Roll Back the Clouds, my new novel about the Lusitania, releases on March 17. Many of the passengers aboard the ill-fated, final voyage appear alongside main characters, Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard. I’ll be profiling several of them here. This week, meet Alfred Vanderbilt.
Tall, lean, and elegant, 37-year-old Alfred Vanderbilt was the richest man onboard. He had inherited the bulk of the family fortune because his elder brother Cornelius Jr. had angered their father by marrying a woman reputed to being “fast.”
Alfred had a weakness for women, which led to scandals. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1908 due to his adultery aboard his private railcar with the wife of Cuba’s attaché in Washington. Six years later, the woman committed suicide. Alfred had remarried in 1911, but the death cast an unwanted spotlight on him.
His second wife, Margaret, had divorced her husband in 1910 on the grounds of drunkenness and cruelty. He threatened to sue Vanderbilt for alienation of affection, but the case was settled out of court. Alfred and Margaret shared a passion for horses.
Horses are what prompted Vanderbilt’s voyage to London on the Lusitania. The outbreak of war the previous year caused the cancellation of a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association, but Vanderbilt would direct the meeting in 1915. While in England, he also planned to offer a fleet of vehicles to the British Red Cross. His wife and two young sons remained behind in New York.
When the Lusitania was torpedoed, Vanderbilt assisted women and children with lifebelts and getting into lifeboats. He did not try to enter a lifeboat himself, even though he didn’t know how to swim.
A $5,000 reward was offered for the recovery of his body, but it was never found.
|Taken a few months before the sinking, Vanderbilt with his three sons: William H. Vanderbilt 1st (far right), Alfred Vanderbilt jr. (left) and baby George W. Vanderbilt.|
In Roll Back the Clouds, Rosaleen Bonnard bumps into Vanderbilt at the ship’s concert on Thursday evening, benefiting Seamen’s Charities.