Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I
Born (1877-10-20)October 20, 1877
New York City, New York, United States
Died May 7, 1915(1915-05-07) (aged 37)
Atlantic Ocean
Political party Republican
Religion Episcopalian

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Sr. (October 20, 1877 – May 7, 1915) was an extremely wealthy American businessman and sportsman, and a member of the famous Vanderbilt family. He died on the RMS Lusitania.


Vanderbilt caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1907

Alfred was born in New York City, the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899) and Alice Claypoole Gwynne. He attended the St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire and Yale University (Class of 1899),[1] where he was a member of Skull and Bones.

Soon after graduation, Vanderbilt, with a party of friends, started on a tour of the world which was to have lasted two years. When they reached Japan on September 12, 1899, he received news of his father's sudden death and hastened home as speedily as possible to find himself, by his father's will, the head of his branch of the family.[1] His siblings were Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt (1869-1874), William Henry Vanderbilt II (1870–1892), Cornelius "Neily" Vanderbilt III (1873–1942), Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942), Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880–1925) and Gladys Moore Vanderbilt (1886–1965). His eldest brother, William, had died in 1892 at age 22, and their father had disinherited Alfred's second oldest brother Neily due to his marriage to Grace Wilson, a young debutante of whom the elder Vanderbilts strongly disapproved for a variety of reasons. Alfred received the largest share of his father's estate, though it was also divided among his sisters and younger brother, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilt Hotel, built in 1913

Soon after his return to New York, Vanderbilt began working as a clerk in the offices of the New York Central Railroad, as preparation for entering into the councils of the company as one of its principal owners. Subsequently, he was chosen a director in other companies as well, among them the Fulton Chain Railway Company, Fulton Navigation Company, Raquette Lake Railway Company, Raquette Lake Transportation Company, and the Plaza Bank of New York. Vanderbilt was a good judge of real estate values and projected several important enterprises. On the site of the former residence of the Vanderbilt family, and including, also, several adjacent plots, he built the Vanderbilt Hotel at Park Avenue and 34th Street, New York, which he made his city home.[1][2]

Among Alfred Vanderbilt's many holdings were positions in the New York Central Railroad, Beech Creek Railroad, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, Michigan Central Railroad and Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad as well as the Pullman Company.[3]

Married life and children

Elsie French

On January 11, 1901 Alfred Vanderbilt married Ellen "Elsie" French, in Newport, Rhode Island. Later that same year, on November 24, Elsie gave birth to their only child, William Henry Vanderbilt III (1901–1981), later governor of Rhode Island.

A scandal erupted in April 1908 after Elsie filed for divorce, alleging adultery with Agnes O'Brien Ruíz, the wife of the Cuban attaché in Washington, D. C.. The publicity ultimately led Agnes Ruíz to commit suicide in 1909.

Both Alfred and Elsie would remarry. She died in Newport on February 27, 1948.

Margaret Emerson

Vanderbilt spent considerable time in London after the divorce and remarried there on December 17, 1911 to the wealthy American divorcée Margaret Emerson (1884–1960). She was the daughter of Captain Isaac Edward Emerson (1859–1931) and Emily Askew, and was heiress to the Bromo-Seltzer fortune. Margaret had been married from 1902-1910 to Dr. Smith Hollins McKim, a wealthy physician of Baltimore, Maryland.

Alfred and Margaret had two children: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr. (1912–1999), businessman and racehorse breeder, and George Washington Vanderbilt III (1914–1961), yachtsman and a scientific explorer.

After Alfred's death, Margaret remarried twice. On June 12, 1918 in Lenox, Massachusetts, she married politician Raymond T. Baker (1875–1935), with whom she had a daughter, Gloria Baker (1920–1975) (Mrs. Henry J. Topping, Jr.). Emerson and Baker were divorced in October, 1928. On November 5, 1928, Margaret was wed in Manhattan to Charles Minot Amory of Boston, Massachusetts, who had been formerly married to Gladys Munn. There were no children from this marriage. In newspaper articles and reports concerning America's "Old Money", Margaret was considered to have been "the most married woman of her time." Margaret died on January 2, 1960, at the age of 75.


