This past weekend I was able to take a trip down to Connecticut to visit a friend who’s interning at an actuarial company in Hartford. It was very nice to spend some time with him in a setting where we didn’t have to be totally focused on school, and we made sure to make the most of our free time. On Saturday we visited President Franklin Roosevelt’s estate in Hyde Park, NY. His house, Springwood, was very interesting to tour, and his presidential museum was as expansive as any of the other 18 I’ve visited (looking to make it 22 by the end of the summer!) On Sunday, we drove the other way to Newport, Rhode Island, and began our visit by taking a walk along the city’s seaside cliffs. The waterfront views are quite picturesque, which explains why many late 19th-century tycoons constructed summer estates along the coast. I had read about several of them, and along with my friend decided to take a tour of Marble House, one of the best-known houses and the summer estate of William K. and Alva Vanderbilt.
The late 1800’s were sarcastically termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, for as magnificent as they may have seemed on the outside, there were a slew of problems festering underneath (‘gilded’ means covering something flawed in a thin layer of gold to make it appear more luxurious). Meandering through Marble House, it seemed like the abode perfectly personifies the spirit of the “Gilded Age”. The house itself is absolutely magnificent. Wall-to-wall marble with a dining room fit for a palace, a neoclassical entryway, a Gothic room befitting a cathedral, a living room plated in gold, and the most luxurious décor known to man, the house is truly one for the ages, a stunning masterpiece. However, as incredible as the building is, all its opulence cannot compensate for its unfortunate shortcomings.
If I were ever to construct a home a tenth as luxurious as Marble House, it would stand as one of my absolute finest personal possessions, and I would be reluctant to ever leave. Marble House, on the other hand, was used less than six weeks a year as a ‘summer cottage’ for the Vanderbilt family. It was not intended to be a functional household, but rather a showpiece that would gleam for all the other millionaires to see. Alva Vanderbilt, the driving force behind the creation of Marble House, wanted not somewhere to live, but instead an American Versailles where she could parade as an effective ‘Queen of the USA’. Indeed, she adorned the house with images and memorabilia of King Louis XIV of France, demonstrating her admiration for and assumed parallels with the French “Sun King”. One thing that marked Louis from the 2rd-generation Vanderbilt dynasty is that Louis did serve and work as King for his fortune. William K. and Alva, however, lived solely off the inheritance they received from William’s grandfather, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Constantly traveling to famous and exotic places, constructing many unnecessary houses, they viewed themselves as the absolute elite in society, but were never satisfied with their excesses. Alva was later praised for her work towards women’s suffrage, but I see her as an absolute phony. The fact that Alva forced her daughter to marry an English Duke with no romantic connection just so Alva could be royalty shows that Alva had no respect for anyone but herself. The suffrage movement was based on honorable sentiments of equality and equal rights for all, but Alva was concerned above all else with her own personal abilities and bringing attention and power to herself. Marble House just doesn’t have the same luster to me when I consider the greed and excess of its megalomaniac owners.
Humility and genuineness are two traits I admire in leaders. To be given power, wealth, or great ability and to remain down-to-earth and unselfish is very impressive, and such people are moderately sparse through the annals of history. The Vanderbilts and other Gilded Age leaders were certainly counterexamples of these traits, instead exhibiting selfish overindulgence and delusions of grandeur. Today, we are quite fortunate to have a generation of moguls who are much more generous and selfless. Granted, they do own nice houses and spend some of their hard-earned money for themselves, but instead of trying to prove themselves through frivolous purchases, they are much more civic-minded and charitable. People such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Paul Allen have donated massive portions of their wealth towards worthy causes, and tech magnates such as Mark Zuckerberg prefer everyday clothes to high-end fashion. Though it is not always as easy to spot genuineness as in these examples, people who are humble and sincere in their actions are often set apart as particularly effective leaders, as concerned with their people as they are with themselves. Even though it would be surreal to own a house such as Marble House, I would find it much more gratifying to be remembered as a genuine leader, in hopes that I may not solely be gilded on the surface, but instead be true to the core.