Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

( 66 )

Overview

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy Burden's birth, the Burdens had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline—and were rarely seen not holding a drink.

In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites listeners to meet her tragically flawed ...

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Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

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Overview

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy Burden's birth, the Burdens had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline—and were rarely seen not holding a drink.

In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites listeners to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother. At the heart of the story is Wendy's glamorous and aloof mother, who, after her husband's suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain-smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

If nineteenth century power brokers could understand the meaning of "gene pool," they would be appalled that the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of tycoon Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt would disparage her bloodline. It be impossible for them to believe that the descendants of that this masterful entrepreneur had become a clan of alcoholic, drug-using wastrels. Yet, if we believe Wendy Burden's irreverent memoir, it was true. Her own mother, for instance, was a case study in dysfunction; an emotionally distant woman who coped with the suicides of two close relations by starving and nearly drowning herself in drink. Daughter Wendy was perhaps more imaginative: She dealt with the disconnects by becoming a macabre goth and, eventually, by approaching familial cacophony with candor and winning wit. Imagine a more zestful, feminine Augusten Burroughs. Now in paperback and NOOKbook.

Kirkus Reviews
In her down-to-earth debut, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt offers an insider's view of growing up in an old-money family rich with dysfunction. Burden and her brothers, "for all intents and purposes" parentless, were reared under the less-than-watchful eyes of hired help and her grandparents. The author's jokes about her grandmother's digestive system aren't funny enough to merit their frequency, but it's hard not to sympathize with a narrator whose girlhood was so bereft of discipline and affection. She describes her grandmother as dependent on Percocet and Dubonnet, and both grandparents as heavy drinkers living in their own private reality. After her alcoholic, anorexic mother remarried-to Burden's late-father's best friend, an arms dealer-the unhappy family relocated to Virginia. A move to suburban England followed, where the author's "pretty much friendless" teenage years were peppered with bizarre experiences like her mother giving her birth-control pills at age 14. After her grandfather flew her to Paris on the Concorde to celebrate her 16th birthday, "things in Burdenland spiraled downward faster than you can say amphetamine psychosis," and her life was marked by her grandfather's increased drinking and her little brother's suicidal tendencies, drug addiction and conviction that he was the reincarnation of their father. The author's unwavering determination to view her memories through a humorous lens pays off in her total lack of self-pity, but she occasionally comes across as glib and perhaps unable to look too closely at the root of her family's pain. Consequently, her unique experiences are often merely entertaining instead of affecting. Engagingbut uneven. Agent: Kim Witherspoon/InkWell Management
From the Publisher
"Charles Addams meets Carrie Bradshaw in this honest, sardonic, and touching memoir." ---Jane Stanton Hitchcock, New York Times bestselling author of Social Crimes
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

--Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400115693
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/1/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 5.58 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Coleen Marlo is an accomplished actor and multi-award-winning audiobook voice artist and producer. In 2010 she was named Audiobook Narrator of the Year by Publishers Weekly, and she won the Audie Award for Literary Fiction in 2011. She has won numerous Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards and is an AudioFile Earphones Award winner.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Thirty-one Moons 9

Popeye 23

Gaga in the Jungle 30

Terrapin Soup 47

My Family and Other Domestics 65

Ugly House 86

DC 107

Why they Invented Florida 123

A Dose of Religion 136

Oi, Yank! 160

George 186

Maine Revisited 209

We'll Always have Paris 227

Go Fish 240

Checkout Time 251

Deposition 266

Epilogue 277

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

"In the future, I’d be able to resolve all kinds of things by invoking the proverbial "suffering is redemptive" theory. Like if my mother hadn’t married that dictatorial sphincter, I wouldn’t have acquired a sense of self so early in life. Or learned to drive a stick at twelve. And if my father hadn’t killed himself, I wouldn’t have inherited a few million at twenty-one. But that philosophy wasn’t working for me then, and I was as tortured as St. Augustine" (p. 151).

