Saturday, April 25, 2015

Alfred Vanderbilt – the Hero of Novel Lusitania R.E.X

This post is by finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, Greg Taylor.

Alfred Vanderbilt
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was born into a remarkable life. By the time he joined the ranks of the growing family of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, known as Corneil, and his wife Alice (née Gwynne), on October 20th 1877, his parents were already engaged in a sibling rivalry that would create some of the finest homes in America. It is alleged that the opening ball of the conspicuous 5th Avenue chateau built by Alfred’s Uncle Willie and his socially conscious wife Alva, the “party of the century”, catapulted the Vanderbilts into acceptable New York society.

When Alfred was only five years old, his family moved into One West Fifty-seventh Street, the largest mansion ever built in New York City. This early French Renaissance mansion of red brick with limestone boasted one hundred and fifty-seven rooms by the time his parents were finished. It was here that Alfred played as a boy, dashing up the spectacular curved staircase of Caen stone or sneaking into the two-story Moorish smoking room designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The Breakers,
Newport Cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II
From 1895, Alfred was able to enjoy the Newport season from the family’s new Italian Renaissance palazzo overlooking the ocean. The Breakers opened that year with the coming out ball of Alfred’s sister Gertrude. Given his love of horses, however, Alfred often ventured up the road to his father’s Oakland Farm, which he would later inherit and expand.

In September of 1895, Alfred followed his two older brothers to Yale. Vanderbilt Hall had opened the year before, built by his grieving parents in memory of Alfred’s oldest brother, Bill, who died during his junior year after contracting typhoid fever from a water pump. Vanderbilt Hall was built with one special suite: for use by future Vanderbilts, it featured wood-paneled walls, an ornate red marble fireplace and a bay window with a commanding view of the campus.

Alfred prospered at Yale, pursuing a variety of sporting activities and winning a “tap” to join secret society Skull and Bones. His older brother Neily was a serious academic, but Alfred enjoyed himself at Yale and after graduating in 1899 embarked on a round-the-world tour with friends, the first leg in a private Vanderbilt railcar. Alfred was in the Orient when he received the news that his father, weakened from a stroke caused by a disagreement with Alfred’s brother Neily, had died. Alfred returned to the Breakers to learn that his older brother had been disinherited for choosing the wrong bride, leaving him, the third son, the heir at age twenty-one to the greatest fortune of the age.

Alfred gave his brother Neily a share of his own inheritance to bring him equal to the other siblings, and but Alfred remained the wealthiest bachelor in America. He was now able to indulge his passion for society and sports, particularly coaching, and attempted to set a speed record between Newport and Boston driving a four-horse brake in August of 1900. Though he failed to set a new record that time, he collected as a passenger for on the return journey the heiress Elsie French, whom he married in January of 1901.

Alfred’s love of horses and coaching gradually pulled him away from Elsie, with frequent trips to London. For one horse show, Alfred shipped a hundred horses across the Atlantic. An adventuring beauty named Agnes Ruiz, the wife of a Cuban diplomat, eventually captured Alfred’s attentions. Elsie filed for divorce and the newspapers eagerly reported the details of Alfred’s adulterous liaison with Agnes aboard his private railcar the Wayfarer. When Alfred became enamored of another wealthy American socialite, Maggie Emerson, Agnes shot herself in London. Alfred married Maggie in November 1911 and they divided their time between London, Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks and the top two floors of the new Vanderbilt Hotel that towered over Manhattan from 1912.

It was in order to attend a meeting of the International Breeders Association in London that Alfred booked passage on the Lusitania in May, 1915. Like the other passengers, Alfred ignored that warning that the German Imperial Embassy printed in the New York papers about sailing into the war zone. The Lusitania was a passenger liner travelling from a neutral country, and Alfred knew that she was also the fastest ship in the world at twenty-six knots compared to only eight knots for a submerged submarine.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Alfred has another reason to travel to England. In this fictionalized account, he is smuggling aboard the ship a prototype rocket clandestinely developed with his Skull and Bones friends that Alfred believes has the potential to end World War One. After the arrest of three German stowaways as the liner sails from New York, the Germans realize their plan to steal to rocket with help from Irish nationalists has failed and the Lusitania is targeted.

Eleven miles from the Irish shore on the last day of the crossing, a single torpedo fired by the German U20 struck the Lusitania. There was a second, much larger explosion that ripped the ship apart. She sank in only eighteen minutes at a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched.

Alfred Vanderbilt gallantly gave his lifebelt to a woman passenger, knowing that he could not swim. He was a gifted sportsman and accomplished at nearly every pursuit befitting a gentleman of leisure, but he had never learned to swim. Alfred spent the last few minutes of his life rushing about the deck of the Lusitania with his valet gathering up children to hand into the lifeboats.


Greg Taylor's passion for research has led him to develop first-hand relationships with the descendants of some of the characters in the book, including the Duke of Marlborough and Alfred G Vanderbilt III. He was drawn to the tale of Lusitania because he was fascinated by the cataclysm of elegant Edwardian society caused by the brutal warfare the industrial success of that society made possible. His passion for research and discovery has taken him to the numerous historical sites that appear in the book. Undergraduate studies in history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Durham, England, are reflected in the book. Greg attended the School of Management at Yale University where he lived one block from The Tomb of Skull and Bones. London has been Greg's home since 2000 and he has divided his investment banking and asset management career between New York and London.



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Janet. I had a great time putting together the pieces of my research.

  2. This is every bit as compelling as Titanic.

    1. Hi Linda - that was one of the reasons I wrote the book. The Titanic gets all the attention but the story of the Lusitania is more complex and I think more interesting.

  3. Fascinating. He sounds like a true "hero". I love reading about that era, and I love worthy protagonists. I'll look for this book.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. It's available at the book website as well as amazon. Paperback version was released during the recent London Book Fair and for American readers it is printed and shipped locally in the States to reduce shipping costs.

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks Danielle, glad you enjoyed it. He did not start out as the main character of Lusitania R.E.X but it became clear the more I learned about him that Alfred Vanderbilt had the attributes I was looking for in a protagonist.


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