By Deanna Kirk
Ladies at Kinsloe Wednesday were fascinated by Mary Lou McKie’s story of how she met and married Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.
Complete with a slide show and tables of jewelry, yacht club trophies, and other Vanderbilt memorabilia, McKie was first introduced by Margaret Thomas, who provided a brief background.
Mary Louise Gardner was from Terrell, but graduated from Corsicana High School. She is the sister of Billie Love Robinson McFerran, and her story begins in the Blackland prairie of Texas.
“As a little girl, I would often get carried away with a sense of my own importance,” McKie began. “My mother would say, ‘Just who do you think you are? Mrs. Rockefeller, Mrs. Astor, or Mrs. Vanderbilt?’
“On Nov. 4, 1967, I married Cornelius Vanderbilt ... so naturally I called my mother.”
McKie said her romance with Vanderbilt came as quite a surprise. She was fresh from a divorce (in a time when divorce was not common), had three little girls, and lived in a duplex in Miami.
“It had very little air conditioning, Western exposure, and a railroad in the back yard,” she said.
With three children, a dog, her small place and a demanding job with a school, McKie had very little time for socializing, or anything else. Her sister, Billie Love, and her husband Bill, along with Bill and Josephine McNutt, had met Cornelius Vanderbilt.
“The McNutts took interest in his name, but also his gift list,” McKie said. “He sent Collin Street Bakery fruitcakes to many on his Christmas list.”
McKie made brief mention of “Neil” being disinherited, but said that would come later in the story.
“He invited me to go yachting — not as his girlfriend, he had one half his age — but I couldn’t make the arrangements with my job,” she said. “Billie Love and Bill thought I was crazy to turn him down, but it turned out well.”
She said Vanderbilt told her he’d take her to dinner, and console her over her divorce.
“He’d been divorced six times, he knew what he was talking about,” she said.
True to his word, Vanderbilt called her when the season was over to invite her to dinner, but also said he was on a tight schedule. She was taken to his apartment, which was “beautiful, with all the appointments,” when he suddenly burst through the door looking like he’d “fallen off the back of a freight train.”
McKie described tousled white hair, tan, very tan, and startling blue eyes, but said he looked as if he’d slept in his clothing. He excused himself for 10 minutes, and came back looking like “a million bucks.” After visiting a while, Vanderbilt looked at his watch and exclaimed they would be late for a party, which was McKie’s first inkling he considered her his “date.”
“I was spellbound,” she said. “I assumed he was that way with everyone. Billie Love and Josephine told me he was charming, and he was to everyone. But when I got back to school the next day, things were different. We had made the social column.”
The Society page of the newspaper mentioned “Neil” Vanderbilt and Mary Lou being his date, and their arrival at the Palm Bay Club. McKie said her employers at once treated her differently, and couldn’t wait to help her, whereas before, they would not lift a finger to make things any easier.
“My desk was covered with red roses,” she said.
“Now Neil’s secretary was important enough for them to put her calls through ... and she had a list of about four things he wanted me to attend with him.
“I lie a lot. So I said I’d have to check my calendar.
“I didn’t have a calendar, but I did have to check my closet to see if I had anything to wear to these fancy functions.”
Her co-workers bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs had proven valuable, because they had forced her to have some formal dresses made. One fabric she recalled the clerk saying while cutting the piece for her dress was “pretty nice for wash and wear.”
“My first dance with Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. I was wearing ‘wash and wear.’
“I always believed in my heart it wouldn’t last.”
Vanderbilt, who had worked in newspapers as publisher and various other roles, had also penned some books, and he departed to go on tour and promote one. McKie went home to Texas, where the McNutts gave a party for Vanderbilt and she was included, then Billie Love and Bill gave a party for her and he was included.
When Vanderbilt spoke to her father about marriage, he was himself 69 and Mary Lou was 41.
“When my dad died in August, Billie Love said I could come back to Terrell and help mother and work for her,” McKie said. “Neil said to find a house for him, too.
“I was always afraid of Reno; it was too glitzy. He needed to live in Reno ... if you’ve been divorced six times.”
The day before the couple were to wed, Vanderbilt suffered a stroke and was placed in ICU. Five weeks later they were married.
“My Neil was disinherited,” she said. “He was a newspaper reporter. He was the only man to interview Hitler, Mussolini and Al Capone. But his support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and what he did to the banks was what caused his family to disinherit him.”
Vanderbilt also served in the United States Army in World War I and World War II.
McKie brought and shared a slide presentation of the Vanderbilt family tree, photos of family members, some of the palatial estates of the Vanderbilts, even the fashion boards his mother Grace was sent to select her clothing from designers. Photos of herself, Vanderbilt and her three daughters, as well as her mother, were included too.
Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. passed away at age 76, and as the seventh wife, McKie was left what the other six didn’t take. She held a showing at the Metropolitan Museum of her things before she was forced to sell much of the inheritance.
“If you don’t want to leave your children equal amounts, and be fair, then tell them why before you die,” she said. “The Vanderbilts didn’t get over that.”
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