Reviewed by Scott B.
This book creates a good argument for a hefty estate tax — something along the lines of 99 percent. Dead End Gene Pool is told by Wendy Burden (a seventh-generation Vanderbilt descended from the Commodore himself), mainly in her formative years. Wendy paints a brutally honest portrait of the life of the super, super rich, mostly through vignettes concerning her paternal grandparents, Ambassador and Mrs. William A. M. Burden Jr., and her often absentee mother.
William A. M. Burden III, Wendy’s father, committed suicide in 1962 when she was six. From then on, Wendy, her older brother, Will, and younger brother, Edward, born almost nine months to the day after his father’s death, were mandated to spend at least two weekends a month with their grandparents. Leslie Hamilton, Wendy’s mother, who disappeared for three years right after Edward’s birth, was cut out of the will and then spent the rest of her healthy life traveling the world searching for the perfect tan—which she achieved—and the perfect bedroom partner—which she really did not. Nannies and other assorted staff members took care of the children much of the time.
Burdenland, as her grandparents’ world was called, existed in an apartment at 63rd and 5th (with fourteen bathrooms), an estate in Mount Kisco, New York, Hobe Sound, Florida, and Mount Desert Island, Maine. Put together every TV episode of Julia Child’s The French Chef and you could gain an understanding of the daily menu in Burdenland, complete with an army of help to serve it. If grandfather “Popsie” wanted turtle soup for dinner the next day, for example, he simply told his secretary to order the tortoise from wherever in the world it was in season—and fly it in! However, Wendy was much more fond of her loving—and humorously flatulent—grandmother.
The life of the “goddamn spoiled rotten” is colored by Wendy’s obsession with the macabre drawings of Charles Addams, the cartoonist who created, yes, the Addams Family. Her tales of anatomical experiments on dead—mostly—animals, the home-made guillotining of dolls and such, and imaginative musings of murderous revenge on servants and family members are relatively palatable compared to Wendy’s observations that can only be termed “too much information.” A zinger here and there concerning sightings or near sightings of various genitalia and/or bodily functions or smells can add the right amount of spice, but this reader was on the verge of vomiting by about page 185.
Wendy gives us many moments of laughter among the ultimate sadness that clouds the world of her family, including a few suicides (father, maternal grandfather, staff), addiction (mother, brother, brother, uncle, uncle, grandfather, grandmother), and the pathetic figure that is her mother.
The author alone seems to emerge sane and healthy from this compelling story of excess and morass, which only a genealogical chart and photos of the principals could have made more vivid.
Scott, now a copy editor by trade, is a once-and-future Latin teacher. He pursues his passions for brain plasticity, jazz piano, and golf in southeast Massachusetts. He lives alone with Cicero, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Ella Fitzgerald.
A review copy was provided free of any obligation by Gotham. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.