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.