For the average kid, a father’s suicide is pretty high on the list of things that can screw up your childhood. But for Wendy Burden, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was just one of a mind-boggling series of tragedies and dysfunctions that characterized life along her branch of the fabulously wealthy—and fabulously doomed—Vanderbilt dynasty.

By the time Wendy was seven, she and her brothers, Will and Edward, were pint-sized frequent fliers, shuttled off to visit their paternal grandparents while their jet-setting mother pursued the perfect tan and searched for a new male companion. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden II were more than happy to host their only grandsons at their palatial Manhattan apartment, winter getaway in Florida, and avant-garde summerhouse in Maine—but it was clear that a Burden granddaughterwas a second-class citizen.

So, despite her mother’s characteristically blunt advice that, "there are lots of little girls who’d give up growing tits for a chance to hang out on Fifth Avenue and be waited on by servants" (p. 12), Wendy just wanted to stay at home with her beloved, chain-smoking Scottish governess, Henrietta. Her protests ignored, Wendy consoled herself by playing tricks on the servants, turning her Easy-Bake Oven into a crematorium, and otherwise channeling her "soul sister," Wednesday Addams (p. 34).

Yet, it was more than her grandfather’s blatant misogyny that disturbed Wendy. Even a child could see that all was not well in the opulent Burden household. Her father, William A. M. Burden III, had been his parents’ shining hope, and his death paved the way for what became their round-the-clock cocktail hour. The family fortune was still significant, but diminishing, and none of the three remaining sons were interested in bolstering it. Drinks in hand, the Burdens tried to groom Wendy’s brothers into worthy heirs.

Meanwhile, Wendy’s mother was charting her own course toward oblivion.

After being cut out of the Burden will, she teetered in and out of marriage to an arms dealer while subsisting on a diet of Bacardi and raw hamburger dipped in Lipton’s Onion Soup mix. During their occasional family vacations, she’d criticize Wendy’s figure while chiseling souvenir chunks off of famous landmarks like Stonehenge and Plymouth Rock.

Dead End Gene Pool is a darkly hilarious, compulsively readable memoir filled with jaw-dropping details from the ultimate insider. Equipped with unwavering honesty and an acerbic sense of humor reminiscent of David Sedaris, Wendy turns the poor-little-rich-girl trope on its head in this riveting, tragic-comic account of growing up amid the not-so-glittering ruins of one of America’s richest and most prominent families.

ABOUT WENDY BURDEN

Wendy Burden is a former illustrator, zoo keeper, taxidermist, owner and chef of the bistro Chez Wendy, and the art director of a pornographic magazine—from which she was fired for being too tasteful. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

A CONVERSATION WITH WENDY BURDEN

Q. What spurred you to write this memoir, now?

People dying like crazy is what spurred me to write it. It forces you to try to make sense of your life.

Q. Gloria Vanderbilt and CNN’s Anderson Cooper are distant cousins of yours. Overall, how have the other branches of the Vanderbilt clan fared?

I’ve never known the Burden side of the family to intertwine with others, but this spring I’ve been invited to attend the annual Vanderbilt bulb planting/clean up of the Commodore’s tomb, so I’ll let you know.

Q. You’ve certainly experienced more than your share of tragedy. And, if you read the tabloids, it seems as if the rich are more prone to spectacular tragedy. What are your thoughts?

First of all, I don’t see it as "tragedy." I was never hungry, I was never raped by a relative; that is tragedy. Everyone experiences adversity; people just like to read about misfortune affecting the wealthy because it shows that their money can’t protect them.

Q. During your time in England, you spent a lot of time with the working-class Dorans. In retrospect, do you think you would have had a happier childhood growing up in their family?

No, but certainly not less happy.

Q. In describing your grandparents’ household, you write that, "the most important person in the household was the chef" (p. 66). Did this influence your decision to become a chef and restaurateur later in life?

I cook to eat! I am a total glutton.

Q. In an interview you did before Dead End Gene Pool was published, you share that it was initially conceived as a cookbook. How did it become a memoir?

