Spring Reading Series: DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion Questions

Hello Spring Readers!

This month we’re reading Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt which, according to her website, ‘qualifies her to comment freely on the downward spiral of the blue blood families.’ For anyone interested in the super-rich, this is a fascinating and witty account of growing up surrounded by tremendous wealth, but it’s also a tragic tale of family dysfunction and parental neglect.

We are so fortunate to have Wendy joining us in real time, right here at Books on the Brain, on May 18th at 5 pm PST. If you’ve read Dead End Gene Pool or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Wendy!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burden’s had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

At the heart of the story is Wendy’s glamorous and aloof mother who, after her husband’s suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain- smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book? Was it what you expected?

2. Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3. What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4. In the synopsis it says that Dead End Gene Pool gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different. The rich ARE different, but in what ways are they different? How are they the same?

5. Wendy’s grandparents placed a higher importance on her brother’s education than on hers. Have you experienced that type of inequity in your own family? If so, was the sibling relationship damaged as a result?

6. Do you think Wendy’s mother was essentially ‘bought off’ by the grandparents, bullied into making her children available to them for long stretches of time, over holidays, etc? Or was she just a really neglectful parent?

7. Who do you think was the most influential adult in Wendy’s childhood? In what way?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

8. Wendy almost seemed to raise herself. How did she cope?

9. Often you hear about people who have come into money either through inheritance or the lottery, and blow through it really quickly. They sometimes find the money doesn’t make them any happier. Why do you think unearned money can be so difficult for people to manage?

10. What adjectives would you use to describe this book?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Dead End Gene Pool. Thanks for reading along with us. And don’t forget to join us on May 18th for our discussion with Wendy!

Do you have questions for Wendy? Leave them here in the comments or email me with them and I will pass them along, for her to consider before our discussion.


19 Responses

  1. I can’t wait to see the discussions on this one! I love stories about the rich and famous…they are usually more dysfunctional than the average bear.

  2. Lisa, I’m still reading this book. Great questions! I look forward to the online discussion. 🙂

  3. i read this book a while back and found it interesting. i think i would have enjoyed it a bit more if the distance (time) between wendy and her great-great-great grandparents wouldn’t have been so far. i love history (and memoirs) and wish that burden would have been a bit closer to the action, so to speak. she was born a bit too late… 🙂

    that said, i found the book to be very well written and entertaining. i found some great photos online at wendy’s website, too. i did some research to get a better understanding of her extensive family tree. great questions–i’ll be away on the 18th but will check back and see how the Q&A went!

    • I love it when a book compels you to do further research!! I’ll have to find the link to those photos.. I bet they’re interesting!

    • I actually love that we get to see the “aftermath” of such success, generations later. Maybe because I’ve always been so fascinated by “old money,” since it is so far from what I grew up with.

  4. Right up my alley! Looking forward to the interview.

  5. Looking forward to this!! Thanks, Lisa, for organizing it all!!

  6. I have a few questions for Wendy for our web discussion.

    1. How much wealth was left when your grandparents died and how was it distributed? Did the fact that your brother was a co-executor of the estate affect the distribution or cause any problems?

    2. What happened to each of the homes owned by your grandparents? Are they still standing? If so, do you know who owns them now and have you ever re-visited them?

    3. I assume that most of your grandparent’s art collection went to MOMA. Was any great art left to you or your brothers or to your uncle? If so can you tell us who got what?

    4. What is your most cherished item left to you by your grandparents? Is there anything that you coveted that went to someone else?

    5. I understand that one of your uncles is alive and living in CT. Are you in contact with him? Can you describe his life today? Do you know if he has read the book and, if so, what was his reaction?

    6. At the end of the book, you discover that Charles Thomas, your mom’s lover, contrary to what your mother told you is still alive. Have you made any attempt to contact him or has he reached out to you since the book was published? Have others that knew your mother or grandparents reacted strongly to the book?

    7. Are your mother’s ex-husbands alive and are you in contact with them?

    8. I understand that you have two daughters. Are their lives, in any way, similar to yours with your siblings. Do you recognize any of the traits of your relatives in them?

  7. I just finished Dead End Gene Pool — it was so fascinating! I second Nat @ book, line & sinker, the book made me want to learn more about her family tree and their history. I’d love to see the homes and art that she describes so well in the book, although they’ve probably been sold and the places changed.

    I’m sorry that I won’t be able to join the live chat but I look forward to reading the transcripts. Like Vance, I’d like to find out more about the division of property after Wendy’s grandparents passed away and whether any of their home remain in the family (and are open for the family to view).

    Wendy comes across as so witty, intelligent, and spirited in the book. Is she willing to tell us more about her life after the book ended? We know that she’s owned and been a chef at Chez Wendy, but who did she marry? Why did she decide to live in Oregon? How is she raising her children? How does she fill her days (aside from writing and touring)?

    So many of us dream of money to become financially independent, have the mortgages paid off, take any job that we want, etc. How has she chosen to shape her life and what makes her happy? What would a perfect day for her be like?

    Who does she like to read? What is she reading now?


  8. I stayed up late reading because I lost track of time, but I’m looking forward to the discussion. I’m curious who is on the cover of the book. Wendy’s mother or grandmother?

  9. Ack–my book club is meeting at exactly the same time so I can’t join the live discussion. One thing I found really interesting was how Wendy’s grandmother just threw money away in some ways (like buying prescription eyeglasses and then just tucking them away in a drawer) but was so tight with money in other ways (like stiffing the cabbies).

  10. […] it! Lisa on Spring Reading Series: DEAD EN…Bookfool, aka Nancy on Spring Reading Series: DEAD EN…Gaby @ Starting Fres… on Spring […]

  11. Welcome, Wendy! I finished your very funny book yesterday. 🙂

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