Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, 1884-1970, great-grandson of shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was a railroad executive, America’s Cup yachtsman with three Cup defenses, commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and originator of contract bridge.
The third child and second son of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Erskine Smith and great-grandson of the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. His childhood was spent visiting his family’s homes in New York and Newport and frequently sailing to Europe, and around he world on his family’s yachts. He gained a love of sailing at a young age and later owned his own yachts, winning six “King’s Cups” and five Astor Cups at regattas between 1922 and 1938. He served as commodore of the New York Yacht Club from 1922 to 1924. Vanderbilt’s yachts the “Enterprise” (1930), and the “Rainbow” (1934) and the “Ranger” successfully defended inthe America’s Cup races in the 1930s. He and a group of others developed a set of yachting rules and in 1960 the International Yacht Racing Union (predecessor to the International Sailing Federation or ISAF) adopted the rules that Vanderbilt and the Americans had developed over the previous quarter century. During the Second World War, Vanderbilt’s yachts Vagrant and Vara were seized by the United States Navy. The Vagrant was designated as YP-258 and later as PYc-30.
During World War I, he was assigned to command the Block Island anti-submarine sector. Upon his reassignment the officers and men of the Block Island sector presented him with an engraved naval officer’s sword as a token of their esteem. The sword is now displayed at the Marble House in Newport.
Harold Vanderbilt had a keen interest in the success of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, founded in 1873 through the financial sponsorship of his great-grandfather. A longtime member of the university’s Board of Trust, he served as its president between 1955 and 1968.
He was also a was a bridge authority whose revisions of auction bridge scoring principles created modern contract bridge, also a system-maker and a champion player. His social standing made the game fashionable. In 1928, he endowed the Vanderbilt Cup awarded to the winners of the North American team-of-four championship (now the Vanderbilt Knockout Teams, or simply “the Vanderbilt”, one of the North American Bridge Championships marquee events). In 1932 and again in 1940 he was part of a team that won his own trophy. Vanderbilt also donated the World Bridge Federation Vanderbilt Trophy, awarded from 1960 to 2004 to the winner of the Open category at the quadrennial World Team Olympiad, and since 2008 to the winner of the corresponding event at the World Mind Sports Games.
Vanderbilt invented the first strong club system, which he called the “Club Convention” but which has since become more usually known as the Vanderbilt Club. The strong club, or forcing club, family of bidding systems has performed exceptionally well in world championship play. He wrote several books on the subject.
In 1969, the World Bridge Federation (WBF) made Vanderbilt its first honorary member. When The Bridge World inaugurated a “Hall of Fame”, he was one of three people named. When the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) established its Hall of Fame three decades later, it recognized as the nine-person Bridge World Hall of Fame from the 1960s as a starting point.
In 1963, Vanderbilt assisted the Preservation Society of Newport County in acquiring the Marble House summer estate in Newport. The Marble House was sold by his mother more than thirty years earlier. Successful in their bid, the property was converted into a museum and has been open to the public since the mid-1960s.
Harold Stirling Vanderbilt died in 1970. He and his wife, Gertrude Conway Vanderbilt, are interred at Saint Mary’s Episcopal Cemetery in Portsmouth, their graves marked with only a simple flat stone. Many documents and artifacts related to the life of Harold Sterling Vanderbilt are preserved and on display at the Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island.