William Kissam Vanderbilt I (December 12, 1849 – July 22, 1920) was an American heir, businessman, philanthropist and horsebreeder. Born into the Vanderbilt family, he managed his family railroad investments.
William Kissam Vanderbilt I was born on December 12, 1849. His father was William Henry Vanderbilt. His paternal grandfather was Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt inherited $55 million (equal to about $1.4 billion today). from his father. He managed his family railroad investments. In 1879, after taking over P. T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome which was on railroad property by Madison Square Park, he renamed the facility Madison Square Garden.
Vanderbilt was one of the founders of The Jockey Club. He was a shareholder and president of the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York and the owner of a successful racing stable. In 1896, he built the American Horse Exchange at 50th Street (Manhattan) and Broadway. In 1911 he leased it (and eventually sold it to) the Shubert Organization who then transformed it into the Winter Garden Theatre.
After his divorce from Alva, he moved to France where he built a château and established the Haras du Quesnay horse racing stable and breeding farm near Deauville in France’s famous horse region of Lower Normandy. Among the horses he owned was the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame filly Maskette, purchased from Castleton Farm in Lexington, Kentucky for broodmare services at his French breeding farm. Vanderbilt’s horses won a number of important races in France including:
Critérium de Maisons-Laffitte: Prestige (1905), Northeast (1907), Montrose II (1911)
Critérium de Saint-Cloud: Illinois II (1901), Marigold (1902)
Grand Critérium: Prestige (1905), Montrose II (1911)
Grand Prix de Deauville: Turenne (1904), Maintenon (1906)
Grand Prix de Paris: Northeast (1908), Brumelli (1917)
Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud: Maintenon (1906), Sea Sick (1908), Oversight (1910)
Poule d’Essai des Poulains: McKinley (1919)
Prix de Guiche: Negofol (1909), McKinley (1919)
Prix de la Forêt: Prestige (1905), Montrose II (1911, dead-heat), Pétulance (1911, dead-heat)
Prix du Jockey Club: Maintenon (1906), Sea Sick (1908), Negofol (1909), Tchad (1919)
Prix Eugène Adam: Alpha (1903), Maintenon (1906)
Prix Boiard: Prestige (1906), Maintenon (1907) et Tchad (1920)
Prix Jean Prat: Prestige (1906)
Prix Kergorlay: Turenne (1904), Maintenon (1906), Sea Sick (1909, 1910)
Prix Lagrange: Prestige (1906)
Prix Morny: Prestige (1905), Messidor III (1909) et Manfred (1910)
Prix Robert Papin: Prestige (1905), Montrose II (1911), Gloster (1912)
Prix La Rochette: Schuyler (1907), Manfred (1910), Brume (1910), Pétulance (1911)
Prix Royal-Oak: Maintenon (1906), Reinhart (1910)
Vanderbilt’s first wife was Alva Erskine Smith (1853–1933), whom he married on April 20, 1875. She was born in 1853, in Mobile, Alabama, to Murray Forbes Smith, a commission merchant, and Phoebe Ann Desha, daughter of US Representative Robert Desha.
They had three children. Consuelo Vanderbilt was born on March 2, 1877, followed by William Kissam Vanderbilt II on March 2, 1878, and Harold Stirling Vanderbilt on July 6, 1884. Alva later coerced Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on November 6, 1895.
Alva divorced Vanderbilt in March 1895, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a large financial settlement reported to be in excess of $10 million (equal to about $280 million today). The grounds for divorce were allegations of Vanderbilt’s adultery. Alva remarried to one of their old family friends, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, on January 11, 1896.
In 1903, Vanderbilt married Anne Harriman, daughter of banker Oliver Harriman. She was a widow to sportsman Samuel Stevens Sands and to Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, Jr., son of the astronomer Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. Her second husband died in Switzerland in 1901. She had two sons by her first marriage and two daughters by her second marriage. She had no children by Vanderbilt.
Like other Vanderbilts, he built magnificent houses. His residences included Idle Hour (1900) on Long Island and Marble House (1892), designed by Richard Morris Hunt, in Newport, Rhode Island. Hunt also designed Vanderbilt’s 660 Fifth Avenue mansion (1883).
Vanderbilt was a co-owner of the yacht Defender, which won the 1895 America’s Cup and briefly owned the large steam yacht Consuelo. Vanderbilt was a founder and president of the New Theatre. He was also a member of the Jekyll Island Club aka The Millionaires Club.
Vanderbilt made significant charitable contributions to Vanderbilt University, a private university in Nashville, Tennessee named for his grandfather.
Vanderbilt died in Paris, France on July 22, 1920. His remains were brought home and interred in the Vanderbilt family vault in the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten Island, New York.
Vanderbilt’s portrait, painted by F. W. Wright from an original painting by Richard Hall between 1911 and 1921, was donated to Vanderbilt University in 1921; it is hung in Kirkland Hall.
In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS William K. Vanderbilt was named in his honor.