It is 1876 and the world's richest man lies dying in his New York townhouse. Outside there's an almost carnival-like atmosphere of reporters clamoring to report the death of the man who so captured the public's imagination. He isn’t happy with the attention “Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”
But to everyone's surprise the cantankerous 84-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt unexpectedly allows one of the journalists inside. Obsessed by the legacy he'll soon be leaving to the world, Vanderbilt wants one more chance to correct the lies, one more chance to tell his life story as it should be told.
Entering the sickroom, the reporter, Michael Burch, discovers that, ill as he is, Vanderbilt still projects authority. His coughs are raucously loud. His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it.
Burch expects a recitation of Vanderbilt's triumphs. He gets that. As a journalist Burch is very aware of just how hot he has been as a newspaper commodity. Perhaps it has been the money, but there were other wealthy individuals that didn’t have that effect. People couldn’t get enough of him: his champion horse Mountain Boy, which he still raced in his 60′s, what he ate for breakfast, what he thought about shoe polish. Mark Twain wrote a condescending article about people's adulation of him. But Twain got it wrong Whatever his shortcomings, in today’s terms Commodore Vanderbilt was a super hero? Who can resist that? Superheroes address what we are lacking, what we need, provide us with triumph, justice, extraordinary power–at least while the movie plays.
The Commodore would quickly interrupt if he were around. “I ain’t no hero.” And most certainly he wasn’t, but if one goes to Grand Central Station on Vanderbilt Avenue in New York, and gets into the spirit of the place, Vanderbilt’s final passionate project with the scale of a cathedral, his magnificent castle built in his home town, dedicated to his true love, business and enterprise, one might not see a superhero, but certainly this man had an awfully long and good run. He was like a force of nature. He managed to keep his story going and going.
There was a reason for people’s fascination with him. One of their own showed ‘em it can get done. He wouldn’t take nothin’ from no one. The American dream may be a cliché, but to them that lived it, to the millions who came on a boat with little but the clothes they could carry, Vanderbilt’s story is what brought them here. He was their hero in the land of opportunity, a superhero (with the blemishes of a real person.)
About Simon Sobo
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Published February 11, 2013
History, Literature & Fiction.