Cornelius Vanderbilt II (November 27, 1843 – September 12, 1899) was an American socialite, heir, businessman, and a member of the prominent United States Vanderbilt family.
He was the favorite grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who left him $5 million, and the eldest son of William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt (who left him close to $70 million) and Maria Louisa Kissam. In his turn he succeeded them as head of the New York Central and related railroad lines in 1885.
Vanderbilt established a reputation for a strong work ethic while clerking at the Shoe and Leather Bank in New York City. This endeared him to his grandfather, The Commodore, who was a strong believer in personal industry.
In 1867 he married Alice Claypoole Gwynne (1845–1934), daughter of Abraham Evan Gwynne and Rachel Moore Flagg. The two met at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church where both taught Sunday School.
Their eldest child, a daughter named Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, was born in 1869 but died of a childhood illness in 1874 at the age of five. Their second child and eldest son William Henry “Bill” Vanderbilt II (1870–1892) died of typhoid fever while attending Yale University. He disinherited his second son Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III (1873–1942) for marrying Grace Graham Wilson without his approval.
Third son Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1877–1915) went down with the RMS Lusitania. Fourth and youngest son was Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880–1925), the father of Cathleen Vanderbilt (from his first marriage to society debutante Cathleen Neilson) and socialite & fashion designer Gloria Laura Vanderbilt (from his second marriage to Gloria Morgan).
Reginald is the maternal grandfather of CNN television news anchor Anderson Hays Cooper and his late brother, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper through daughter Gloria. Cornelius and Alice’s two surviving daughters were Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942) and Countess Gladys Moore Vanderbilt (1886–1965).
Vanderbilt was active in numerous organizations including the YMCA, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Trinity Church, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Sunday Breakfast Association, and the Newport Country Club.
The Fifth Avenue mansions he, his brothers, and his sons lived in have been demolished, but the Newport, Rhode Island vacation home he built, The Breakers, still stands as a memory of his lifestyle.
His youngest brother, George Washington Vanderbilt II, commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design and build Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It was built between 1889 and 1895, and is still owned by Vanderbilt’s descendants.
A stroke in 1896 compelled him to reduce his active business involvement. On his death in 1899, family leadership passed to his first brother, William Kissam Vanderbilt. His philanthropy had been such that he did not increase the wealth that had been left to him.