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Harold Stirling Vanderbilt

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt at the helm of his J-class yacht Enterprise (TIME, September 15, 1930)
Born (1884-07-06)July 6, 1884
Oakdale, New York
Died July 4, 1970(1970-07-04) (aged 85)
Newport, Rhode Island, USA
Occupation Railroad executive, yachtsman, bridge player

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (July 6, 1884 – July 4, 1970) was an American railroad executive, a champion yachtsman, an innovator and champion player of contract bridge, and a member of the Vanderbilt family.


  • Background 1
  • Professional life 2
    • First World War 2.1
    • Post war 2.2
  • Sailing career and the America's Cup 3
  • Vanderbilt University 4
  • Bridge 5
    • Honors 5.1
    • Wins 5.2
    • Runners-up 5.3
  • Later life 6
  • Death and burial 7
  • Legacy 8
  • Publications 9
  • Ancestry 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13


He was born in Oakdale, New York, the third child and second son of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith. To family and friends he was known as "Mike". His siblings were William Kissam Vanderbilt II and Consuelo Vanderbilt. As the great-grandson of the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, he was born to great wealth and privilege: as a child he was raised in Vanderbilt mansions, travelled frequently to Europe, and sailed the world on yachts owned by his father.

Professional life

He was educated by tutors and at private schools in Massachusetts, including St. Mark's School, Harvard College (AB 1907), and Harvard Law School, where he attended from 1907 to 1910 but did not receive a degree. He then joined the New York Central Railroad, the centerpiece of his family's vast railway empire, of which his father was president.

First World War

Vanderbilt nearly lost his yacht, the Vagrant, on Britain's entry into the First World War. The British competitor for the 1914 America's Cup, Shamrock IV, was crossing the Atlantic with the steam yacht Erin, destined for Bermuda, when Britain declared war on Germany on August 5, 1914. Among the first things done in Bermuda on the declaration was to remove all maritime navigational aids. As the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, Vanderbilt sent the Vagrant from Rhode Island to Bermuda to meet the Shamrock IV and Erin, and to escort them to the US. The British crews had received word of the declaration by radio. The Vagrant arrived on the 8th. Having no radio, the crew were unaware of the declaration of war. Finding all of the buoys and other navigational markers missing, they attempted to pick their own way in through the Narrows, the channel that threads through the barrier reef. This took them directly to the fore of St. David's Battery, where the gunners were on a war footing and opened fire. This was just a warning shot, which had the desired effect. The Shamrock IV and Erin arrived the next day. The America's Cup was cancelled for that year.

In March 1917, Vanderbilt was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) in the United States Naval Reserve. When the United States entered World War I, he was called to active duty on April 9, 1917 and assigned as commanding officer of the scout patrol boat USS Patrol No. 8 (SP-56), which operated out of Newport, Rhode Island.

He was reassigned on July 20 to command the Block Island, Rhode Island, anti-submarine sector and on November 17 the New London, Connecticut sector. Upon his reassignment the officers and men of the Block Island sector presented him with an engraved naval officer's sword as a token of their esteem. The sword is now displayed at the Marble House in Newport.

On July 17, 1918, he was reassigned to the US Navy forces in Europe and reported to Submarine Chaser Detachment 3 at Queenstown, Ireland in August. He served with Detachment 3 until the unit was disbanded on November 25, 1918 - shortly after the Armistice was signed.

He was placed on inactive duty December 30, 1918 and was promoted to lieutenant on February 26, 1919, retroactive to September 21, 1918. He was discharged from the Naval Reserve on March 26, 1921.[1]

Post war

On his father's death in 1920, Harold inherited a fortune that included the Idle Hour country estate at Oakdale, New York (on Long Island) and equity in several railway companies:

Following the death of his brother William in 1944, he remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family involved with the New York Central Railroad. He served as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954, when the New York Central was subjected to a hostile takeover by business tycoon Robert R. Young.

Sailing career and the America's Cup

As a boy, Harold Vanderbilt spent part of his summers at the Vanderbilt mansions—the Idle Hour estate in Long Island, New York on the banks of the Connetquot River; Marble House at Newport, Rhode Island; and later at Belcourt, the Newport mansion of his stepfather, Oliver Belmont. As an adult, he pursued his interest in yachting, winning six "King's Cups" and five Astor Cups at regattas between 1922 and 1938. He served as commodore of the New York Yacht Club from 1922 to 1924. In 1925, he built his own luxurious vacation home at Palm Beach, Florida that he called "El Solano." (John Lennon, formerly of The Beatles, purchased it shortly before his 1980 murder.)

