One of the US’s richest men among victims of Lusitania

Alfred Vanderbilt’s grandson says sinking ‘was an act of international terrorism’

Few American families are as synonymous with wealth and the gilded age of the New York elites as the Vanderbilts.

The family fortune was founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, a rough-hewn steamboat captain who left school at 11 and made a fortune in shipping and railway in the first half of the 19th century.

Cornelius Vanderbilt left a fortune worth €150 billion in today’s money, and his son William doubled the family wealth. The Vanderbilts built Grand Central Station in New York. They had splendid mansions on Fifth Avenue. They bought America’s finest racehorses and yachts. They hosted massive parties, known as the “parties of the century”, and were bountiful philanthropists.


The Commodore’s great- grandson


Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt

I carried on the family tradition. He inherited the family fortune, invested wisely in real estate and lived the life of a rakish playboy. His affair with the wife of a Cuban diplomat was one of the scandals of the age.

Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others.

He was on the Lusitania, going to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders' Association and travelling with his valet.

When a German U-boat fired a torpedo and struck the ship 12 miles (19.3km) off the Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork, on May 7th, 1915, he refused to save himself. He gave his lifejacket away and used the critical moments as the ship was sinking to put children into the lifeboats. He showed, according to a report in the New York Times, "gallantry which no words of mine can describe". His body was never found.

One hundred years on from the sinking of the Lusitania , his grandson and namesake Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt III will attend the commemorations of the event in Cobh this week. He intends to visit the cemetery in Cobh where many of the dead are buried and will put a wreath on the water in remembrance of his grandfather.

Mr Vanderbilt, a 65-year-old public relations executive, grew up on stories of his grandfather's gallantry. "He spent his last minutes trying to save the children on the Lusitania. I can't think of anybody braver.

“How do you do that?

“He could have taken two children in his arms and sat down in the lifeboat. Who would have stopped him at that point?”

Many commentators have remarked on the contrast between Alfred Vanderbilt I's playboy lifestyle before his death with his utter selflessness when the Lusitania went down, but his grandson believes his grandfather died as he lived.

“He had been brought up to do the right thing. He saw his moment and he took it. What I have heard from my family over and over again is what a wonderful man he was. It is not as if he was a bad guy who got a good reputation because of his death. He was really a loving and caring man. It is a shame that he didn’t survive.”

Mr Vanderbilt III has never been to Cobh before. It will be emotional for him. The sinking of the Lusitania was a tragedy for so many families, rich and poor. His own father was left fatherless at the age of three. "I wish it hadn't happened. It robbed me of my grandfather."

Mr Vanderbilt says the sinking of the Lusitania was an international outrage, but he bears no ill will against the Germans.

“It reminds me of the World Trade Centre bombings. It was a use of innocent passengers to conduct an act of international terrorism.”

Family name

Mr Vanderbilt says that , contrary to the general impression, carrying the family name does not make one as rich as Croesus. He laughs. “Let me deal with that one straight away – I’m not rich.”

The demise of the house of Vanderbilt has been well-documented not least by the family themselves.

With no structure to transmit the wealth from generation to generation, it dissipated and was spent.

There are still some prominent and wealthy Vanderbilts, most notably the jeans designer Gloria Vanderbilt.

Alfred Vanderbilt’s son James is a well known Hollywood screenwriter.

Despite the family history of wealth, most descendants of the Commodore have had to make their own way in life.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times