Grand Ambition – Bonus Excerpt 1

The design and ownership of yachts have always followed the rise and fall of larger economic tides. America’s first large-scale pleasure yacht was a 100-foot square rigger launched in 1816 by George Crowninshield Jr., the son of a Boston-based ship owner and privateer. Pioneering what would become a tradition for American yacht owners all the way up to Doug and Linda Von Allmen, Crowninshield’s vessel—which he named Cleopatra’s Barge—sailed across the Atlantic Ocean shortly after it was completed to undertake an extensive tour of Mediterranean ports.

After a steam-powered ship crossed the Atlantic in 1838, yacht owners were quick to recognize the possibilities, although there was also reluctance. At the Royal Yacht Squadron,[i] England’s most prestigious yacht club, steam propulsion was deemed to be incompatible with the club’s goal of promoting seamanship, and a resolution was distributed to the membership: “No vessel propelled by steam shall be admitted into the club, and any member applying a steam-engine to his yacht shall be disqualified thereby and cease to be a member.”

The edict would not stand for long. One of the early steam advocates was Queen Victoria, the squadron’s only female member. She had become so frustrated during a breeze-challenged voyage to Scotland that the royal sailboat was ultimately towed by a pair of steam-powered paddle wheelers. In 1843 she built her own paddle wheeler, the 225-foot Victoria and Albert. One year later, the squadron permitted members to utilize engines—as long as they were substantial, at least 100 horsepower. Victoria went on to build a 300-foot steam yacht, the Victoria and Albert II. Like the earlier version, it was a paddle wheeler, even though propellers had become the more popular propulsion option.

In America, industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt led the way into the steam-yacht era. Starting with a single ferry that shuttled cargo and passengers to points around New York Harbor, “Commodore” Vanderbilt assembled an empire of steamship lines and railroads that made him America’s wealthiest person. In 1853 he launched the country’s first steam yacht, the 270-foot North Star, which consumed fourteen tons of coal a day to turn a pair of 34-foot-diameter paddle wheels. Like Crowninshield, Vanderbilt undertook a grand tour of Europe, joined by ten of his twelve children. They lounged their way across the Atlantic in sumptuous cabins that had been furnished with Louis XV furniture, velvet cushions, and silk curtains. Meals were served in a marble-walled dining room beneath a ceiling adorned with medallion portraits of George Washington, Ben Franklin, and other famous Americans. During a three-month voyage, North Star paid visits to England as well as ports in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas.

For Vanderbilt, who was then fifty-nine, this was not just a pleasure cruise. He also wanted to present the Old World with an arresting symbol of America’s triumphant economic success. Shortly after North Star arrived in England, London’s Daily News published an editorial that made the connections between the “monster steamer,” its owner’s fortune, and the country that had made both possible: “America was not known four centuries ago; yet she turns out her Vanderbilts, small and large, every year. America . . . is the great arena in which the individual energies of man, uncramped by oppressive social institutions or absurd social traditions, have full play, and arrive at gigantic development.”

But Vanderbilt was ill suited to yachting life. The difficulty of communicating with his office was a particular frustration, especially after he learned that two of his partners established a steamship line that was harmful to his business interests during his absence. Not long after he returned to New York,[ii] Vanderbilt sent them a letter that was also published in several major newspapers: “Gentleman, You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I will ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt.” Over time he did just that. And he gave up his yacht, turning it into a passenger liner that could accommodate hundreds of fare-paying customers.

Vanderbilt’s fortune was ultimately worth more than $100 million—more, in present-day terms, than that of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett—and it enabled several of his descendents to become very enthusiastic yachtsmen. William K. Vanderbilt, one of the Commodore’s grandsons, built a 285-foot steamship, the nation’s largest. After it crashed into a commercial vessel near Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts and sank in 1892, William ordered an even larger replacement. A great-grandson, Harold S. Vanderbilt, won three America’s Cup competitions. Another great-grandson, Cornelius III, also won the Cup, and he bought a steam yacht that he renamed North Star. Although it was not as large as the original, it was judged to be more luxurious.