I became increasingly anecdotal, and on top of that, the sudden cluster of deaths within my family…certainly food for thought, no pun intended.

Q. Was your grandfather a foodie ahead of his time, or have the rich always had an obsession with eating and drinking? If you could prepare and serve your grandparents one final meal, what would it be?

It’s not that the rich necessarily enjoy it more, I mean look at all the wealthy anorexics you see in restaurants or in pictures in the social columns. I think historically the rich could afford to cultivate food and drink, and could travel to different countries and experience French or Italian cuisines in their own environment. The final meal I’d cook for my grandmother would definitely be a big fat steak. She loved red meat. For my grandfather I’d make Terrapin à la Florham, which is an incredibly labor intensive dish his grandmother’s chef used to make. It’s probably illegal now.

Q. You very casually recount two instances of what would now be called sexual abuse: being bitten on the butt by Arturo, the Italian chef, and being fondled and kissed by the captain. Your mother dismissed your complaints about the captain by saying, "Let an old man have some fun! Anyway, he got his nuts shot off in the war, so it’s not like he can really doanything" (p. 97). How do you feel, if at all, it has affected you later in life?

I don’t see the butt-biting as sexual abuse; I honestly think that’s what they did in his country when they were really pleased by something a kid did. What happened with the Captain, well I kind of shelved it at the time, and frankly, compared to things that were done to so many women I know, from all different socio-economic backgrounds, I got off pretty lucky because that was the only transgression that ever really happened to me.

Q. How did your relationship with your mother affect your views on parenting?

I could only do better!

Q. Your Uncle Bob exposed you to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe the same day that you discovered newspaper obituaries. Would it be fair to say that literature saved you?

If the cartoon captions of Charles Addams is considered literature, then definitely.

Q. In your opinion, what is the most important character trait a child born to great wealth needs to avoid being warped by all the money?

Self-sufficiency.

Q. Do you have plans for another book?

I’m working on a book about great love, great loss, and learning to fly an airplane.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Wendy exhibits a dark sense of humor. How do you think this affected her perception of the events of her childhood?
     
  2. What do you think saved Wendy from the pitfalls that plagued her brothers and uncles?
     
  3. Were either Wendy’s grandparents or her own mother adequate child custodians? Do you think the courts would have questioned their custody if the family hadn’t had so much money?
     
  4. How could Wendy and Will’s mother and grandparents better handled explaining the suicide of their father to them?
     
  5. Wendy writes, "rich people behaving badly are far more interesting than the not so rich behaving badly" (p. 5). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
     
  6. If the Horatio-Algeresque rise of Cornelius Vanderbilt embodies the fulfillment of the American dream, why is it so pleasurable to read about his heirs’ descent into decadence and failure?
     
  7. There are a lot of stories about lottery winners and inheritors of great wealth either burning through their money, or winding up really unhappy. Why do you think unearned money is so often a curse?
     
  8. How, if at all, does the wealth of Wendy’s grandparents affect your reading of their final years?
     
  9. If you could ask Wendy one question left unanswered by her memoir, what would it be?
     
  10. Dead End Gene Pool is both touching and funny. Would Wendy’s narrative have been as compassionate if she’d written it in her 20’s or 30’s?
     
  11. Why does Wendy choose to end the book with the information she discovered about Charles Thomas, her mother’s former lover?
     
  12. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The rich are different from you and I." And Ernest Hemingway’s famously replied, "Yes, they have more money." Whose statement do you find yourself in agreement with after reading Dead End Gene Pool?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 66 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(25)

4 Star

(10)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(10)

1 Star

(13)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 2, 2010

    Dead End Writer

    I rarely write reviews but this book was so bad that I felt like I needed to warn people. I struggled to finish Dead End Gene Pool. I have no idea how this thing got published. The first couple of chapters were okay but that was it. This writing seemed so over done and cold. I wanted something fun/light to read but this book was depressing and the writer seemed self absorbed. When I finished it I was upset at myself for putting money in this womans pocket-after reading 250 pages of her complaing how hard it was to be spoiled I realized she obviously didn't need my money.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2010

