Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

Memoirs by poor little rich kids tend to be pretty interchangeable. The side effects of the Too-Much-Money-Disease are familiar. From the parents, we can expect absenteeism, self-indulgence, profligacy, alcohol abuse; from the neglected children, lack of focus, drugs, and depression. Wendy Burden’s Dead End Gene Pool contains all of the above, but is lifted above the standard product by its author’s powerful, idiosyncratic voice. Far from portraying herself as a victim, Burden comes across as a formidable hard-ass, turned almost to steel by her bizarre upbringing but not — or not quite — deprived of the ability to feel.

Descended on her father’s side from Cornelius Vanderbilt and on her mother’s from a long line of Massachusetts puritans, Burden unsurprisingly opts to focus on the paternal heritage. “Even though this book is about my father and my mother,” she begins, “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.” William Burden III, Wendy’s father, killed himself when she was very small, and from that time on she and her brothers lived with their mother only on the rare occasions when she wasn’t partying in some lotus-land like Palm Beach or Tijuana; eventually they came to view her as “a glamorous lodger who rented the master bedroom suite.” The rest of the time the children were with their grandparents in what the author calls Burdenland, the couple’s insanely grand demesnes in New York City, Northeast Harbor, Hobe Sound, and Mount Kisco. (The Fifth Avenue apartment, for those who are interested in such details, had fourteen bedrooms). Little Wendy distanced herself from her weird surroundings by cultivating a macabre streak and modeling herself on Wednesday Addams.

It was a surreal life, and Burden possesses the intelligence and dark humor to appreciate its more grotesque elements. Her narrative spares no one, not even herself and certainly not her careless, highly-sexed, frequently drunken mother. But as the book’s dedication (“For my mother, goddamn it”) reveals, one can sense a grudging affection behind every barbed sentence.