Bonfire of the Vanderbilts Review - Psychological Art Mystery

The recently LaPuerta Books published novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanderbilts,” by Gerald Everett Jones, has an  allusive title, clearly a sendup of Thomas Wolfe’s 1987 blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities, which attempts to bolster the literary aspirations of the novel, but falls a bit short.


Bonfire of the Vanderbilts cover

However, despite some overreaching, the book was well-researched, well-written, enjoyable and even intriguing. Jones excavates a rich vein of art history information on one aspect of the book: this is the story of an artist and a painting, and the purported link between that painting and the Vanderbilts. I can honestly say that when I had finished reading, I could gaze at the photos of the painting, and I knew who each of the multiple characters were purported to be, and also, whom within the artists family had posed as artists models. What was NOT demonstrated, however, was that any of the suppositions about the paintings genesis or provenance were in any way true. This novel suffers from being too ambitious by half, cobbling together an art history –art mystery tale, several attempted domestically related crimes, a dollop of psychological subtext, and repeated plot reversals.



The Baptism, Bonfire of the Vanderbilts website


Jones is a skillful writer and this is his sixth novel. The author nicely contrasts academic theorizing with the realities of marriage in our modern age set against the varied backdrops of the French Academie painters at the turn of the nineteenth century, monied New York Presbyterians and the current LA arts industry A-listers. The text of the novel also contained a fair amount of information about the French Beaux Arts School, the influence of American money on purchases of Art from the school and in particular, on Julius Stewart, son of an American who raised his family in Paris. He painted “The Baptism”, in 1892; it currently hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That’s all we really know for certain, and all the rest is speculation, to wit, that the painting contains a well-kept Vanderbilt family secret.


The novel does in fact contain some interesting biographical data on the two early Vanderbilt brothers, railroad barons, Cornelius and William. It also presents us with undocumented scenes and speculations from their lives which move the plot along, but not to any sort of  climax. While it’s no doubt interesting to learn about how young art historians conduct research, (and somewhat less interesting to read about how they pad their expense accounts), the Vanderbilt mystery is implausible and dribbles away.


Gerald Everett Journey at Mystic Journey Bookstore (credit Tom Page) Headshot credit Gabriella Muttone Photography


The second and better developed plot is that of a domestic tangle par excellence. Grace Atwood is a well-educated heiress-although how much she’s worth is up for grabs. What is certain is that her dastardly husband will stoop at nothing to get at it. A silicon inventor-loser, Alan is having an affair with her best-friend, Maggie; the two of them plot and work hard to bring about an end that is unclear. If not madness, it’s her belief in her own madness. If not murder, it’s her belief in the death of a child. Grace struggles with her own brief psychological insights, her undefined job with some sort of art “institute”, where she’s (of course) employed by her uncle, and the loss of her eyeglasses which renders her blind to infidelity and the true identity of the people around her.


I won’t spoil the plot; suffice to say there are many twists and turns and things are better than they seem!


It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Vanderbilt family was not accepted into the true vanguard of East Coast aristocracy until William Vanderbilt juniors’ family triumphed through the constant efforts of his wife, Alva Belmont. By the time their daughter, Consuelo, born in 1877 was presented to society, this family unit, who spoke French at home, was firmly devoted to philanthropy and Alva was a pronounced suffragette. Before she was 20, Consuelo married Charles Spencer-Churchill (yes, a relative of both Winston Churchill and Diana Spencer), the ninth Duke of Marlborough. While she may have been one of a wave of American heiresses who bolstered foundering British fortunes in exchange for a title, the lovely Consuelo divorced the Duke, but not before using her standing to make viable her strongly liberal political beliefs and increasingly generous acts of philanthropy.



Gerald Everrett Jones reads from his novel


With her second husband, French patriot Jacques Balsan, she helped shelter many child-evacuees during World War 1. She’s buried in England, near her younger son; the inscription reads simply “Consuelo Vanderbilt: Mother of the 10th Duke of Marlborough”. Certainly, this scion of the family had little to hide. For further information, see Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, by Amanda MacKenzie Stuart, HarperCollins, 2006.



Credit Gabriella Muttone Photography

Order "Bonfire of the Vanderbuilts" from Amazon




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