Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
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The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt takes a look at the decline of her wealthy blue-blooded family in this irreverent and wickedly funny memoir
For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy's birth, the Burdens had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed blue bloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink.
When her father commits suicide when Wendy is six, she and her brother are told nothing about it and are shuffled off to school as if it were any other day. Subsequently, Wendy becomes obsessed with the macabre, modeling herself after Wednesday Addams of the Addams family, and decides she wants to be a mortician when she grows up. Just days after the funeral, her mother jets off to southern climes in search of the perfect tan, and for the next three years, Wendy and her two brothers are raised mostly by a chain-smoking Scottish nanny and the long suffering household staff at their grandparent's Fifth Avenue apartment. If you think Eloise wreaked havoc at The Plaza you should see what Wendy and her brothers do in "Burdenland"-a world where her grandfather is the president of the Museum of Modern Art; the walls are decorated with originals of Klee, Kline, Mondrian, and Miro; and Rockefellers are regular dinner guests.
The spoiled life of the uber-rich that they live with their grandparents is in dark contrast to the life they live with their mother, a brilliant Radcliffe grad and Daughter of the American Revolution, who deals with having two men's suicides on her conscience by becoming skinnier, tanner, blonder, and more steeped in bitter alcoholism with every passing year.
We watch Wendy's family unravel as she travels between Fifth Avenue, Virginia horse country, Mount Desert Island in Maine, the Jupiter Island Club, London, and boarding school, coming through all of it surprisingly intact. Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the eccentric excess of old money and gives truth to the old maxim: The rich are different.
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Chase Club? That’s it, I thought. My grandfather, who had now finished a second bottle of wine, was expounding on Terrapin à la Florham to Will, who was vacantly pulling all the hairs out of his left eyebrow, one by one. It felt like we had been eating lunch for three days. “—and every night it was in season, terrapin was served at Grandma Twombly’s dinner table. It was superb, brilliantly superb.” Will started in on his other eyebrow. It was a forgone conclusion that any outing involving
interesting part—and the doctors had to insert a—and I was almost able to hear what they were saying, I started grasping the flag tighter—but since she insisted on an open casket—tighter—and Campbell’s said they wouldn’t—until SNAP! My grandfather made me sit up front with the Nazi, on the other side of the bulletproof glass partition. I tried to make conversation with him for a while, but it didn’t go well: “So. Selma tells me you’re redecorating the apartment over the garage.” “Ja.” “Anyone
twenty-five-cents-an-hour compensation. “I hate flying more than anything,” I grumbled, and refolded my paper napkin so the corners were more perfectly aligned. “Poppycock,” said my mother, sliding a couple of eggs that looked like brown lace onto my plate. The toaster popped, and she scraped the tiniest amount of margarine imaginable over an English muffin before handing it to me. I glared at her. She herself was so terrified of flying someone had to crowbar her out of the airport bar in order
an assemblage of scarred desks, leaky fountain pens, and chalk dust in an archaic Edwardian setting that was permeated throughout with the odor of boiled cabbage and governed by teachers who enjoyed a good caning the way the landed gentry enjoyed blood sports. My school uniform was an all-inclusive one: itchy wool underpants, kneesocks, dorky sandals, drip-dry ecru polyester shirt, pleated kilt, V-neck sweater, necktie, crested blazer, wool overcoat, and felt boater. Listed by the outfitters as
No one wanted to take responsibility. My grandparents’ two remaining sons were non compos mentis: Uncle Ham-Uncle Ham was only allowed to visit the apartment once a week, when he came to take tea with his mother on Wednesday afternoons; Uncle Ordway was finding it impossible to be even quasi-normal. When he wasn’t enwombed in his honorary sheriff ciborium watching porn, or The Blue Lagoon (he was still fixated on Brooke Shields), he lay in bed surrounded by newspapers and periodicals, reading and