By William S Bridgman.
A superficial accounting of the success of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt as a social leader is sure to be followed by the explanation that she has behind her the Vanderbilt name and the Vanderbilt millions. So she has, and there is no denying the potency of either, nor the fact that a woman backed by them may go far. But to cap these admissions there is another even as palpable. It is that some women are bound to go further than others.
There are, for instance, those worth millions who remain in the ranks with other millionaires, content to gather up such successes as may come their way and beckon to them. There are a few who step forth from the ranks and command success, extraordinary and swift, success that labels them, even among millionaires, as social leaders.
Out of this same stuff that has fashioned these few, the great generals of the world — the Hannibals. and Napoleons, the Grants and Lees — have been made. Women endowed with the power and the training that enabled them to lead scientifically have become the social queens of history — the Maintenons, the Recamiers, the Dolly Madisons. Such women shine by their wit and beauty; they are the brilliant centers of salons; they entertain princes and are entertained by kings.
There are prophets who, wise in such matters, predict that in the social history of America, some day to be written, the name of a Vanderbilt will rank with that of Mrs. Astor as one of the two most famous leaders of New York society. The future historian will also find it necessary to relate, in his chronicles of the present period, that there was a feud in the great Vanderbilt family, a feud which was discussed from end to end of the land, and which threatened to militate against the success of one Cornelius, heir apparent to the headship of the house. It is enough to recall here that some six years ago, when the late Cornelius Vanderbilt died, he left a will cutting off his eldest surviving son with an inheritance of a single million — which was afterwards augmented to seven or eight millions by a re-division of the estate among the heirs. Even our youngest readers must have some recollection of this, and of the marriage of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., to Grace Graham Wilson, a belle by all the charms by which a woman attains to such a position, but preeminently a belle by reason of being the clever daughter of triumphantly clever parents.
One may see by the surety of her advance that Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt was trained by classical standards to succeed. She had the opportunity to learn the art of success scientifically, from approved models, models similar to those that made Eugenie de Montijo, Empress of the French, famous as one of the most captivating of graceful women. Year after year, as a girl, Miss Wilson visited the courts of Europe under the best of auspices. On the yacht of her brother-in-law, the late Ogden Goelet, she long ago met the Emperor of Germany. She was presented at his court, and at the court of St. James. In her education nothing was left to chance. Her methods bear no resemblance to those of the young women who attain success unexpectedly by tumbling upon it haphazard.
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt knows not only how to do things, but why she does them. This is what we mean when we say that her training has been scientific. It is her talent, her skill, her savoir faire as a woman that captivate. These were the qualities by which Eugenie de Montijo captivated Napoleon III. He realized that he had met the woman who could grace his throne.
Mrs. Vanderbilt has at her finger-tips, or rather at her tongue's tip, what the French call l'art de bien dire. One may add that she has also the art of manners. She may not be extraordinarily talented as an essayist or philosopher, but she is essentially talented as a woman, talented enough to have become already a leader in the social world without in any way effacing the importance of her husband. On the contrary, since his marriage he has taken an active interest in politics; he has been spoken of for the Berlin embassy, and as a possible candidate for Congress; he has gone into the military service as a captain in the Twelfth Regiment; he has entertained the Kaiser in German waters on board his steam-yacht the North Star — and withal he has lost not one jot of his extremely practical interest in the mechanics of railroading.
The mention of the Kaiser recalls an open secret. It is one to be proud of, so let us break off here to tell it. When Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt heard that the brother of the Emperor of Germany was to visit America, she recalled herself to his majesty. He remembered her, and graciously commanded that the prince should dine with her as soon as she expressed her desire to entertain him.
"Why is Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt to be his hostess?" asked the world of society. "Why is she selected?"
In trying to answer satisfactorily, one could scarcely do better than to quote the words of Ferdinand Brunetiere, who, speaking of Mme. de Maintenon, says:
"With her qualities one may command fortune, and one may retain it when it comes."
Not by any means did Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt become a social leader by her marriage. Indeed, it has been said that her wedding day divided New York society into those who approved, and were friends of the Wilsons, and those who disapproved, and were friends of the Vanderbilt. Matrimonially, the bride's family had already been brilliantly "successful. The eldest daughter married the late Ogden Goelet, one of New York's greatest land-owners, and her daughter is now the Duchess of Roxburghe. The second is the widow of Sir Michael Henry Herbert, who was a brother of the Earl of Pembroke, and who held at his death the high position of British ambassador at Washington. The eldest son married Miss Astor, the daughter of New York's present social leader.
If for no other purpose, this list of brilliant marriages is valuable to explain why Mrs. Richard T. Wilson is quoted so universally as one of the most remarkable of mothers —which is indeed to call her one of the most remarkable of women. Comparatively unknown to New York until a few years ago, though of an excellent Southern family, she has certainly marshaled her forces cleverly, and led them, as far as any one may see, for their best advantage. It doesn't in the least follow that because her children made what the world calls fine matches, they were not therefore love matches. Indeed, according to all the canons of romance, a young man who gives up an inheritance of some three score millions to marry the girl of his choice proves indisputably his right to the title of lover.
The renunciation of fifty or sixty millions of dollars seems so colossal a sacrifice that few would voluntarily have chosen it; but with Cornelius Vanderbilt it has proved to be the wisest step of his career. Beyond a certain point, money counts for nothing and a wife of the type of Mrs. Vanderbilt means vastly more than superfluous wealth ever can. While in no sense belittling the genuine abilities of her husband, those who know her best understand most fully how much of strength, energy, and purpose she has added to his life. It is almost certain that he occupies today a bigger place in the world without the three-score millions than he would have filled with them under the conditions specified by his father.
Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. 1905.