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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  2,444 ratings  ·  262 reviews
A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the
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Hardcover, 736 pages
Published April 21st 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Philip
*Whew* I'm sure that such a ...comprehensive book deserves a comprehensive review, and yet I barely had the fortitude to make it through the reading. Right now I don't even have the desire to attempt a Binksian or Sorensenian book review so I'll just ramble and pretend T.J. Stiles - the author of this book - won't be offended. Maybe he should be. He took the time to organize over 100 pages of footnotes at the end of the thing; the least I owe him is a well-organized book review.

100 pages of note
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Matt
I admit that I'm not too comfortable with the world of high finance and economics. This might be odd, considering I majored in finance in college. Then again, I spent most of my college years smoking in the library, checking out coeds on the quad, starting food fights in the cafeteria, and playing tricks on the crusty dean. My copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations sits unread on my bookshelf. I swear, I'll get to it someday; as of now, however, I can't get past the first turgid page. When I thi ...more
Harold
This is a very good book, but like Vanderbilt's life, extremely long. Vanderbilt himself was awkward with language, and consequently neither wrote or spoke publicly much during his life, so there is no introspection in this book. And while he aged, perhaps gracefully, to be the preeminent American businessman of his age (dying with as much as 10% of all American monetary value!!) his life didn't have the progression of Rockefeller or Carnegie who transformed from businessman to philanthropist du ...more
Greg Fanoe
Now that I finally finished this thing up what do I think? I think it's still hampered by the fact that the subject, Cornelius Vanderbilt, just didn't do very many interesting things. The author does a game job of presenting things, and while I appreciate the stunning amount of research that must have gone into this thing, as a book it just reads way too detailed. There's plenty of non-fiction books out there that are really educational but also well-written and entertaining, I'd stick to those. ...more
Socraticgadfly
The Commodore comes alive

It's hard, quite hard, translating 19th century finances to today, or stature.

But, pretend that one person was a pioneer in both the equivalent of computer operating systems AND online communications, and had the money of both. In other words, Cornelius Vanderbilt approaches a combination of Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, or something like that, with a fortune worth a least $100 billion in today's economy.

It would be easy indeed to stereotype this person as a Gilded Age "ro
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Arminius
The early 19th Century time was a fascinating time for American business. Before railroad transportation most businesses consisted of small shops and farms. The primary means for shipping goods to far-away places was the use of rivers and oceans through shipping. The rights to shipping had dated back to the Revolutionary times when a family controlled water way rights and continued to do so up and until the mid 19th Century. One shipper spent his life attempting to break this monopoly. His name ...more
Clif
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't take the mask
off that ole Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with Cornelius Vanderbilt

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and rightfully so. What an amazing life was this one of over 80 years that played such a vital part in the history of the United States.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the Commodore before starting the book, I was eager to find out about him, expected a scoundrel and found a man of character. Stiles obvious
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Lars Guthrie
I did it! Four doorstoppers on Nineteenth Century America. Before 'The First Tycoon': 'What Hath God Wrought' by Daniel Walker Howe, 'A Country of Vast Designs' by Robert Merry, and 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The funny thing is I enjoyed it, and actually am inspired to read more American history. As I was finishing Stiles' excellent biography, I heard about President Obama reading Edmund Morris's 'The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,' and immediately wanted to read that. (Obama was the
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E.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is one of the best biographies I've read. Vanderbilt's long lifetime spanned from George Washington's presidency to the Centennial. He personified the change in American business from sole proprietorships to huge corporate ownership. He started out operating a sailboat ferry across New York Harbor from his native Staten Island to Manhattan. Through frugality and good management he acquired a fleet of ferries and coastal sailboats. He got into steamboats early, an ...more
Brian