Vanderbilt achieved the pinnacle of yacht racing in 1930 by defending the America's Cup in the J-class yacht Enterprise. His victory put him on the cover of the September 15, 1930, issue of TIME magazine (see image). In 1934 Harold faced a dangerous challenger from the United Kingdom, namely Endeavour. The British boat won the first two races but Vanderbilt in Rainbow won three races in a row and defend the Cup. In 1937 he won again in Ranger, the last of the J-class yachts to defend the Cup. They were posthumously elected to the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993. Later in life Vanderbilt would become Commodore of the New York Yacht Club and would be intimately involved in many successful America's Cup defenses.

In the fall of 1935, Harold began a study of the yacht racing rules with three friends: Philip J. Roosevelt, President of the North American Yacht Racing Union (predecessor to US SAILING); Van Merle-Smith, President of the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound; and Henry H. Anderson. "The four men began by attempting to take the right-of-way rules as they were and amending them. After about six weeks of intensive effort, they finally concluded that they were getting exactly nowhere. It was the basic principles, not the details, that were causing the problems. They would have to start from scratch."[2]

In 1936, Vanderbilt, with assistance from the other three had developed an alternative set of rules, printed them, and mailed a copy to every yachtsman that Harold knew personally or by name in both the United States and England. These were virtually ignored, but a second edition in 1938 was improved, as were following versions. Vanderbilt continued to work with the various committees of the North American Yacht Racing Union until finally in 1960 the International Yacht Racing Union (predecessor to the International Sailing Federation or ISAF) adopted the rules that Vanderbilt and the Americans had developed over the previous quarter century.

Vanderbilt University

Harold Vanderbilt had a keen interest in the success of Buttrick Hall, a statue was erected in his honor.


Vanderbilt was also a card game enthusiast. In 1925 he originated changes to the scoring system through which the game of contract bridge supplanted auction bridge in popularity. Three years later he endowed the Vanderbilt Cup awarded to the winners of the North American team-of-four championship (now the Vanderbilt Knockout Teams, or simply "the Vanderbilt", one of the North American Bridge Championships marquee events). In 1932 and again in 1940 he was part of a team that won his own trophy; it remains one of the most prized in the game. Vanderbilt also donated the World Bridge Federation Vanderbilt Trophy, awarded from 1960 to 2004 to the winner of the Open category at the quadrennial World Team Olympiad, and since 2008 to the winner of the corresponding event at the World Mind Sports Games.[3][4]

Vanderbilt invented the first strong club system, which he called the "Club Convention" but which has since become more usually known as the Vanderbilt Club.[5][6] The strong club, or forcing club, family of bidding systems has performed exceptionally well in world championship play.[7] He wrote four books on the subject.

Vanderbilt, Ely Culbertson, and Charles Goren were the three people named when The Bridge World inaugurated a bridge "hall of fame" in 1964 and they were made founding members of the ACBL Hall of Fame in 1995.[8][9][1]

In 1969 the World Bridge Federation (WBF) made Vanderbilt its first honorary member.


  • WBF Honorary Member, 1969
  • ACBL Hall of Fame, 1964[9][10][1]
  • ACBL Honorary Member of the Year 1941
  • Wetzlar Trophy 1940



Later life

Marble House, owned and operated by the Preservation Society

In 1930, after a property dispute with the Town of Palm Beach, Florida, Vanderbilt moved several miles south to an undeveloped area called Manalpan, where he purchased 500 feet of oceanfront property and built a mansion called Eastover. In 1931, he filed papers to incorporate the Town of Manalapan and became the Town's first mayor. In 1934, his sister, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, built her own mansion on Hypoluxo Island, across the water from Eastover.[11]

In addition to sailing, Vanderbilt was a licensed pilot, and in 1938 he acquired a Sikorsky S-43 "Flying Boat".

At the outbreak of the USO, so the money could be used to benefit servicemen.[12] The Vara was completed, renamed as the USS Valiant, and designated as PC-509 (later as PYc-51).

In 1947, Vanderbilt was invested as an honorary Queen Mary in her capacity as Grand Master of the Order) and the insignia of the order are on display in the Trophy Room at the Marble House.

In 1963, Vanderbilt assisted the Preservation Society of Newport County in acquiring the Marble House summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island which house his mother had sold more than 30 years earlier. Their bid was successful, and the property was converted into a museum that has been open to the public since the mid-1960s.