The Vanderbilts were joined by self-made men who had capitalized on the availability of electricity and engines to create an array of new industries. At a time when taxes and restraints on monopolistic behavior were almost nonexistent, tremendous fortunes were amassed rapidly. Grand houses were erected in and around Manhattan and along the coasts of Rhode Island, Maine, and Florida—and yachts became the favored method for moving among them and to Europe.

They also became something more: the hallmark for a new and very American kind of nobility. And as Vanderbilt had hoped, yachts were seen not as symbols of inequality but of achievement. Newspapers reported on even routine voyages. “Col. Astor’s Steam Yacht Had an Uneventful Voyage from Venice” was the New York Times headline for a 1899 account of the latest movements of a yacht belonging to John Jacob Astor IV, who would die aboard the Titanic . “She passed Gibraltar on May 1, and steamed to Bermuda, making 3,000 miles without stopping, and reaching Bermuda May 15, remaining there two days for coal,” the article reported. “A three-quarter rate of speed was maintained through the entire voyage, which was uneventful.”[iii]

J. P. Morgan, a linchpin for many of the Gilded Age’s fortunes, also became its leading yachtsman. Ever since he first crossed the Atlantic aboard a square rigger as a sickly fifteen-year-old, he was convinced that his health benefited from time on the water. Over a thirty-year-period, he owned three large vessels, all of them having glossy black hulls, narrow clipper ship–like bows, and carrying the name Corsair. He bought the first, a 185-foot steamer, in 1882 to take him between Manhattan and his weekend home up the Hudson River near West Point, New York. With silk upholstering and working fireplaces, it was an elegant ride. After Morgan joined America’s most prestigious association of yacht owners, the New York Yacht Club, he donated the land on which its Manhattan clubhouse was built, and he commissioned the second Corsair, a 238-footer, in 1890. Unfortunately for Morgan, it was requisitioned by the US Navy for use in the Spanish-American War, just after he was elected the club’s commodore. Since this deprived the club of its flagship, Morgan ordered up a third Corsair. It was similar to its predecessors, but, at 304 feet, much larger, and it was designed to carry a substantial number of guests. The linen closets contained 84 linen tablecloths, 177 pillow cases, and 670 towels.

Given the scale of his yachts, it is not surprising that Morgan is credited with what remains the famous line about the cost of yacht ownership, words that are undiminished by the probability that they are apocryphal. According to legend, a wealthy oilman partner of John D. Rockefeller’s, Henry Clay Pierce, asked, “How much does it cost to run a yacht?” Morgan was said to have declared, “You have no right to own a yacht if you ask that question.”

The purpose of the Corsairs went beyond pleasure. In 1885 Morgan invited the presidents of two major railroads, the New York Central Railroad Company and the Pennsylvania Railroad, to come aboard on a steamy July morning to discuss disputes that endangered the profits of the New York company, in which he had a substantial holding. Once the yacht left its dock, Morgan announced that no one would disembark until an agreement on putting an end to their “ruinous” competition was reached.

A few years later, an American president, Grover Cleveland, utilized the distance that could be put between a yacht and the rest of the world for a different purpose. At a time when the country’s economy was in crisis, his doctors had found a cancerous growth on his jaw. Not wanting worries about his health to contribute to a financial panic, the president boarded a friend’s 138-foot steamer in Manhattan for what was said to be a vacation. In fact, the yacht had been equipped with an operating room, and surgery was conducted as it made its way eastward through Long Island Sound. When the president disembarked five days later, he had recuperated to the point that he could get away with complaining about what he called a terrible toothache. By the time the cruise’s actual nature was revealed, his recovery was complete.