T. J. Stiles provides a masterful biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt from his childhood to the tremendous impact he made on this country as a tycoon and "commodore" in the various industries he transformed. From his early time running steamboats and laying the groundwork for one of the most important Supreme Court cases (Gibbons v. Ogden) to the time he was running railroads Vanderbilt displayed tremendous business acumen and skill. He had a simple principle to making money which was to only go w
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judy
This is the last book that needs to be written on Vanderbilt for many years--possibly ever. The scholarship is astounding, highly detailed and complete. While it was fascinating, I had to set it down about every hundred pages to keep from being overwhelmed. One simple example of the author's meticulous approach: throughout the book the author recounts well-known Vanderbilt anecdotes. These appear to be true but the author's research has proven them bogus. One of these tales is printed in Vanderb ...more
Regina Mclaughlin
One huge meatball of a read about this rich guy with a passion for screwing his competitors and escaping from his so-so home life. A businessman who gets all sanctimonious about playing by the rules, having first ascertained the game is rigged to his advantage. Today we've seen his type doing the perp walk. But back in his day, there was no such thing as insider trading or labor laws or level playing fields. In his day, Cornelius was revered.

Be forewarned. The author marches you through the arc
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Louise
Stiles's rendering of Cornelius Vanderbilt starts off strong. For over 100 pages the writing is riveting. What follows is a lot of detail on water and rail routes and deals. While the original research and its presentation are certainly worthy of the National Book Award, for me, and perhaps many other general readers, more than half the book was a slog.

What makes the opening strong is the discussion of the patrician attitudes of the founders, how this manifested itself in not only politics but t
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George
EPIC—IN DETAIL.

2.5 stars is closer to reasonable.

Listening to THE FIRST TYCOON: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles, although rife with interesting moments, was made, at times, confusing and overwhelming by its far too excruciating attention to minor details. I really don't care that 'Commodore' was putting on shoes, with four buckles on them, while receiving a visitor—who considered the shoes stylish, by the way, and thought he might like to have a pair like them—in his sitti
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Bookmarks Magazine

Though Stiles's admiration for the man who inspired the phrase "robber baron" shines throughout this extraordinary rags-to-riches story, he harbors no illusions about his vindictive and bad-tempered subject. Stiles is quick to set the record straight when the past has condemned Vanderbilt unfairly, but he details his unscrupulous business dealings and troubled relationships with equal aplomb. Stiles's exhaustive research has resulted in a massive, carefully edited book, and critics were surprise

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Nicholas Lefevre
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating man. Vanderbilt was the father of the great industrial age building an empire on the first great American industry, the steamship (side wheelers) and then railroads. At his death in 1876 Vanderbilt's wealth represented one in every eight US dollars, never to be matched. He built many of the foundations of the Gilded Age to follow and his later life intersects with the creation of the new American aristocracies of those like Rockefeller (oil), Carneg ...more
R. Rasmussen
Brings alive the extraordinarily complex history of steam ferries in New York Harbor. Who would have guessed that such a subject could be so interesting?
Brian
While it took a while to get into this book, probably due to the relative lack of information about his early years, I did end up enjoying it quite a bit. It was interesting to revisit various events and eras (Ogden vs. Gibbon, Jackson's presidency, the Civil War, William Walker's invasion of Nicaragua, and the California gold rush, to name a few) and view them through the prism of financial history, and by extension, Vanderbilt's role in all of them.

I also found it interesting that as he and o
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Frank Stein

The book was a national bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for History, but I don't see what all the fuss is about.

The book does do an impressive job of making a compelling historical character out of a man not known for his personality and who was barely literate, and thus left few records. Stiles does manage to show the drama in things like the war for the control of the Erie Railroad in 1869 and Vanderbilt's financial expansion from the Hudson River Railroad into a national system. There a
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Tony
Stiles, T. J. THE FIRST TYCOON: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. (2010). ****. I’ve been reading this biography in bits and pieces for two weeks now, and finally came to the end. If this isn’t a great example of an exhaustive biography, then I’ve never seen one before. It is extremely well written, and well researched. The author manages to maintain the reader’s interest even in the face of otherewise boring business maneuvers by the group of tycoons of the time. Vanderbilt started out as ...more
Jonathan Shaw
This book took me longer than I thought it would to read -- I didn't finish it until a third check-out period from the library. It's long, yes, but I found it un-skimmable ... in a good way. There's so much here: a story of a man's life that bridges the 18th-century colonial period of landed gentry to the 19th-century period of frenetic entrepreneurialism, vivid sketches of life in New York City from 1800 to the 1870s, and a detailed economic history of the first 100 years of the United States.

