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What Happened To The Vanderbilt Fortune?

Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Vanderbilts were once one of the richest family dynasties in America, dating back to the Gilded Age. However, over generations, the family fortune has slowly dwindled. Today, there is little left of the Vanderbilt’s wealth, and the living family members have had to find their own wealth.

The Vanderbilt fortune

The Vanderbilt fortune was established by Cornelius “the Commodore” Vanderbilt, who was born in 1794. He was in charge of the massive shipping and railroad empire he had made in America, turning him into the richest man in the country. The Vanderbilts were not shy about their wealth, constructing massive mansions on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, and North Carolina. By the time of his death in 1877, Cornelius’ net worth was a whopping $105 million, equivalent to $2.9 billion by today’s standards.

Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founding father of the Vanderbilt empire in America. (Photo Credit: American Stock / Getty Images)

While his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, successfully doubled the family’s fortune, earning the same title as his father as the richest man in America, future generations would not be so entrepreneurial. Heir after heir would slowly deplete the family fortune, and by the mid-20th century, their prominence had effectively waned. Known as the “Fall of the House of Vanderbilt,” most of the mansions they constructed were torn down, sold, or converted into museums. However, that does not mean there was no money left.

Gloria’s own wealth depleted over the years

Gloria Vanderbilt, Cornelius’ great-great-granddaughter, was born in 1924 and received a $2.5 million trust fund. This may have been just a fraction of the family’s previous fortune, but it was certainly nothing to turn your nose at. When she was just a child, her mother and her paternal aunt engaged in a very public battle for her custody and control over her trust fund, with the tabloids dubbing her the “poor little rich girl.” When she was 21, she finally assumed control of her inheritance of $4.2 million.

Portrait of a young Gloria Vanderbilt.
American socialite, fashion designer, actress, writer, and artist Gloria Vanderbilt, 1954. (Photo Credit: Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Despite her inherited wealth, Gloria was always working. Early on, she worked as a model and ventured into other creative avenues like writing and acting. By the 1970s, she had built a fashion empire that expanded to a massive $100 million in worth, but it was not without its problems. Over time, she and her fashion empire faced multiple legal challenges, causing her some serious financial struggles. In 1993, a lawsuit alleging that her lawyer and psychiatrist stole millions of dollars from her and sold her business interests without permission ran her a hefty bill. She had to sell both her Southampton mansion and Manhattan townhome to pay back her debts.

Cooper knew he wasn’t going to inherit a lot

Her son, American broadcaster and journalist Anderson Cooper, serves as one of the modern faces of the Vanderbilt family. When his mother died in 2019 at the age of 95, many believed he was going to inherit a sizeable fortune. As it turns out, his inheritance was nowhere near that. In her will, she stipulated that her eldest son, Leopold Stokowski, would receive her Manhattan co-op, valued at $1.2 million. “All the rest” of her estate was to go to Cooper, which was only worth $1.5 million.

Headshot of Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, 2016. (Photo Credit: Roy Rochlin / FilmMagic / Getty Images)

Apparently, Cooper was well aware that there was no huge fortune waiting for him. “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund. There’s none of that,” he said. As such, he has worked hard to earn a sizeable fortune for himself. “I view the money as kind of a pathology that infected subsequent generations, because I think they all grew up with this idea that there would always be money there, and there was no need for them to actually work,” he previously explained.

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Today, Cooper’s net worth is around $50 million.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!