Need to Read: Dead End Gene Pool

Wendy Burden unloads on her crazy-rich, totally eccentric family in a riveting new memoir.

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.