History, of course, is a fabric of individual journeys, the most memorable of which are sometimes those never completed. One such abbreviated voyage began on a Sunday in April of 1912, as the 46,000-ton RMS Titanic pulled from the port of Southampton, England—bound for New York City but headed for an appointment with destiny. A mere 710 of the 2,224 passengers aboard survived when the ocean liner sank after colliding with an iceberg; however, a handful of fortunate individuals were rescued not by vessels in the vicinity but by an altogether different twist of fate.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the press regaled readers with an ever-burgeoning list of people who booked passage on the doomed ship but failed to sail with it. Among the more distinguished personalities was Guglielmo Marconi, whose invention, the wireless telegraph, was instrumental in bringing aid to Titanic’s survivors. Pressing business in the United States prompted Milton Hershey, the chocolate magnate, to depart England earlier than planned, while the desire to practice a more prudent economy prompted the novelist Theodore Dreiser to opt at the last minute for a cheaper mode of transport. Although John Jacob Astor IV counted among Titanic’s casualties, several of his peers within New York society missed the boat. J.P. Morgan, whose financial holdings included the White Star Line’s parent company, had extended his stay at a spa in the south of France, while the steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick remained in Italy when his wife was hospitalized after a minor fall. And though Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was initially reported in the papers to be among the missing, these accounts of his demise were premature: He had decided at the last minute to remain in Europe.
This was not the first time that providence had intervened on the 34-year-old Vanderbilt’s behalf. As the third son of the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who believed firmly in the principle of primogeniture, Alfred could expect at the time of his father’s final stroke in 1899 to inherit, like his younger siblings, a mere $10 million ($5 million in cash and the same sum again in trust). However, to his good fortune, Alfred’s older brother, Cornelius III (known as Neily)—who, after the firstborn, William Henry II, succumbed to typhoid, stood next in line to inherit the lion’s share—had the misfortune to become engaged to Grace Wilson. Several years Neily’s senior, this lady was one of three ambitious siblings whom society derogatorily dubbed the “marrying Wilsons”: Her sister, May, married Ogden Goelet, scion of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York, while her brother, Orme, wedded Carrie Astor. Grace had already broken off a much-publicized engagement to an English peer after discovering that he was penniless, and Neily’s parents, sizing up the situation, forbade the match. When Cornelius II’s will was at last read at the Breakers, the family’s colossal “cottage” in Newport, R.I., Neily learned that his father had changed his will on June 18, 1896, the very day of his wedding to Grace. Under the new terms, Neily received a mere $500,000 and the income from a $1 million trust, while the residue of the estate—nearly $43 million, after bequests to other family members and charities—went to Alfred.
The younger Vanderbilt son, to avoid a court battle, settled $6 million on his dispossessed sibling, but the two never again spoke. Neily—having missed a proverbial boat of his own—applied himself to engineering and used the proceeds from his many patents to pay the bills that mounted in the wake of his social-climbing wife’s extravagant entertainments. Alfred Vanderbilt, for his part, appeared to have few qualms about his brother’s relative penury, devoting his time to business and, more enthusiastically, fox hunting. Two wives and at least one mistress failed to displace this patrician sport as his steadfast passion, and he often sojourned abroad in search of fresh horseflesh. It was on one of these crossings that he at last kept his original rendezvous with destiny, booking passage aboard the RMS Lusitania (pictured), which left the harbor in New York on May 1, 1915. On May 8, front-page headlines in the New York Times proclaimed, “Lusitania Sunk by a Submarine, Probably 1,260 Dead; Twice Torpedoed off Irish Coast; Sinks in 15 Minutes . . . Vanderbilt Missing.” The news, this time, was not exaggerated.