Dead End Gene Pool
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"In the future, I’d be able to resolve all kinds of things by invoking the proverbial "suffering is redemptive" theory. Like if my mother hadn’t married that dictatorial sphincter, I wouldn’t have acquired a sense of self so early in life. Or learned to drive a stick at twelve. And if my father hadn’t killed himself, I wouldn’t have inherited a few million at twenty-one. But that philosophy wasn’t working for me then, and I was as tortured as St. Augustine" (p. 151).
For the average kid, a father’s suicide is pretty high on the list of things that can screw up your childhood. But for Wendy Burden, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was just one of a mind-boggling series of tragedies and dysfunctions that characterized life along her branch of the fabulously wealthy—and fabulously doomed—Vanderbilt dynasty.
By the time Wendy was seven, she and her brothers, Will and Edward, were pint-sized frequent fliers, shuttled off to visit their paternal grandparents while their jet-setting mother pursued the perfect tan and searched for a new male companion. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden II were more than happy to host their only grandsons at their palatial Manhattan apartment, winter getaway in Florida, and avant-garde summerhouse in Maine—but it was clear that a Burden granddaughter was a second-class citizen.
So, despite her mother’s characteristically blunt advice that, "there are lots of little girls who’d give up growing tits for a chance to hang out on Fifth Avenue and be waited on by servants" (p. 12), Wendy just wanted to stay at home with her beloved, chain-smoking Scottish governess, Henrietta. Her protests ignored, Wendy consoled herself by playing tricks on the servants, turning her Easy-Bake Oven into a crematorium, and otherwise channeling her "soul sister," Wednesday Addams (p. 34).
Yet, it was more than her grandfather’s blatant misogyny that disturbed Wendy. Even a child could see that all was not well in the opulent Burden household. Her father, William A. M. Burden III, had been his parents’ shining hope, and his death paved the way for what became their round-the-clock cocktail hour. The family fortune was still significant, but diminishing, and none of the three remaining sons were interested in bolstering it. Drinks in hand, the Burdens tried to groom Wendy’s brothers into worthy heirs.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s mother was charting her own course toward oblivion.
After being cut out of the Burden will, she teetered in and out of marriage to an arms dealer while subsisting on a diet of Bacardi and raw hamburger dipped in Lipton’s Onion Soup mix. During their occasional family vacations, she’d criticize Wendy’s figure while chiseling souvenir chunks off of famous landmarks like Stonehenge and Plymouth Rock.
Dead End Gene Pool is a darkly hilarious, compulsively readable memoir filled with jaw-dropping details from the ultimate insider. Equipped with unwavering honesty and an acerbic sense of humor reminiscent of David Sedaris, Wendy turns the poor-little-rich-girl trope on its head in this riveting, tragic-comic account of growing up amid the not-so-glittering ruins of one of America’s richest and most prominent families.
- Wendy exhibits a dark sense of humor. How do you think this affected her perception of the events of her childhood?
- What do you think saved Wendy from the pitfalls that plagued her brothers and uncles?
- Were either Wendy’s grandparents or her own mother adequate child custodians? Do you think the courts would have questioned their custody if the family hadn’t had so much money?
- How could Wendy and Will’s mother and grandparents better handled explaining the suicide of their father to them?
- Wendy writes, "rich people behaving badly are far more interesting than the not so rich behaving badly" (p. 5). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
- If the Horatio-Algeresque rise of Cornelius Vanderbilt embodies the fulfillment of the American dream, why is it so pleasurable to read about his heirs’ descent into decadence and failure?
- There are a lot of stories about lottery winners and inheritors of great wealth either burning through their money, or winding up really unhappy. Why do you think unearned money is so often a curse?
- How, if at all, does the wealth of Wendy’s grandparents affect your reading of their final years?
- If you could ask Wendy one question left unanswered by her memoir, what would it be?
- Dead End Gene Pool is both touching and funny. Would Wendy’s narrative have been as compassionate if she’d written it in her 20’s or 30’s?
- Why does Wendy choose to end the book with the information she discovered about Charles Thomas, her mother’s former lover?
- F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The rich are different from you and I." And Ernest Hemingway’s famously replied, "Yes, they have more money." Whose statement do you find yourself in agreement with after reading Dead End Gene Pool?