Presenter of the National Book Awards

2009 National Book Award Winner,
Nonfiction

T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Alfred A. Knopf

T.J. Stiles receiving the 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction. 

Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

CITATION

With deep and imaginative research and graceful writing, T. J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon tells the extraordinary story of a brutally competitive man who was hard to love but irresistibly interesting as a truly pivotal historical figure. With few letters and no diaries, and with layers of legend to carve through, Stiles captures Cornelius Vanderbilt as a person and as a force who shaped the transportation revolution, all but invented unbridled American capitalism, and left his mark not only all over New York City but, for better or worse, all over our economic landscape.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. In The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore’s personal life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

T. J. Stiles is the author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, winner of the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, Smithsonian, and Salon.com, among other publications, and held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has taught nonfiction creative writing at Columbia University. He served as historical advisor and on-screen expert for "Jesse James" and "Grand Central," two films in the PBS documentary series American Experience. A native of Benton County, Minnesota, Stiles studied history at Carleton College and Columbia University, and resided in New York City for twenty years. He now lives in the Presidio of San Francisco with his wife and son.

SUGGESTED LINKS

T.J. Stiles' Official Website
http://www.tjstiles.com/

The VanderBlog - T. J. Stiles' Blog
http://www.tjstiles.net/blog.htm

T.J. Stiles' Blog about biography and writing
http://vanderbilog.blogspot.com/

EXCERPT

The Islander

They came to learn his secrets. Well before the appointed hour of two o’clock in the afternoon on November 12, 1877, hundreds of spectators pushed into a courtroom in lower Manhattan. They included friends and relatives of the contestants, of course, as well as leading lawyers who wished to observe the forensic skills of the famous attorneys who would try the case. But most of the teeming mass of men and women—many fashionably dressed, crowding in until they were packed against the back wall—wanted to hear the details of the life of the richest man the United States had ever seen. The trial over the will of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous, notorious Commodore, was about to begin.

Shortly before the hour, the crowd parted to allow in William H. Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s eldest son, and his lawyers, led by Henry L. Clinton. William, "glancing carelessly and indifferently around the room, removed his overcoat and comfortably settled himself in his chair," the New York Times reported; meanwhile his lawyers shook hands with the opposing team, led by Scott Lord, who represented William’s sister Mary Vanderbilt La Bau. At exactly two o’clock, the judge—called the "Surrogate" in this Surrogate Court—strode briskly in from his chambers through a side door, stepped up to the dais, and took his seat. "Are you ready, gentlemen?" he asked. Lord and Clinton each declared that they were, and the Surrogate ordered, "Proceed, gentlemen."

Everyone who listened as Lord stood to make his opening argument knew just how great the stakes were. "the house of vanderbilt," the Times headlined its story the next morning. "a railroad prince’s fortune. the heirs contesting the will. . . . a battle over $100,000,000." The only item in all that screaming type that would have surprised readers was the Times’s demotion of Vanderbilt to "prince," since the press usually dubbed him the railroad king. His fortune towered over the American economy to a degree difficult to imagine, even at the time. If he had been able to sell all his assets at full market value at the moment of his death, in January of that year, he would have taken one out of every twenty dollars in circulation, including cash and demand deposits.

Most of those in that courtroom had lived their entire lives in Vanderbilt’s shadow. By the time he had turned fifty, he had dominated railroad and steamboat transportation between New York and New England (thus earning the nickname "Commodore"). In the 1850s, he had launched a transatlantic steamship line and pioneered a transit route to California across Nicaragua. In the 1860s, he had systematically seized control of the railroads that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world, building the mighty New York Central Railroad system between New York and Chicago. Probably every person in that chamber had passed through Grand Central, the depot on Forty-second Street that Vanderbilt had constructed; had seen the enormous St. John’s Park freight terminal that he had built, featuring a huge bronze statue of himself; had crossed the bridges over the tracks that he had sunk along Fourth Avenue (a step that would allow it to later blossom into Park Avenue); or had taken one of the ferries, steamboats, or steamships that he had controlled over the course of his lifetime. He had stamped the city with his mark—a mark that would last well into the twenty-first century—and so had stamped the country. Virtually every American had paid tribute to his treasury.

More fascinating than the fortune was the man behind it.

Excerpted from The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles Copyright © 2009 by T.J. Stiles. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A longer excerpt can be found here: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/