Military Wiki
William Vanderbilt
Chair of the National Governors Association

In office
June 2, 1940 – January 7, 1941
Preceded by Lloyd C. Stark
Succeeded by Harold Stassen
59th Governor of Rhode Island

In office
January 3, 1939 – January 7, 1941
Lieutenant James O. McManus
Preceded by Robert E. Quinn
Succeeded by J. Howard McGrath
Personal details
Born William Henry Vanderbilt III
(1901-11-24)November 24, 1901
New York City, U.S.
Died April 14, 1981(1981-04-14) (aged 79)
Williamstown, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Emily O'Neill Davies (m. 1923; div. 1928)
Anne Gordon Colby (m. 1929; div. 1969)
Helen Cummings Cook (m. 1970; his death 1981)
Children 4
Parents Alfred Vanderbilt (father)
Ellen French (mother)

William Henry Vanderbilt III (November 24, 1901 – April 14, 1981) was Governor of Rhode Island and a member of the wealthy and socially prominent Vanderbilt family.

Early life

William Henry Vanderbilt III was born in New York City on November 24, 1901. He was the son of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and Ellen "Elsie" French. Vanderbilt's father was a great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the family fortune in railroads and shipping. William Vanderbilt's parents divorced in 1908, and through his father's second marriage he had two half-brothers, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II, and George Washington Vanderbilt III. In 1915, his father perished in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. In 1934, his cousin on his mother's side, Ellen Tuck French, married John Jacob Astor VI, bringing together two of America's most famous and wealthy families.


Vanderbilt was educated at St. George's School in Middletown, Rhode Island (Class of 1919) and the Evans School in Mesa, Arizona, he attended Princeton University but dropped out during his first year. In 1940, Vanderbilt received an honorary LL.D. from Bates College.


When he turned 21, the then legal age of majority, in 1922, Vanderbilt inherited a $5 million trust fund plus the 450 acre (1.8 km²) Oakland Farm in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, one of his father's estates that included a number of thoroughbred horses. He made the farm his permanent home until the end of the Second World War.


First World War

Shortly before the United States declared war on Germany during the First World War, Vanderbilt dropped out of St. George's School upon his appointment as a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Coast Defense Reserve to rank from March 20, 1917.[1] As he was only 15 at the time, he was one of the youngest Americans to have served in the war. (It is unclear how he was able to join the service at such a young age but, probably, his family connections were a factor. Another curiosity is that he was the only person to hold the rank of midshipman in the Naval Reserve.)

During his service in the Navy, Vanderbilt served on the torpedo test ship USS Vesuvius from April 17 to May 31, 1917, the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport from June 1, 1917 to March 7, 1918, aide for information Second Naval District from March 7 to July 15, 1918, in Norfolk, Virginia from July 23 to September 16, 1918, New London, Connecticut from September 19 to November 14, 1918 and as a plank owner of the newly commissioned destroyer USS Evans from November 11, 1918 to August 30, 1919.[2] While serving on the Evans, Vanderbilt went on a cruise to Europe from June to August 1919. He was discharged from the Navy shortly after the end of the cruise.

The Short Line

In 1925, Vanderbilt started a coach bus company, called The Short Line, carrying passengers between Newport and Providence. Within a few years he expanded the business to serve points throughout New England and New York. The Short Line was purchased by George Sage in 1955 and, in 1970, was renamed Bonanza Bus Lines. Bonanza eventually merged with the Coach USA bus line in 1998 and was sold to Peter Pan Bus Lines in 2003. The Short Line's original terminal building in Newport still stands and is located near the intersection of Spring and Touro streets.

As a state senator and successful business leader, Vanderbilt was also a champion of the Mount Hope Bridge which connects Aquidneck Island with the mainland on the road north to Providence, Rhode Island from Newport. He was named the Chairman of the Mount Hope Bridge Commission and gave the opening address at the bridge's dedication on October 24, 1929.[3]

Political career

Vanderbilt was a member of the Republican Party. In 1928 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Rhode Island and that year was elected to the Rhode Island State Senate. Vanderbilt served in the State Senate for six years (1929–1935) and then took time off to be with his ailing wife, Anne Gordon Colby. On her recovery, he re-entered political life and successfully ran for Governor of Rhode Island in 1938. He served one two year term from January 1939 to January 1941. His refusal to dole out patronage to fellow Republicans, however, weakened his power base and a scandal over wire-tapping by a private detective firm he had hired to investigate election fraud, cost him re-election in 1940.

