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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Biography/Autobiography, 2010

National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2009

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 nation's largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation - in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.

In The First Tycoon, Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore's personal life. It is a sweeping, fast-moving epic, and a complex portrait of the great man. Vanderbilt, Stiles shows, embraced the philosophy of the Jacksonian Democrats and withstood attacks by his conservative enemies for being too competitive. He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fistfighter who came to command the respect of New York's social elite. And he was a father who struggled with a gambling-addicted son, a husband who was loving yet abusive, and, finally, an old man who was obsessed with contacting the dead.

The First Tycoon is the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.

©2009 T.J. Stiles (P)2009 Random House

Critic Reviews

"Rousing . . . An exemplary biography." ( Kirkus)
"For all its complexity, T.J. Stiles's appreciative account of Vanderbilt's derring-do is a model of clarity, briskness and brio, and Mark Deakins's unhurried, pleasantly grave delivery serves it well." ( Washington Post Book World)

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  • john
  • United States
  • 08-08-10

Great! If you can get through it...

Stiles not only inculcates the reader with the genius and incredible work ethic of Cornelius Vanderbilt but also the times and country through which he was molded and in which he left his mark. One will learn about the steamboat, and railroad industry, the development of the monetary, and open market systems in the U.S., the United States' transition from laissez faire to a more regulated system of economics and much more. Although there may be, at some points, a romanticizing of nineteenth century economics, the plethora of information, on one of America's greatest industrialist, one can obtain from this biography is unprecedented (I have read a few of the biographies on Vanderbilt), and will not be matched anytime soon. This book is great if one can absorb, by listening, a lot of information.

21 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • S.
  • 04-23-13

Excellent -

Absolutely fascinating subject. The book has a good pace, and is well written. While I do agree that a heavier-hand by an editor could have improved the book, the detailed approach is a small price to pay for this biography. Worth the read -

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 07-22-16


This book won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2009. This is a serious book written with the future scholar in mind. I have enjoyed reading this excellent in-depth biography. The author opens the book with the courtroom drama of Vanderbilt’s children fighting over the Will. Stiles leaves the courtroom drama to tell the story of Vanderbilt.

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) made his fortune in building steamships and railroad lines. He built the Grand Central Terminal in NYC with his own money. He was considered the richest man in America in the 19th Century. To me what made Vanderbilt so impressive is that he left school at age 11 but continued his self taught learning and was a self made entrepreneur. Vanderbilt was one of the first Americans to learn how to construct and operate steamships. Besides his skill with steamships, both the running and building of them, Vanderbilt appears to have been a genius in the stock market. He was one of the few men of his time that understood stocks and how they could be used. According to Stiles, Vanderbilt changed corporations from those created to build a public work to that of a publicly held corporation by individuals for profit. Vanderbilt funded the University that bears his name in Nashville, Tennessee. The author made it clear that Vanderbilt hated debt. He paid cash for stocks and bonds he bought. Vanderbilt apparently stated that not paying cash for the stock at time of purchase was going to create a big depression if there was a sudden decline in stock prices and margins were called. He also thought that Wall Street and banks should be regulated.

Vanderbilt did not write a diary, wrote very few personal letters, and gave no speeches; therefore, Stiles had only the business side to research. The author was able to provide a more complete understanding of Vanderbilt as the book progressed. I particularly enjoyed Stiles stating the myth or commonly told stories about Vanderbilt then revealing the truth with verified documentation. Some of the personal side of Vanderbilt was revealed later in the book, with his passion for horses; he raised and raced trotters and racehorses then eventually became a famous breeder of these horses. Stiles also unveils him to have been a skilled whist player and as he aged with more time on his hands he competed in tournaments. Vanderbilt is still famous today for having built the horse race track in Saratoga Springs. Vanderbilt and friends would spend the summers there racing and playing whist. Because of the scarcity of personal information, Stiles built the biography about the history and culture of the time which greatly adds to the understanding of Vanderbilt. The section about Nicaragua reads like an action novel. I learned so much about the history of the Mosquito Coast from Stiles and the history of Walker-Vanderbilt conflict.

The book is extremely well written in simple easy to understand prose. Stiles did meticulous research and carefully documented his book. I learned a lot not only about Vanderbilt but the times in which he lived. There is so much information in this book I think I will have to read it several times to gather it all in. This book will make a great reference book in anyone’s library. T. J. Stiles is a well known biographer. The book is long at about 30 hours.

Mark Deakins did a good job narrating the book. Deakins is a film actor and audiobook narrator.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Kenneth
  • AUSTIN, TX, United States
  • 06-23-12

This could be a movie!

What made the experience of listening to The First Tycoon the most enjoyable?

As a fan of business/economic/history books this one provided everything I wanted. Conrelius was one of the most single minded folks I've learned about so far. This book puts the reader on the front lines of the deals and serves as a great guide to starting and running a business.

This book delves into Cornelius' personal life as well but I was more concerned with the business aspects and this book delivered.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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The birth of our capitalist system

This is much more than a man's biography. It is a story of the birth of corporate America. It's really long and can seem overwhelming, but the narrator did a good job of "disappearing" and letting the story tell itself.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Chris
  • Boulder, CO, USA
  • 03-27-10

Tiring, but informative

This is a very detailed account of the Commodore's life, as such, it tends to get windy at parts. The text is characterized by long departures into side roads mostly concerned with Vanderbilt's contemporaries, the politics of the day, and Vanderbilt family members. To someone interested in studying the enigmatic success of one of history's archetypal capitalists, these sidetracks are fatal to attention. The narration was consistent and unfailing however, the narrator has the odd habit of affecting a strange (almost mocking) voice when he reads quotations from the period.

13 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Masterfully researched

Quotes all over book say it all. Narrator was excellent, properly affecting different tones to delineate direct quotations

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Roger
  • Cincinnati, OH, United States
  • 02-05-13

Great biography of an interesting life

An interesting biography, pleasantly read. Has a slightly different structure of not quite following chronological order, but instead follows a chronological order of stories, focusing on each story for hours, before moving onto the next. I found this style enjoyable as you didn't have to wait hours/days/or weeks to find out what happened with a certain thing like you do in most biographies, but it was confusing as once the story was done, it jumps back to a previous year to begin at the beginning of another story. So there is this odd time ambiguity of about 5 years usually which my brain has had some trouble ordering. The effect is worth it though, as it does make for a better "story" than most biographies. Not many single human beings have ever waged "war" with guns, stocks, and ships the way the Commodore did; fascinating.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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An interesting and significant man. Comprehensive writing (the P.P. no-less), and clear, measured reading made this the most enjoyable audiobook I have ever listened to. If you like U.S. history or biography, this book needs to be on your list.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Stan
  • Hendersonville, NC, United States
  • 08-01-14

Balanced biography

What did you like best about this story?

The author was fair with Vanderbilt. Many historians castigate all 19th century businessmen as villains and certainly some were. But Vanderbilt, like Rockefeller, did not make his money with stock manipulations, he made it with good management. He had his faults and the author points them out, but he also had his virtues. A good read

4 of 5 people found this review helpful