Need to Read: Dead End Gene Pool
Wendy Burden unloads on her crazy-rich, totally eccentric family in a riveting new memoir.
By Kiri Blakeley
Wendy Burden, great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt once the richest man in America grew up straddling two worlds: that of her überwealthy paternal grandparents and that of her mother, a reluctant parent more interested in jet-setting than raising Wendy and her brothers. (Burden's father committed suicide when she was 6.) What started off as a cookbook morphed into a dishy, tragicomic memoir.
MC: You're brutally honest in your depiction of your eccentric family from your grandmother's gastrointestinal issues to rampant family alcoholism. How did they react to it?
WB: When I was writing, I didn't think about who would read it. But then my youngest brother got ahold of an early copy and pony-expressed it to everyone. He isn't speaking to me now, though we do text. He thinks much of it is inaccurate. My other brother was full of grace about it he read what he wanted, and not the rest. Part of me thinks, You should be glad I left out some of the worst stuff!
MC: In the book you talk about your mother's inappropriate outfits, ne'er-do-well boyfriends, and excessive drinking and dieting. She's dead now, but how would she have reacted?
WB: I think about this all the time. She was self-absorbed, so she would have been thrilled with the attention, but she would have been disapproving. I don't think she would have disputed any of it.
MC: What do you admire about her?
WB: She was really brave and incredibly smart. She received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford her area of study was numismatics, the study of currency. She was very creative and had a love of animals. Also, I admired her practicality. Our dog had its throat practically ripped out by another dog, and she sewed it up with thread.
MC: Rude question: How rich are you?
WB: I'm not completely broke yet. [laughs] It's true I burned through my trust fund. I love spending money. I love to shop I love clothes, books, staying in nice hotels. I'd spend my last cent to fly first class. And I had a couple of very expensive marriages. I definitely have to work now, but that's incredibly liberating and inspiring. I've been paying the college tuition for two daughters, but I'm leading a good life.
MC: People don't generally think of a Vanderbilt as being broke.
WB: I don't consider myself a Vanderbilt. The money may have come from that side, but, ultimately, so did the genes that helped to screw us up.