The Book of the Week is “Man of the World” by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., published in 1959. This autobiography discussed the life of a member of one of Newport, Virginia’s prominent, wealthier families.
Vanderbilt had a childhood typical for economic royalists of his generation– he was raised by governesses, lived in an opulent Fifth Avenue mansion (in New York), and in Europe during certain months of the year. His father, an engineer, had an army career. For his fifteenth birthday, Vanderbilt received a 29-foot sailboat which he took around New England.
Since he was in Germany and England so much, Vanderbilt learned about the coming of the Great War (WW I) before most Americans did. After doing his war service, having been exposed to poison gas in Ypres, he wasn’t quite the same youngster “… who had rushed off to save bleeding Belgium and make the world safe for democracy.”
Against his parents’ wishes, Vanderbilt entered the field of journalism, reporting for the New York Times on California labor troubles in the early 1920’s. Back then, there were more Japanese farmers than white farmers. Heirs of super-rich families in the mid 1920’s felt a sense of entitlement about their inheritance, but also filial piety– most obeyed their parents in making major life choices, such as careers. Vanderbilt’s father thought “A newspaperman was a low creature dedicated to invasion of privacy, digging away at scandals like a dirty dog.” The buyers of most newspapers at that time were the unwashed masses, and therefore unworthy of his father’s esteem.
After encountering financial problems running his own newspapers, and family inheritance problems, Vanderbilt appealed to his celebrity friends in Hollywood for cash. “I took the actual bills to the bank in a taxi and dumped them on the desk of the vice president.”
The author interviewed Hitler a few times in the 1930’s, and in 1936, with a crew, shot film footage secretly in Germany. The film was shown at the Mayfair Theatre in New York. Hundreds of residents of Manhattan’s Yorkville section (German at the time), protested, necessitating police reserves to keep the peace. “These were the years during which … swastikas were scrawled on subway walls in the East Eighties.”
Vanderbilt claimed that when he visited with Hitler, he conveyed personal messages from President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), asking Hitler to stay peaceful. Yes, dear reader, Vanderbilt almost saved the world. According to Vanderbilt, FDR was supposed to have a meeting in 1939 (that never took place) with Hitler, Stalin and Churchill that might have avoided the war altogether.
Businessmen were at once anti-war and anti-FDR. The president proposed imposing a trade embargo on Germany. However, this would provoke hostility from the German people, as their standard of living would fall even further. Wealthy businessmen had no idea of the deprivations the Germans had suffered.
Vanderbilt was a foreign correspondent for Liberty Magazine, and an international spy for FDR. He was supplied with a short-wave radio set and a Zenith TV engraved, “Made expressly for and stolen from Neil Vanderbilt.” In August 1939, in Poland, he found Heinrich Himmler in his hotel room when he returned one evening. Nevertheless, he refrained from using his gas gun– a pen-shaped weapon containing a gas cylinder.
After the war, FDR’s son Jimmy Roosevelt ran for California governor. “He spoke sensibly on world affairs and important state issues, but lacked the funds to pay for the sort of publicity the other side was given for free.” Sadly, advertising agencies and their clients prompted censoring of free and open discourse of editors and publishers on TV, in newspapers and magazines. As usual, people were controlled by money. The author observed that this was more commonly the case in America than in Europe.
Amusing sidenote: The author’s father had enemies, so during distasteful episodes prior to his death, his father hired different attorneys through the years to update his will and add codicils.
Read the book for additional intrigue (“Although a shipload of Jewish refugees might seem an unlikely place to look for Nazis, actually it was a fine place for them to hide.”), and once again, see that there is nothing new under the sun.