Dead End Gene Pool

Wendy Burden, author of Dead End Gene Pool, and I were separated at birth. Okay, she’s probably a good 20 years older than me but I feel like I’m her mini-me.

It seems you can’t go into a bookstore or a library without being assaulted by this week’s memoir by a celebrity with a tragic childhood or a Joe Shmoe with a heroic survival tale. Now, I’m big on memoirs but only if they deal with family secrets or are written by a family’s black sheep. 

As the great-great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden is a black sheep in the Vanderbilt family and she has a lot of family secrets to dish out. Burden chronicles her family’s wealth through the ages but doesn’t linger on the hoi polloi of her family. She delivers the goods on not only her insane—and insanely entertaining—family and on herself. In an age where families still keep their skeletons tucked away in closets, Wendy Burden flings that door wide open and ushers out all the dirty laundry.

A self-proclaimed soul sister of Wednesday Addams, Burden fell in love with all things morbid. One summer she studied how long it took seagulls to start to rot. She asked for an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas, not because she wanted to make dainty cakes, but because she thought it could be used as a crematorium. Where was this kid to play with when I was eight?

The first half of the memoir is about living with her brothers and their grandparents after their father committed suicide. Her mother was present by phone while vacationing in Bermuda in the search for the elusive perfect tan. She was actually doing a service to her children by leaving them in the hands of the grandparents, who had more than a dozen servants to look after them. It was impossible for her to spend more than five minutes with Wendy without calling her fat or dummy and encouraging her to diet.  There’s one scene in particular that I remember. Wendy was riding a pony that turned out to be as vicious as a snapping turtle. The pony bucked her off and Wendy broke her arm. When she went to her mother for comfort her mother screamed, “Is the pony okay?”

Half Joan Crawford à la Mommie Dearest and half Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Wendy’s mother didn’t elicit much sympathy from me. A terrifying moment of child abuse was written off by Burden’s mother, who said nobody was hurt and it wasn’t like the old man “really did anything.” Whoa. Somebody give this woman a Mother of the Year ribbon.

The Vanderbilts who were insane in the most clinical sense—besides eccentric Uncle Hamilton who repeated things and was known as Uncle Ham Uncle Ham—are the ones who embraced their nuttiness or at least didn’t hide it. I found these to be the most endearing characters in this book. Then again, I always like it when a person’s crazy shows.

I took quite a bit away with me from this book, and I’m still laugh-snorting thinking about certain scenes. But if I learned anything from Dead End Gene Pool, it’s that some people may be ridiculously wealthy but money doesn’t keep them from being ridiculously insane.

Pick up this book for a quick read about one of America’s wealthiest families as seen through the eyes of a woman who not only lived it but decided to write it down so the rest of us could enjoy it while thinking, “My family is crazy but at least they’re not that kind of crazy.”


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