Steven Gittelman, Ph.D., an author and historian of the Vanderbilt family, has written a fascinating new volume to add to his chronicle of one of America’s most famous and influential clans. The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum has just published Mr. Vanderbilt’s Photographer – co-authored with his daughter, Emily Gittelman, and Andrew Wells.
The book details William K. Vanderbilt II’s noted 1931-1932 circumnavigation of the globe in his custom-built, 264-foot yacht, Alva, to visit faraway lands and cultures and to gather specimens for his museum.
Gittelman, a market-research executive and president of Mktg, Inc., is a Vanderbilt Museum trustee and served as Board president for 15 years. In Mr. Vanderbilt’s Photographer, Gittelman, Gittelman and Wells recount the shipboard experiences of Robert Bronner (1907-1962), the 24-year-old photographer Vanderbilt hired to document the journey.
The authors made use of the journal entries Vanderbilt turned into his privately published West Made East with the Loss of a Day (1932), an extensive 377-page account of his eight-month, 28,145-mile expedition.
Bronner shot the 169 black-and-white photographs that illustrate that volume – some of which (plus numerous previously unpublished images) are included in the new book. In addition to shooting still photographs, Bronner assisted Alfred Gilks, the Metro Goldwyn Mayer cinematographer that Vanderbilt hired to document the trip with his motion-picture cameras. (Bronner, too, had worked at MGM, as an assistant camera operator.) In 1951, Gilks won an Academy Award for cinematography for the MGM musical An American in Paris.
To view a clip from Over the Seven Seas, the documentary film of the voyage shot by Gilks and Bronner, use this link and scroll down to “Watch an Excerpt”
Mr. Vanderbilt’s Photographer is available from the Vanderbilt Museum Gift Shop (631-854-5534).
The idea for the book started with the Bronner family’s visit to the Vanderbilt Museum. “The availability of such rich material hooked me,” Gittelman said. Granted permission to use Robert’s diaries by Bronner’s children, Greg Bronner and Eleanor Bronner Anderson, the writers created their narrative by weaving together Bronner’s and Vanderbilt’s accounts.
Mr. Vanderbilt’s Photographer offers a detailed perspective on ocean-going life aboard a huge luxury yacht in the early twentieth century. The compelling story moves in Downton Abbey fashion between the upper deck and private staterooms of the Vanderbilts and their privileged guests, and the below-decks life of Bronner, Gilks and the crew.
Steven Gittelman describes those class differences: “Willie is fancy-pantsing from island to island. Robert gets in deep. Willie is wondering how to justify himself, and Robert is just trying to smell the roses. Willie is living high on the hog, and Robert is sending his money home.”
The authors’ use of the two men’s recorded thoughts, descriptions of place, and private memories lends the story an immediate, you-are-there quality. The access to such personal resources excited Gittelman: “Willie and Robert spoke through us as writers,” he said. “The rich materials provided us not only with their inner thoughts but also with the voices in which they phrased them. We get to see how two very different people reacted to a critical time in world history.”
Robert Bronner later became a Hollywood cinematographer and worked on numerous movies including Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire, Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley and the television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Experience as a Vanderbilt Museum trustee sparked Gittelman’s initial interest: “In order to be effective in my work, I wanted to know about Willie K [as he was called]. When I researched him, I found that there was little to read, and I was off to the races.”
The new volume will be the third of Steven Gittelman’s books on the Vanderbilts. Emily Gittelman, an actress living in Los Angeles, has narrated dozens of audio books. Andrew Wells is a writer from Montreal, Canada, and this is his first work of historical non-fiction.
With Emily, Gittelman also published a little-known story of one of William K. Vanderbilt II’s cousins, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt: The Unlikely Hero of the Lusitania (Hamilton Books, June 2013). In 2010, Gittelman published Willie K. Vanderbilt II: A Biography (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, and London). He is also author of J.P. Morgan and the Transportation Kings (University Press of America, 2012), which chronicles Morgan’s efforts to control North Atlantic shipping in partnership with Vanderbilt and others.
Gittelman said this current book is different from his other works. “There is a natural progression in the story,” he said. “It begins when Robert agrees to go around the world and ends when the journey is completed. My other books were research-intensive. For those projects, I spent years gathering source material. Here, Willie and Robert did the research for us. There were many hands in the making of this book. My co-authors had quite a bit to say on what we would write.”
Gittelman is currently writing the biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Willie K.’s cousin, who gave up his fortune to marry Grace Wilson. Gittelman said he may yet write another book on Vanderbilt, but this time on Willie K.’s father, William K. Vanderbilt Senior, who, Gittelman notes, was known to have said, “The money never made me happy.”