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Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

by Wendy Burden

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3283871,155 (3.45)23
The great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt gives readers a grand tour of the world of wealth and WASPish peculiarity, in her irreverent and darkly humorous memoir.

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» See also 23 mentions

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I am really surprised by some of these reviews. I picked this book up per the recommendation of Kristyn at McLean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, and I couldn't put it down. The author is hilarious, the story is compelling and the writing is stellar. How could anyone think otherwise? Here are some of my favorite lines from a description of Christmas morning:

The grown-ups finally emerged and gathered by the fireplace in the living room, my grandparents still in their dressing gowns. Uncle Bob, the oldest, already had a five o'clock shadow. He had to shave about five times a day in order to not look like a gangster....For the Christmas festivities he was dressed in his usual barge basement clothing--an ill-fitting sports jacket and a pair of worn slacks....The second-in-line entered the living room like he was being chased by a bee. Uncle Ham-Uncle Ham was clutching a slopping cup of coffee in one hand and cigarette in a holder in the other. His shirttails were out, and his Yuletide red tie was as askew as a guy with the social skills of a five year old could make it...
My grandfather sat in the molded plywood-and-steel Eames side chair he always sat in on Christmas morning, with a plate of butter-soaked English muffins and the thermos of coffee he was always served on a small table before him, extracting presents from his ermine-trimmed stocking with his long, slow fingers just like he always did. My grandmother was on the purple couch, a poodle on each side, doing the same. They both exhibited genuine surprise as they unwrapped their gifts. "Popsie! Earrings from Verdura! How divine--"
My grandmother, however, did not seem too surprised by the necklace of red and green millipedes I'd made for her with the Creepy Crawlers set I'd gotten for my eighth birthday the week before. Nor did my grandfather swoon with pleasure over the paint-by-numbers horse head on black velvet I'd given him, intending for him to replace the Klee in the hallway with it."

That snippet doesn't even begin to do the book justice. Well worth a read! I highly recommend it.

( )
  KellyFordon | Mar 6, 2019 |
Highly entertaining. Too see first hand how the ultra ultra wealthy lived is always fascinating to me.
( )
  anglophile65 | Mar 8, 2016 |
This book is a bit like the train wreck you can't take your eyes off. It certainly demonstrates that even extreme wealth cannot make everything better. On some pages, it is fascinating (like active monkeys at the zoo) - the rich really do live differently. But the book shows a striking dichotomy of life that The author lived. When with her uber-rich paternal grandparents, she had access to the life of luxury, but when she was with her mother at home - they often lived (in later years) in near squalor. The thread that runs through both sides of the family is alcoholism (and other substance abuse). Like other reviewers, I wish more family photos had been included. It is a great fast read when you need something truly different to shake things up. ( )
  mickeycat | Aug 16, 2013 |
Hilarious! I only wish Wendy had included pictures of her family. ( )
  madamepince | Apr 14, 2012 |
“Sepulchrally dismal, she was the three-dimensional equivalent of woe.”

My third memoir for the year, Wendy Burden’s Dead End Gene Pool is a dizzying ride through the lives of the ultra-rich descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, starting briefly with her grandparents’ antecedents, focussing for quite some time on Wendy’s childhood, which was heavily influenced by her paternal grandparents, and moving into her teenage and student years.

The first half of this book was highly comic – Wendy recounting the tales of her forebears, over-moneyed, over-sexed and often under-endowed with sanity. Similarly the stories of her early childhood, mostly revolving around her grandparents and their staff at the New York mansion. As Wendy grows older, though, the anecdotes get a bitter edge and the book becomes one of those ubiquitous misery memoirs of growing up with an alcoholic single parent. The grandparents become senile and sadly dependent, rather than amusing.

Memoirs are clearly a form of non-fiction that I am coming to enjoy, though – I very much enjoyed Sleeping Naked Is Green and The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance (when I wrote that review, I hoped I’d never have to write the title again. It seems to be following me).

Worth reading if you are interested in rich American people. Otherwise, there’s funnier material out there. ( )
1 vote readingwithtea | Sep 1, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
Although Wendy Burden begins her darkly funny memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, by recounting the lives of her ancestors on her father’s side (she’s the great-times-four-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt), the book’s dedication makes it clear where the heart of her story really lies: “For my mother, goddamn it.”
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For my mother, goddamn it.
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Prologue: It's a testament to his libido, if not his character, that Cornelius Vanderbilt died of syphilis rather than apoplexy.
Chapter 1: “Your attention, please – whoops!”
Florence, on the other hand, did marry. Which vastly benefitted my father’s side of the family, where we will remain, because even though this book is about my father and my mother, the truth of the matter is my mother’s family didn’t have a lot of money, and my father’s family did, and rich people behaving badly are far more interesting than the not so rich behaving badly.
My mother’s advice was to (quote) shut up and put up. Leslie Lepington Hamilton Burden … was not one to coddle her children with parental guidance.
Number One Son got everything before me. Even psychoanalysis. … When Will returned from his appointment, I sniffed him all over like a dog checking out a mate who’s been to the vet. “So?” I would demand. … He didn’t recognize his hour with Dr. Berman as the spotlit, center-of-attention shower of love I knew it to be. I was burning up with curiosity; I needed to know what I was missing. But inevitably, my weekly joust for the dirt ended with no answers, and Will punching me in the stomach and declaring, “Dr. Berman says you’re acting out ‘cause you’re jealous.” No shit.
My grandfather could never have enough staff. His grandmother Twombly had run her three behemoth houses with the help of two hundred servants, whereas he was forced to make do with a skeleton staff of twenty for his own four.
Red-knuckled hands perpetually wiped and dusted, scrubbed and polished, mopped and waxed, and tidied and organized, putting to rights the everyday messes of we, the Goddam Spoiled Rotten.
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The great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt gives readers a grand tour of the world of wealth and WASPish peculiarity, in her irreverent and darkly humorous memoir.

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