V
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David Kudlinski
I took history classes throughout high school and college, where I remember learning about wars, treaties, politicians and religions for the most part. I don’t recall learning much about the history of business. I had never heard of Cornelius Vanderbilt until a month ago, when I bought this book out of curiosity. What most people probably don’t know is that even after the American Revolutionary War, wealthy aristocrats controlled business activity in the US through government-chartered monopolie ...more
Doug Cornelius
There were the rich, the super rich, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. T.J. Stiles takes you through the life of the Commodore in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

"Sons are notoriously prone to exaggerate the importance of their fathers, as are biographers with their subjects..."

Vanderbilt founded a dynasty. The First Tycoon starts with one of the final challenges to that dynasty. The Commodore had left the vast majority of his estate to one of his children. The rest were challeng
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William Ramsay
I'm a great fan of biography and have a fascination with how we came to be the way we are. This books fills both needs. The picture Stiles paints of Cornelius Vanderbilt is completely different from any vague notion you may have had of the robber barons of the gilded age. He was the richest man in America at one time, but lived very simply - his progeny built the Breakers and the other palaces of wealth. He was a huge man who in in his youth never hesitated to enter a brawl or a barroom fight. H ...more
Aaron Million
Mammoth effort by Stiles to not only tell Vanderbilt's incredible story, but to also describe the vast economic and social changes that took place in America from 1794 - 1877. Well-reasoned and researched, this great biography is essential to understanding how the American economy came into being re: Wall Street and large corporations. Stiles plays it fair when it comes to Vanderbilt - showing many times that he was indeed no saint and could squash his enemies with one swift move, but also showi ...more
Greg
I probably liked Team of Rivals better, but this biography (to me) is on that level.

The author does two things amazingly well, considering his material. The first is that he is able to explain stock market battles and ruses easily and make them interesting. This is no small feat, but it's tremendously important to writing the life of Vanderbilt, whose greatest battles were bidding wars to stop the bears in the stock market who were trying to depress stock prices for personal gain.

Second, he take
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Gina
This book deserves no less than 5 stars due to the fact that the author did years' worth of research for this book. He basically put other biographies on Vanderbilt to shame. Although I personally don't like historical nonfiction, I refuse to let my own personal bias influence the rating that I am giving this book.
Mal Warwick
Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction

He was the original “robber baron.” Other familiar names associated with the nineteenth century — John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan — were young men in the early days of their careers when he was at the peak of his fame. Following the Civil War, he became the richest person in American history, and to this day remains the second-richest, bested only by Rockefeller. (Yes, richer by far than Bill Gates and Warr
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Bonnie
2.5? 3? I'm conflicted. This book has been on my wish list to read for years. I wanted to love it. But I just don't give a damn about the intricacies of business. I don't care about the back and forth and back and forth with the government, with rivals, with the freaking newspaper boy. And if I ever hear the term "Nicaragua canal" again I will scream. He's a truly fascinating man with a long and complicated life, but I think I should've started with maybe a 150-page biography instead of almost 8 ...more
Marc Cooper
Good readable history of the man and period. I learned some interesting facts about business in the era of the dawn of corporations. Insider trading was legal and regulators and those close to them also held a lot of stock, so some would try to short stocks and drive their price down while others would try to corner the shorts and make them pay a heavy ransom. Stocks were initially judged against and expected to remain close to a par value where a share should be worth close to $100 and 1 share ...more
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