William Kissam Vanderbilt

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William Kissam Vanderbilt
William KissamVanderbilt.jpg
Born (1849-12-12)December 12, 1849
New Dorp, Staten Island, New York[1]
Died July 22, 1920(1920-07-22) (aged 70)
Paris, France
Occupation Horse breeder
Spouse(s) 1. Alva Erskine Smith (m. 1875–95)
2. Anne Harriman Sands Rutherfurd (m. 1903–20) (ended with his death)
Children Consuelo Vanderbilt
William Kissam Vanderbilt II
Harold Stirling Vanderbilt
Parent(s) William Henry Vanderbilt
Appletons' Vanderbilt Cornelius (capitalist) - William Kissam signature.png
Anne Harriman Sands Rutherfurd, the second wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt circa 1915

William Kissam Vanderbilt I (December 12, 1849 – July 22, 1920[1]) was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. He managed railroads and was a horse breeder.


The second son of William Henry Vanderbilt, from whom he inherited $55 million (equal to about $1.4 billion today), and grandson of "The Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Kissam Vanderbilt was for a time active in the management of the family railroads, though not much after 1903. His sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878–1944) and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (1884–1970), were the last to be active in the railroads, the latter losing a proxy battle for the New York Central Railroad in the 1950s.

In 1879 after taking over P. T. Barnum's Great Roman Hippodrome which was on railroad property by Madison Square Park he renamed the facility Madison Square Garden.[2]

Vanderbilt's first wife was Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933), whom he married on April 20, 1875. She was born in 1853, in Mobile, Alabama, to Murray Forbes Smith, a commission merchant, and Phoebe Ann Desha, daughter of US Representative Robert Desha.[3] They had three children. Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, followed by William Kissam Vanderbilt II on March 2, 1878, and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt on July 6, 1884. Alva later coerced Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on November 6, 1895. Alva divorced Vanderbilt in March 1895, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a large financial settlement reported to be in excess of $10 million (equal to about $280 million today). The grounds for divorce were allegations of Vanderbilt's adultery. Alva remarried to one of their old family friends, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, on January 11, 1896.[3]

In 1903, Vanderbilt married Anne Harriman, daughter of banker Oliver Harriman. She was a widow to sportsman Samuel Stevens Sands and to Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, Jr., son of the astronomer Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. Her second husband died in Switzerland in 1901. She had two sons by her first marriage and two daughters by her second marriage. She had no children by Vanderbilt.

After the death of his brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, in 1899, Vanderbilt was generally regarded as head of the Vanderbilt family.

William K. Vanderbilt House on Fifth Avenue, New York City

Like other Vanderbilts, he built magnificent houses. His homes included Idle Hour (1900) on Long Island and Marble House (1892), designed by Richard Morris Hunt, in Newport, Rhode Island. Hunt also designed Vanderbilt's 660 Fifth Avenue mansion (1883).

Vanderbilt was a co-owner of the yacht Defender, which won the 1895 America's Cup and briefly owned the large steam yacht Consuelo. Vanderbilt was a founder and president of the New Theatre.

He was also a member of the Jekyll Island Club aka The Millionaires Club.


In Centerport, Long Island, you can visit the estate of William Kissam Vanderbilt II. On the grounds lies thousands of animals and objects that were collected from all over the world. The museum is host to the largest taxidermy Whale Shark in the world as well as a mummy purchased in Egypt. Also on the grounds is a Planetarium which was updated in 2012-2013.

Thoroughbred horse racing[edit]

Vanderbilt was one of the founders of The Jockey Club. He was a shareholder and president of the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York and the owner of a successful racing stable.

In 1896, he built the American Horse Exchange at 50th Street (Manhattan) and Broadway. In 1911 he leased it (and eventually sold it to) the Shubert Organization who then transformed it into the Winter Garden Theatre.[4]

After his divorce from Alva, he moved to France where he built a château and established the Haras du Quesnay horse racing stable and breeding farm near Deauville in France's famous horse region of Lower Normandy. Among the horses he owned was the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame filly Maskette, purchased from Castleton Farm in Lexington, Kentucky for broodmare services at his French breeding farm. Vanderbilt's horses won a number of important races in France including:

William Kissam Vanderbilt died in Paris, France on July 22, 1920.[1] His remains were brought home and interred in the Vanderbilt family vault in the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten Island, New York.

In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS William K. Vanderbilt was named in his honor.



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