Vanderbilt was a sportsman, and he particularly enjoyed fox hunting and coaching. In the late 19th century, he and a number of other millionaires, such as James Hazen Hyde practiced the old English coaching techniques of the early 19th century. Meeting near Holland House in London, the coaching group would take their vehicle for a one-day, two-day, or longer trip along chosen routes through several counties, going to prearranged inns and hotels along the routes. Vanderbilt would frequently drive the coach, in perfectly appareled suit, a coachman or groom. He loved the outdoor experience.

In 1901, he bought Sagamore Camp, on Sagamore Lake in the Adirondacks, from William West Durant. He expanded and improved the property to include flush toilets, a sewer system, and hot and cold running water. He later added a hydroelectric plant and an outdoor bowling alley with an ingenious system for retrieving the balls. Other amenities included a tennis court, a croquet lawn, a 100,000 gallon reservoir, and a working farm.

He also enjoyed fox hunting, and in the spring of 1915, he took a fateful trip via the RMS Lusitania, headed for England to purchase hunting dogs and horses.


On May 1, 1915, Alfred Vanderbilt boarded the RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool , as a first class passenger. It was a business trip, and he traveled with only his valet, leaving his family at home in New York. On May 7, off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, German U-boat, U-20 torpedoed the ship, triggering a secondary explosion that sank the giant ocean liner within 18 minutes. Vanderbilt and his valet, Ronald Denyer, helped others into lifeboats, and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. Vanderbilt had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra lifevest for her.[4] Failing to do so, he offered her his own life vest, which he proceeded to even tie on to her himself, since she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time. Many consider his actions especially brave and gallant, since he could not swim, he knew there were no other lifevests or lifeboats available, and yet he gave away his only chance to survive to the young mother and child.

Because of his fame, several people on the Lusitania who survived the tragedy were observing him while events unfolded at the time, and so they took note of his brave actions. He and Denyer were among the 1198 passengers who did not survive the incident. His body was never recovered.

According to A. A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling (in their study, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania) Vanderbilt's fate was ironic, as three years earlier he had made a last-minute decision not to return to the U.S. on RMS Titanic.[5] In fact, his decision to not travel was so late that some newspaper accounts listed him as a casualty after the sinking.[5]

The claim for his estate was put forward by his then-remarried widow, Margaret Emerson Baker. The net value of the estate, after the payment of all debts and funeral and administration expenses, was $15,594,836.32. By the terms of his will Margaret and his three sons would inherit $1,180,098.18. In addition, for their maintenance and for the support and comfort of his widow and children, he expended and contributed approximately $300,000 annually.[6]


A24 Memorial

A memorial was erected on the A24 London to Worthing Road in Holmwood, just south of Dorking. The inscription reads, "In Memory of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a gallant gentleman and a fine sportsman who perished in the Lusitania May 7th 1915. This stone is erected on his favourite road by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers".

Another memorial to Vanderbilt is in a small park on Broadway in Newport, Rhode Island, where members of the Vanderbilt family spent their summers.



  1. 1 2 3  Homans, James E., ed. (1918). "Vanderbilt, Alfred Gwynne". The Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: The Press Association Compilers, Inc.
  2. Vanderbilt Hotel from New York City Heritage preservation center
  3. Vanderbilt, Arthur T., II (1989). Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-07279-8.
  4. Preston, Diane (May 2002). "Torpedoed! The Sinking of the Lusitania". Smithsonian Magazine. pp. 64–65.
  5. 1 2 Daugherty, Greg (March 2012). "Seven Famous People Who Missed the Titanic". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved November 15, 2012.
  6. "Docket No. 2187: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt". Claims commission.

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