The era’s most colorful big-boat owner was newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. Having inherited the profit-gushing New York Herald from his father, in 1882 he took delivery of Namouna, a 227-foot steamer that had a fifty-person crew and incorporated a design innovation that would become standard: on sailing yachts, the master stateroom had always been located near the stern, the most stable part of the boat. But given the soot produced by coal-fired boilers, Bennett decided to place his stateroom close to the bow. Like most of the princes of the Gilded Age, he never let costs get in the way of his recreation. At a time when most American families lived on less than $500 a year, Namouna’s annual operating costs amounted to $150,000. His next yacht, a 314-footer that was completed in 1900, cost $600,000 to build and carried a hundred-person crew as well as an Alderney cow to provide passengers with fresh milk. Bennett’s lifestyle, which also involved large homes and private railroad cars, eventually overwhelmed his resources. “Yachting had been a means of self-gratification as epic in scale as the energies of the land that produced him,” wrote yachting historian John Rousmaniere. “When he died in 1918, at the age of 77, he was nearly broke, having squandered an estimated $40 million.”[iv]

Following World War I, yacht building resumed on the back of a postwar economic boom. Indeed, some of the very largest yachts in all of history were assembled during the years between the Great War and the Great Depression: the Roaring Twenties.

Another leap in technology—the diesel engine—had helped to spur things. Diesels had two important advantages: they emitted less soot and smoke than coal-burning boilers, and because they could generate more power from a given volume of fuel, they required less space. The imposition of Prohibition in 1920 gave yachts additional purpose. Liquor could be consumed legally three miles from the American coastline, and the privacy of a yacht facilitated imbibing even closer to shore.

By then, some owners had found uses for their yachts that went beyond seasonal migrations up and down the East Coast and to Europe. William K. Vanderbilt Jr., one of the Commodore’s great-grandsons, took his 212-foot Ara and 264-foot Alva on seven expeditions, two of them global circumnavigations that were similar to the kinds of adventures Jim and Nancy Baldwin would undertake almost a century later. Alva carried a seaplane as well as commercial fishing nets that were used both to catch exotic types of fish and to protect swimming passengers from sharks. During visits to the Galápagos Islands, the China Sea, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Vanderbilt and his crew collected hundreds of marine animals, including dozens of previously unknown species.

The most voracious yacht owner of the time was a woman. Emily Roebling Cadwalader, the granddaughter of the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, commissioned three yachts in quick succession, each of them more than 100 feet larger than its predecessor. The first, a 185-footer, was completed in 1926; the second, a 294-footer, was launched two years later. The third, an astonishing 408 feet in length, cost $4 million to build and was the largest privately owned yacht the world had ever seen. It was so big that it could not enter many harbors and could not be accommodated by many docks. Cadwalader also had another, more pressing problem: when the yacht was launched in 1931, the American economy was spiraling downward into the Great Depression. When she put it up for sale a few years later, there were no buyers until the Turkish government bought it for about a fourth of what it had cost to build.

The Depression did not put an end to every yachting life. E. F. Hutton, the brokerage founder, and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heir to the cereal fortune, replaced their 203-foot schooner with a 316-foot diesel-powered yacht that was completed in 1931. Mrs. Hutton, the sole owner after the couple divorced, continued to use the yacht and employ its seventy-two-person crew. She said it was her contribution to maintaining economic activity.

But as the crisis deepened, most of the other giants were retired. Costs were not the only factor. With the tough times, the distribution of the nation’s wealth was becoming a political issue even as much of it was vanishing. Conspicuous consumption—a term that had been coined in 1899 by economist Thorstein Veblen—had suddenly gone out of fashion.


[i]. At the Royal Yacht Squadron: John Rousmaniere, The Luxury Yachts (New York: Time-Life Books, 1981), 62.


[ii]. Shortly after North Star arrived in England and Not long after he returned to New York: Edward J. Renehan Jr., Commodore: the Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 187–88 and 200.


[iii]. “Col. Astor’s Steam Yacht”: New York Times, May 21, 1899.


[iv] .“Yachting had been a means”: John Roumaniere, The Luxury Yachts (New York: Time-Life

Books, 1981), 99.