Harold Stirling Vanderbilt
– July 4
) was a member of the prominent United States Vanderbilt family
who was a railroad executive, a champion yachtsman
and a champion bridge
Born in Oakdale
, New York
, the third child and second son of William Kissam Vanderbilt
and Alva Erskine Smith
, to family and friends he was known by the nickname "Mike." He was a brother to William Kissam Vanderbilt II
and Consuelo Vanderbilt
. Harold was the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt
, the shipping and railroad tycoon who also helped found Vanderbilt University
. Born to great wealth, he was raised in Vanderbilt mansions
, traveled to Europe frequently, and sailed around the world on yachts owned by his father.
Educated by tutors and at private schools
, Harold Vanderbilt attended Harvard Law School
, graduating in 1910. He then joined the New York Central Railroad Company
, the centerpiece of his family's vast railway empire of which his father was president. On his father's passing in 1920, thirty-six-year-old Harold Vanderbilt inherited a multi-million dollar fortune that included the Idle Hour
country estate at Oakdale
, New York
, on Long Island
, plus equity in the following railway companies:
Following the death of his brother William in 1944, he remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family in the New York Central Railroad, serving as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954.
Sailing Career and the America's Cup
As a boy, Harold Vanderbilt spent part of his summers at the Vanderbilt mansions
, the Idle Hour
estate in Long Island, New York on the banks of the Connetquot River
, Marble House
, Rhode Island
, and later at Belcourt
(the Newport mansion of his stepfather, Oliver Belmont
). As an adult, he pursued his interest in yachting, winning six "King's Cups" and five Astor Cups
between 1922 and 1938. In 1925, he built his own luxurious vacation home at Palm Beach
that he called "El Solano."
In 1930, Harold achieved the pinnacle of Yacht racing success by defending the America's Cup in the J-class yacht Enterprise. His victory put him on the cover of the September 15, 1930, issue of Time magazine. In 1934 Harold faced a dangerous challenger in Endeavour, as the British boat won the first two races. However, Vanderbilt came back in his yacht Rainbow to win three races in a row and defend the Cup. In 1937 Harold defended the Cup a third time in Ranger, the last of the J-class yachts to defend the Cup. Vanderbilt's wife, Gertrude "Gertie" Lewis Conway, became the first female to compete as a full-fledged team member in an America's Cup yacht race. They were posthumously elected to the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993. Later in life Vanderbilt would become Commodore of the New York Yacht Club and would be intricately involved in many successful America's Cup defenses.
Harold Vanderbilt had a keen interest in the success of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, founded in 1873 through the financial sponsorship of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt
. A longtime member of the university's Board of Trust, he served as its president between 1955 and 1968. He helped guide the institution through a time in history when racial integration of the student body was a divisive and explosive issue. In 1962 Vanderbilt attended one of the first meetings of the Vanderbilt Sailing Club
and provided funding for the club to purchase its first fleet of dinghies, Penguins
. The university annually offers several scholarships named in his honor, and on the grounds in front of Buttrick Hall, a statue was erected in his honor.
Vanderbilt was also a card game enthusiast who, in 1925, helped develop the scoring system by which the game of contract bridge
supplanted auction bridge in popularity. Three years later, he heavily endowed the Vanderbilt Trophy
which goes to the winners of the national team-of-four championship. In 1932, and again in 1940, he was part of a team that won his own trophy. He also penned several books on the subject of bridge, most notably "The Vanderbilt Club."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Vanderbilt also invented the first forcing club bidding system which has perennially dominated world championship play ever since. Nottingham Club, Neapolitan Club, Blue Club, Precision Club, and other strong forcing club systems are an outgrowth of the Vanderbilt Club. Polish Club, Unassuming Club and other weak club systems are an outgrowth from the Vienna System (Stern Austrian System, 1938).
In 1969, the World Bridge Federation (WBF) made Vanderbilt its first honorary member. When the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1964, Vanderbilt was one of the first three persons elected. His trophy remains one of the most prized in the game.
- WBF Honorary Member 1969
- ACBL Hall of Fame 1964
- ACBL Honorary Member of the Year 1941
- Wetzlar Trophy 1940
In addition to sailing, Vanderbilt was a licensed pilot, acquiring a Sikorsky S-43
"Flying Boat" in 1938.
In 1963, Harold Vanderbilt assisted the Preservation Society of Newport County in acquiring the Marble House summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island, sold by his mother more than thirty years earlier. Successful in their bid, the property was converted into a museum.
Harold Stirling Vanderbilt died in 1970. He and his wife are interred at Saint Mary's Cemetery in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, their graves marked with only a simple flat stone.
A sailing drink, Stirling Punch, was named in Vanderbilt's honor.
Harold Vanderbilt's private railroad car, New York Central 3, was recently renovated and operates luxury charter trips at the rear of regularly scheduled Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada trains. It can be viewed at www.nyc-3.com
- Sailing World Hall of Fame, Sailing World Magazine. April 24, 2002. Sailing World Magazine
- Time Magazine. September 15, 1930.