It’s not easy being rich. But despite a family tendency to madness, alcoholism and suicide, Wendy Burden, a fourth generation Vanderbilt, may have grown up to be the funniest memoirist since David Sedaris. “It’s a testament to his libido, if not his character,” she begins Dead End Gene Pool, “that Cornelius Vanderbilt died of syphilis instead of apoplexy.”
The Vanderbilt fortune came down through her father’s side of the family, the Burden side (yes, “Burden,” really). Wendy was just six when her dad died — suicide, she’d learn later, snooping through boxes. Her mother’s response was to become a swinging sixties hottie, jetting to islands, getting increasingly tan, wearing frosted pink lipstick and occasionally bringing baby alligators home for Burden and her brother.
When the poor critters inevitably died, Burden made them a graveyard. Swayed by the glamorous morbidity of Wednesday Addams, she became a spooky girl, not in the fashion-goth way but in the watching-animals-rot way. Seriously. Later she found work as a taxidermist.
But that is not in this book, which focuses on the time she spent with her father’s side of the family, which had a significant chunk of the Vanderbilt money. Her grandfather, William Burden Jr., was chair of the board of the Museum of Modern Art; he and his wife were patrician and served by a large staff. They were also, incongruously, huge fans of modernism. Their New York apartment held Brancusis and Picassos, and was decorated top-to-bottom with the gleaming mid-century furniture Dwell readers covet.
Burden avoided that design awe; what she liked about modernism was that it baffled the seagulls in Maine, which slammed into the broad windows of her grandfather’s summer house. She collected their corpses, stashing them out of range of the cook, the maids and the captain, who was kept on hand for spontaneous boating adventures (girls, steer clear of any such captains you might meet).
The book bumps over a wicked stepfather, a couple of deeply damaged uncles, substance abuse and hospitalizations, very fancy parties, a resort island, and the adventures of children left largely to themselves. Burden never works too hard to make herself out as a heroine — she had an obnoxious/belligerent streak, no sense of boundaries and what must have been a genuinely unpleasant fondness for dead things. Yet who better to pull back the curtain of extreme privilege than someone who’s willing to say a little too much? About a childhood acquaintance: “She was so ugly that two separate dogs had bitten her in the face on two separate occasions. And dogs know.”
Where she holds back is in her resentments toward her mother, which bleed through but feel reigned in. What’s clear to the reader — and probably to her shrink — is that it must have been the chutzpah in her mother’s genes that gave Wendy Burden the strength to make her strange, determined path away from the burdens of the Vanderbilts.