"His character is a hard one to catch. The recorded memories of him run to black and white. There are no subtleties, few ambiguities."
So writes the estimable Louis Auchincloss about Cornelius Vanderbilt in The Vanderbilt Era, an elegant rumination on the Vanderbilt dynasty. Auchincloss did his best with the poor information available to him to sketch a more nuanced portrait of the Commodore, but he didn't have much to work with. I agree that accounts of him tend to be monochrome, but I would say that historians and biographers paint Vanderbilt in garish colors—loud, unsubtle, uncomplicated.
In virtually every book that mentions the Commodore, he comes across as relentlessly consistent, even monotonously so. He is depicted as crude and cruel, a man of force and not much else. Sometimes he is even cast as determinedly boorish, indulging in prostitutes, getting drunk, and spitting tobacco on his hosts' carpets. He is portrayed as wildly eccentric, making business decisions based on the visions of spiritualist mediums, in conversation with the dead.
Some of these notions are exaggerated, and others are flat-out false. But why have they proliferated? Why are modern writers so eager to believe (or make up) the wild tales about a man who was, after all, at the center of national affairs for half a century?
First, let's note that there is some basis in truth for some of these notions about Vanderbilt, especially those of him as a social outsider and a man of force. It took decades for genteel New York to accept him as a social equal—though they did, in time. He could be incredibly ruthless when locked in combat. He was remorselessly competitive, in his personal life as well as profession.
But all this is only part of the picture. There is abundant evidence that he experienced doubts, fear, love, loss, and loneliness. Even in business, he was true to his word and practiced patient diplomacy. He was famous for exacting revenge, but he also consistently forgave his rivals (once they admitted defeat, that is). In short, he was a three-dimensional figure.
Am I a genius for figuring this out? I don't think so—and if I was a genius, I think I would be smart enough to know it. So why have writers depicted Vanderbilt so shallowly? Indeed, why have they been so willing to believe stories that are entirely without basis? Most descriptions of the Commodore uncritically recite utterly apocryphal tales. Why?
Part of the answer is sheer laziness. Not since Wheaton J. Lane published his biography in 1942 has anyone conducted serious research into the life of Commodore Vanderbilt. Rather, modern writers have taken their cues from nineteenth-century newspaper writers, who did not exactly have modern journalistic standards. Vanderbilt's obituaries, for example, are an oft-cited source, but they contain a great deal of material that was simply made up.
But I think the underlying answer is that Commodore Vanderbilt has always been a supporting actor in other people's stories. Serious biographies have been written about just about every prominent figure whom Vanderbilt dealt with in his long life, from Daniel Webster to John D. Rockefeller, including Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and Victoria Woodhull. In many of these cases, Vanderbilt has been treated as an outsized but easily caricatured figure who lends color to the narrative. Why investigate well-worn stories about Vanderbilt, if the writer is focusing on a different figure entirely? Why be skeptical, when he makes for good copy?
In researching The First Tycoon, I learned why historians and biographers have left Vanderbilt alone: He left no collection of papers to paw through. To write authoritatively about him, then, I had to engage in a lot of creative research, follow seemingly tangential leads, get some lucky breaks, and accept the long, long hours of digging through archives and newspaper accounts in pursuit of an elusive, secretive businessman. But I put in the work, building a portrait of a round, full, complex (yet still outsized) character. Many canonical stories fell away, to be replaced by previously unknown ones; his monotonous consistency evaporated, replaced by a strong personality laced with contradictions.
Now, as leading man, Vanderbilt finally came into his own. And the real figure was a lot more interesting than the caricature.