Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Missed-Givings

In 1892, the New York Tribune published a list of 100 millionaires worth more than $10 million. Members of the Vanderbilt family topped that list. In that same year, William Henry Vanderbilt II died of typhoid when studying at Yale. Aged twenty-two, William Henry II was the great-grandson of family patriarch. He was, according to family biographer, Arthur T Vanderbilt II, the “golden boy” and had “all the brains of the family.”[1] By contrast, his younger brother, Alfred Gwyne Vanderbilt, inherited his father’s and great-grandfather’s work ethic.

Alfred Gwyne Vanderbilt became the chairman of New York Central, the president of seven family companies and the director of forty-two more. He also had numerous charity commitments. At the age of thirty-seven, and at the prime of his business career, he died as a casualty of war on board the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The premature death of Alfred, a fourth-generation Vanderbilt, marks the sun setting on a family dynasty. Alfred’s two remaining brothers followed pursuits outside of the family business.

Immense wealth doesn’t provide immunity against personal tragedy.  Edsel Ford (1893-1943) predeceased his father, Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company. It was the intervention of the founder’s wife, Clara, who saw to it that Henry Ford II replace his father, Edsel, who had been company president since the age of twenty-six. Under Henry Ford II’s watch that the Ford Motor Company became a publicly traded corporation.

The Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975), whom like Ford was once the world’s richest person, lost his son Alexander to an aviation accident. Onassis is also famously known for having married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the slain US President John F Kennedy. It is said that Onassis’ purchase of Greece’s Olympic Airlines was to find a role for his son for an intended family dynasty that ended with Alexander’s death. Onassis Sr bequeathed the bulk of his wealth to charitable trust in his son’s name.

Another of the world’s richest men, J Paul Getty (1892-1976), whose parents played an often-unapplauded role in grounding their son’s wealth, had little regard for the financial acumen of his own children. He chose to bequeath the bulk of his estate to a charitable foundation. It would take the prizing open of family trust set up by J Paul Getty’s mother for three of his surviving children and the children of a deceased son to benefit. The children quickly sold off the trust’s forty percent share in Getty Oil and remain one of America’s richest families.

Howard Hughes (1905-1976) inherited a business that would set him up to become the wealthiest man alive for a time.  Hughes died intestate and without an heir. The distribution of his estate was contested, with several people and the Mormon Church unsuccessfully claiming to be heirs. Hughes, who once owned TWA Airlines, like Getty and J P Morgan before him, was known for a healthy extra-marital appetite for female companionship. It is not surprising, therefore, that heirs would mysteriously arise.

Just as second-generation heirs sometimes fail to emerge, it follows that the same will be true of third and later generations. Walt Disney (1901-1966) is credited with creating the “happiest place on earth”, Disneyland. After Walt’s death, his brother, Roy O guided Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions. Thereafter, and with no male heir apparent, Walt’s son in-law took over the running of the businesses up until Roy O’s son ousted his cousin in-law. Roy E Disney, Walt’s nephew, was the last Disney to work in the Disney businesses.

There is also a growing history of second and subsequent generation heirs being intentionally excluded from inheriting the business and/or wealth. These include the Johnson & Johnson “band-aid” family heirs; the grand-children of Conrad Hilton whose father, Barron, successfully challenged the Hotel founder’s will; Bill Gates who has sold-down his Microsoft shares to focus on philanthropy; and investment icon Warren Buffett who will bequeath the bulk of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


[1] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (New York: Morrow, 2013), 202.