Navy service during World War II

In May 1941 Vanderbilt, an officer in the Naval Reserve, was called to active duty in June 1941 with the rank of lieutenant commander and initially assigned to the Panama Canal Zone.[4] He was promoted to commander on August 15, 1942.[5] In 1942 Vanderbilt was assigned as executive officer of the Special Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under General William J. Donovan. In May 1944 he was assigned to the staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.[6] He was promoted to the rank of captain prior to the end of the war.[7]

Later life

After his discharge from the Navy at the end of the war, Vanderbilt left Rhode Island and retired to a farm in South Williamstown, Massachusetts. Oakland Farm and its 150 acres in Portsmouth, Rhode Island was sold and divided into housing lots by the end of the 1940s.[8]

Vanderbilt died of cancer on April 14, 1981, at the age of 79.[9][10] He was buried in the Southlawn Cemetery in Williamstown, Massachusetts.[11] He is one of the few descendants of William Henry Vanderbilt not to be buried in the family tomb on Staten Island.

Personal life

Vanderbilt in 1940

Vanderbilt married Emily O'Neill Davies (1903–1935),[12] granddaughter of Daniel O'Neill, owner of the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper, and daughter of Frederick Martin Davies on November 1, 1923 at Grace Church, New York. Emily was the grandniece of Frederick Townsend Martin, a prominent writer of the 1920s. The couple gave birth to a daughter:

  • Emily "Paddy" Vanderbilt (b. 1925),[13][14] who married Jeptha Wade, both graduates of MIT.[15]

The couple's marriage was troubled and Emily sued for divorce in Paris in the summer of 1926, but reconciled. She again sued for divorce in Newport, Rhode Island which was granted in June 1928.[16] She later married Sigourney Thayer (1896–1944), for less than a year, and then Raoul Whitfield (1896–1945), shortly before his death in 1935.[12]

On December 27, 1929, Vanderbilt married for the second time to Anne Gordon Colby (1909–1974) of West Orange, New Jersey. Together, they had three children:

  • Anne Vanderbilt (d. 2014), who was married Samuel Adams Hartwell, Sr.[17]
  • Elsie Vanderbilt, who married M. Bernard Aidinoff (1929–2016) in 1996.[18]
  • William H. Vanderbilt Jr. (b. 1945)

This marriage also ended in divorce in 1969 after 40 years of marriage, and Vanderbilt promptly re-married the following year to Helen Cummings Cook (d. 1997), who was previously married to John R. Cook, founder of Warren Cable Co., who survived him in death.[19]


For his service in the Navy, Vanderbilt was entitled to the following medals –


  1. United States Navy Register, 1918. pg. 349.
  2. St. George's School in the War, pg. 151.
  3. Rhode Island Historical Society
  4. New York Times. June 7, 1941.
  5. Naval Reserve Register. 1944.
  6. New York Times. May 28, 1944.
  7. New York Times, May 6, 1941. ; U.S. Navy Reserve Register, 1943
  9. Blair, William G. (April 16, 1981). "William H. Vanderbilt, 79, Dead.". New York Times. Retrieved August 4, 2008. "William Henry Vanderbilt, a former Governor of Rhode Island who was a great-great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th century railroad magnate, died Tuesday night at his home in South Williamstown, Massachusetts He was 79 years old. Mr. Vanderbilt, a Republican, served in the State Senate from 1928 to ..." 
  10. "Died". Time. April 27, 1981.,9171,924738,00.html. Retrieved August 4, 2008. "William Henry Vanderbilt, 79, farmer-philanthropist and sometime politician who served as Governor of Rhode Island from 1938 to 1940 and was the great-great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th century railroad magnate; of cancer; in Williamstown, Massachusetts" 
  11. "Vanderbilt-Burden family of New York City, New York". Political Graveyard. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 "OWN LIFE TAKEN BY EX-WIFE OF W. H. VANDERBILT". Chicago Tribune. May 25, 1935. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
  13. "Wm. H. Vanderbilts Have a Daughter". New York Times. May 13, 1925. Retrieved March 30, 2009. 
  14. Taylor, Candace (March 13, 2015). "Emily Vanderbilt Wade Buys in Georgia for $22 Million". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
  15. McCluskey, Eileen. "Partnering with Museums to Excite Children about Science". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
  16. "Emily Vanderbilt Marries S. Thayer". New York Times. December 8, 1928. Retrieved March 30, 2009. 
  17. "Paid Notice: DeathsHARTWELL, ANNE V.". The New York Times. December 11, 2014. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
  18. Silverman, Irene (August 25, 2016). "M. Bernard Aidinoff, 87 | The East Hampton Star" (in en). East Hampton Star. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
  19. "H. Vanderbilt, Philanthropist" (in en). Sun Sentinel. September 26, 1997. Retrieved February 21, 2017. 
Party political offices
Preceded by
Charles Sisson
Republican nominee for Governor of Rhode Island
1938, 1940
Succeeded by
James O. McManus
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert E. Quinn
Governor of Rhode Island
Succeeded by
J. Howard McGrath
Preceded by
Lloyd C. Stark
Chair of the National Governors Association
Succeeded by
Harold Stassen

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