Dead End Gene Pool” as a memoir that examines “What it’s like to grow up largely unsupervised in a family that was over-served, over-funded, morally and financially declining and hugely dysfunctional. My father’s family descended from Cornelius Vanderbilt, which is where we got the money. My mother was from what was essentially a clan of very DNA-proud, parsimonious, buckle-shoed Pilgrims, which made for quite a WASP-y tale that is funny … and heartbreaking.”

She lays bare family secrets with unwavering honesty and acerbic dark humor, turning the poor-little-rich-girl tale on its ear. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant noted, “In this dark and humorous memoir, Wendy Burden takes us inside the family circus that was her side of the Vanderbilt dynasty, bringing American class structure, sibling rivalry, and the decline of the bluebloods vividly to life. It’s a wonderful read.”

Ms. Burden describes the Burdens as “a clan of over-funded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline … rarely seen not holding a drink.” Her grandfather, William A. M. Burden, former president of the Museum of Modern Art and ambassador to Belgium, was, she writes, a casual anti-Semite and a serious alcoholic, as was Ms. Burden’s mother, “a self-absorbed woman who abandoned her children to roam the world in search of a perfect tan.”

Her parents, William A. M. Burden III and Leslie Hamilton, met in high school and married in college. “Their future was bright and scholarly,” Mr. Burden writes. But after having three children—Ms. Burden, her younger brother, Edward, and her older brother, William A. M. Burden IV—the marriage fell apart. “My mother started messing around … and my father’s depression issues came to be a real problem,” she said. When Ms. Burden was 6, her father committed suicide.

“We spent the rest of our childhood being shuttled between the house of my mother, who tended to stay away, and the world of our grandparents,” Gaga and Popsie, who she described as caring, but ineffectual parental figures. While her mother was globetrotting, gin in hand, seeking a new husband, the children were essentially raised by their extensive surrogate family of servants.

“For years my mother was never around, and I wished she was,” Ms. Burden said. “When she remarried when I was 11, we were around her too much. I learned you need to be more careful about what you wish for.

“I have tried to show both the humorous and the tragic of growing up, but I try to concentrate on the humorous,” she said.

Ms. Burden never intended to write a memoir. She studied art at the Parsons School of Design and pursued a career as an illustrator, as well as trying her hand over the years as a zookeeper, taxidermist and art director for a pornographic magazine that fired her “for being too tasteful.” She was also the owner and chef of a small French restaurant called Chez Wendy. She decided to write a cookbook of French recipes, and started researching cooks who worked for her family and, in doing so, “discovered such interesting anecdotes,” she explained.

“Then my family started dying off on the East Coast, and death makes you think about mortality and family,” she continued. “How much did I really know my family? I never knew my father. Growing up, I always thought my father was innocent and my mother, guilty, but I gained an understanding that they were equally to blame.”

“Dead End Gene Pool” is only a third of Ms. Burden’s original manuscript. She is working on a sequel, using the cut material, including the tragic death of her second husband, entrepreneur William “Tiger” Warren, for whom she moved from New York to Portland. Warren and his three sons died in a plane crashed 11 years ago, only four years after they married. Ms. Burden remains close to her daughters, Charlotte and Celeste.

Ms. Burden is painting for a group show in August at PDX Contemporary in Portland, and plans to return to writing full time this winter.

But how would her mother feel about the book?

“I get that question a lot,” Ms. Burden said. “I think my mother would be thrilled by the notoriety. The Pilgrim in her would be horrified by the infamy … but ultimately, I think she would be very happy about it. I wouldn’t have written it if she was alive, and I wouldn’t have expanded it the way I did. It is my story and my quest for answers. … This is my account of what happened. If someone disputes anything, they can write their own.”

Wendy Burden’s book-signing will be held July 10 at 2 p.m. at the Hickory Stick Bookshop, located at 2 Green Hill Road in Washington. The shop suggests calling to reserve a copy of the memoir. Those unable to attend can call to reserve an autographed copy. For more information, call 860-868-0525, or visit www.hickorystickbookshop.com.