When disaster strikes, men and women are capable of moments of pure heroism. Sadly, all too often, such acts are largely forgotten to history. Unless, that is, you are no ordinary person. If, say, you are one of the world’s richest men – and a globe-trotting playboy to boot – then your act of sacrifice certainly will be noted, and celebrated, for posterity. This is certainly true for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who is remembered not just for his wealth but for the fact he gave his life so others may live.
To say the Vanderbilt was born into privilege is something of an understatement. His great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, left school at the age of 11 and then went on to make a fortune in shipping and railroads. Cornelius left the equivalent of $150 billion in today’s money to his son, who then doubled the family fortune. So, when Alfred inherited the family fortune, he had big shoes to fill. And fill them he did. For, while he may well have scandalized polite society with his partying and womanizing ways, he was also an astute investor, putting his money in real estate and, to a much lesser extent, horses.
It was for the latter that Vanderbilt set off from New York aboard the Lusitania in May 1915. He was planning on attending a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association in Britain. Even though the waters of the Atlantic were teeming with German U-boats, most passengers on the huge vessel assumed that, since they were on a non-military ship, the would be safe. How wrong they were. On the morning of 7 May, the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of County Cork, Ireland. It soon became clear that it was going down.
Vanderbilt was, as a First Class passenger, given a lifejacket. He gave it away. Then, as the ship started to sink, he concerned himself with making sure as many children as possible got into the lifeboats. Given his status – and given what had happened on the Titanic – he could have easily got a spot on a lifeboat himself and saved his own skin. However, he was still trying to save others when the boat went under the waves. Vanderbilt’s body was never found. A reporter in the New York Times noted that he displayed “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”.