Death and burial

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt died in July 4, 1970. Ironically, this was only two weeks after the Penn Central Railroad, successor to the New York Central Railroad, had declared bankruptcy (on June 21, 1970).

He and his wife, Gertrude Conoway Vanderbilt, are interred at Saint Mary's Episcopal Cemetery in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, their graves marked with only a simple flat stone. It is uncertain why he chose to be buried in Rhode Island rather than in the Vanderbilt family mausoleum on Staten Island. It is noteworthy, however, that he is buried in the same cemetery as his business rival Robert R. Young.


  • A sailing drink, Stirling Punch, was named in Vanderbilt's honor.[13]
  • Vanderbilt's private railroad car, New York Central 3, was recently renovated and operates luxury charter trips at the rear of regularly scheduled Amtrak and Via Rail Canada trains.[14]


With "Laws of Contract Bridge, 1927, reprinted by permission of ... the Whist club: pp. 207–36."[16]
  • The New Contract Bridge: club convention bidding and forcing overbids (Scribner, 1930), 333 pp.
  • Enterprise: the story of the defense of the America's Cup in 1930 (Scribner, 1931), 230 pp. OCLC 1625050
  • Contract by Hand Analysis: a synopsis of 1933 club convention bidding (The Bridge World, 1933), 165 pp. OCLC 6351169
  • On the Wind's Highway: Ranger, Rainbow and racing (Scribner, 1939), 259 pp. OCLC 6351177
  • The Club Convention system of bidding at contract bridge, as modernized by Harold S. Vanderbilt (Scribner, 1964), 160 pp.[17]



  1. ^ a b The Bridge World monthly magazine, established by Ely Culbertson in 1929, named nine members of its bridge hall of fame including Culbertson from 1964 to 1966, but it never named another. Almost thirty years later, the ACBL established its hall of fame with the Bridge World nine as founding members. It named eight new members in 1995 and has inducted others annually since then.[8][9]


  1. ^ Who Was Who in America, 1969–1973 5. 
  2. ^ MacArthur, Robert C. Room at the Mark. (Boston, 1991).
  3. ^ "World Team Olympiad". World Bridge Federation (WBF). Retrieved 2014-05-31. With image of the Vanderbilt Trophy.
  4. ^ "World Bridge Games". WBF. Retrieved 2014-05-31.
  5. ^ Harold S. Vanderbilt, Contract Bridge, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York & London, 1929
  6. ^ The Bridge Players' Encyclopaedia, International Edition, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1967, p. 564
  7. ^ The Nottingham Club, Neapolitan Club, Blue Club, Precision Club, and other strong forcing club systems are an outgrowth of the Vanderbilt Club. Polish Club, Unassuming Club and other weak club systems are an outgrowth from the Vienna System (Stern Austrian System, 1938).
  8. ^ a b Hall of Fame (top page). ACBL. Retrieved 2014-12-30.
  9. ^ a b c "Induction by Year". Hall of Fame. ACBL. Retrieved 2014-12-22.
  10. ^ "Vanderbilt, Harold". Hall of Fame. ACBL. Retrieved 2014-12-30.
  11. ^ "Town of Manalapan". Historical Society of Palm Beach County. 
  12. ^ "Proceedings". June 2014. 
  13. ^ "Stirling Punch". Drinks Mixer. 
  14. ^ "New York Central 3". 
  15. ^ "Video". CNN. August 18, 1980. 
  16. ^ "Contract bridge; bidding and the club convention". Library of Congress Catalog Record (LCC). Retrieved 2014-05-31.
  17. ^ "The club convention system of bidding at contract bridge". LCC. Retrieved 2014-05-31.
Other sources
  • Time Magazine. September 15, 1930.
  • Harold S. Vanderbilt (1931). Enterprise the Story of the Defense of the America's Cup in 1930. Charles Scribner's sons Press. 
  • Harold S. Vanderbilt (1939). On the wind's highway: Ranger, Rainbow and racing. Charles Scribner's sons Press. 
  • "Sailing World Hall of Fame", Sailing World Magazine. April 24, 2002.

External links

  • Citation at the ACBL Hall of Fame
  • America's Cup Hall of Fame
  • Vanderbilt's private rail car
  • Harold S. Vanderbilt at Library of Congress Authorities, with 6 catalog records (including 1 "from old catalog")
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