    I hope this dead end gene pool stops here too

    In spite of the okay manner in which this book is written, I found myself becoming bored very quickly because NOTHING HAPPENS! The anecdotes are slightly amusing, but it has no depth, story or Insight into any of the characters. I enjoy reading about rich people as much as the next person and I love trash, but "when I was 7, when I was 8, when I was 9, when I was 10..." can get very tiresome. I am giving it two stars and not one because I enjoyed the first chapter. After that it was a total snooze.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The lives of messed up rich people

    Author Burden takes what is in reality a sad family situation full of neglect and lacking any sort of parental direction, and spins it into a funny tale reminiscent of Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. The cover of this book is definitely what reeled me in, and Burden hits the ground running with jokes about her flatulent grandmother and her jet-setting absentee mother.

    Although the book definitely has its witty moments, the jokes and the incessant effort to make a bad situation funny become tiresome after awhile. I also wonder at the accuracy of certain parts of the memoir. Nobody I know remembers this much about their childhood! I think I was hoping for more of the Vanderbilt family backstory, not just how messed up Burden's parents and grandparents were. Certain stories in the memoir that were supposed to make me chuckle simply made me cringe or shake my head. Needless to say, this one fell flat for me. If you want a truly funny memoir, check out Burroughs instead.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2011

    Waste of Time/Money

    Disappointing - Betrayal of Author's family secrets

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great read!

    I just finished this book and thought it was great. She has an excellent writing style, funny, irreverent, and interesting. This first chapter gets a little bogged down as she details her relation to the Vanderbilts but after that, really engaging and I was sorry when it ended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 16, 2012

    I enjoyed the book although it wasn't what I expected. I did fi

    I enjoyed the book although it wasn't what I expected. I did find it
    extremely disappointing that the pictures from the book I looked at were
    not available in the nook version. It makes me less and less inclined
    to use the nook for books.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2012

    Gabriella

    Im back

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2012

    Sorry, I just couldn't manage to get through it...

    My mom and I purchased this book at the recommendation of a friend. There are a few humorous scenes, but overall, I couldn't stay with it. I don't think my mom finished it either. With 100 pages to go, it didn't seem to be leading anywhere.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2012

    ST RIP PARTY!!!!

    At live first result (involves nook s*x)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2012

    Nessa

    Is bored

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2012

    Jjr

    I can jump five feet off the ground

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Greyton

    See post in result six. :)

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2012

    Viv

    Where sierra

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2012

    cameron

    Awesome!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2012

    Aled

    Howdy

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2012

    Lilly to tom

    Heyyy u on

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  • Posted May 9, 2011

    Fascinating

    I think this book offers such a unique and interesting perspective on distant and dysfunctional parenting. I loved the insight into the lives of this dynasty and loved her hilarious observations. I actually found myself laughing out loud.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 26, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Not what I expected

    After reviewing the last couple of comments I've come to the realization that they must have been done by a friend of the author/or the author themself. I don't know how this book got so much press. I would read Me Talk Pretty One Day or Running with Scissors instead. The writing just wasn't that good.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2010

    Loved this book!

    This book intrigued me from beginning to end. To peek in on a dynasty such as this one was great fun! My hat comes off to Wendy Burden for not following in the footsteps of her brothers. For those who wrote those scathing reviews, lighten up! Or is there a tad of envy blocking your view?

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    Want to hear more!

    While I admit that the Vanderbilt name made me buy, it's way more than just another Vanderbilt family tome; rather, it's a truly modern take on one of America's most interesting families brought, fast-forward, into our time. I didn't want it to end and actually re-read it immediately upon finishing it the first time just to catch all those things I didn't on my first read. My only criticism is it's way too short AND given the enticing photo on the cover there are NO photos inside when I'm sure they do exist!

    Thanks Wendy for letting me into your world!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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