Upon William Henry Vanderbilt's death, he left his side of the Vanderbilt triple palace in New York City, which he had built for him and his daughters, to his youngest son George Vanderbilt. Upon George Vanderbilt's death it was to pass to George's eldest son, if he had a son. George Vanderbilt died without a son, so the Vanderbilt mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue, along with $1 million, passed to the eldest son of the eldest son of William Henry Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson.
Neily had been disinherited by his father, who disapproved of Grace and her family. Since Cornelius didn't like Grace, none of the Vanderbilts did and she was shunned by the entire family. Not even Neily's stern mother, Alice, who was considered a saint, would see them. The only Vanderbilt who would talk to them was Neily's uncle, William Kissam Vanderbilt.
At Grace's desiring, Neily quickly had plans drawn up for major alterations to the mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue. Once done, he turned the plans over to famed architect Horace Trumbauer, who would carry out the renovations. The cost of the renovations would total to $500,000, which at that price the newspapers commented "For that amount, as fine a private home as the average wealthy man could wish for could be built in the most exclusive residential part of the upper east side"
2 years later the house was ready for occupancy and the Vanderbilt's immediately opened the house with a large ball. The exterior had been completely stripped of most of it's decorative features and the home had been expanded in the back. The most obvious addition was the large, one story entrance pavilion.
The interiors had been completely gutted, the only thing salvaged was the large, malachite vase that had stood in the original entrance vestibule. The new interiors included on the ground floor a marble-lined hall, two dressing rooms, a three-story great hall, a ballroom, music room, dining room, family dining room, library, art gallery and the red and gold ante room. The second floor held Neily and Grace's private master suites, each with their own bath and dressing room, Grace's pink boudoir, Neily's private sitting room and sound proof laboratory, the breakfast room and the children's rooms. The next two floor held the guest rooms, guest sitting rooms, bathrooms, dressing room and the female servant's rooms. The basement held the male servant's rooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and other service rooms.
By the time the house was completed, Grace had already been recognized as the new Queen of New York City Society, replacing Mrs. Astor, who had died back in 1908. Grace began to host several balls and dinners during the New York City season. An invitation to her house, would secure social success.
Every year, at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House, Grace's arrival was always the one most looked forward to. Her box at the Met was located on the famous first tier of boxes, the famous "Diamond Horseshoe" as it was called (Mrs. Astor had always claimed that the "Diamond Horsehoe" had been named after her famous 200 stone diamond necklace, which she had always worn at the opening of the opera).
Shortly after they moved into the Vanderbilt mansion, Neily began to realize the mistake he made, sacrificing a fortune for a pretty face, because once a pretty face was gone, it was gone. Grace began to grow uglier and uglier with the years. She began to grow white hair early in life and she left it alone, except for dying it a special Chinese Tea. She began to gain weight from all the French cooking at her dinners and, because servants did everything for her, she did absolutely nothing to lose weight.
Grace had a very organized schedule, which was, one ball a month, two large dinner parties a week and smaller dinners and brunches daily. At Grace's dinner parties were the usuals: Berwinds, Goelets, Hammonds, Aldrichs, Burdens, Harrimans and Biddles. At her large dinners there was normally around 100 people, most of whom Grace scarcely knew, but at her small dinners of normally 50 people, Grace knew everyone there.
When in Newport, Grace rented "Beaulieu" cottage, formerly the home of John Astor III and William Waldorf Astor, which she later purchased. It was at "Beaulieu" that Grace gave her first major party, where she had the play "The Wild Rose" come to Newport and perform for her guests.
Eventually Alice excepted Grace and Neily, although the relationship was frosty. Alice, who was considered one of the most wealthiest women in the world, began to help Neily and Grace out financially, which they needed.
Grace also wanted a yacht, like her sister May Goelet, and she had Neily commission a large boat, which they called "The North Star", named after Cornelius Vanderbilt I's yacht. The yacht was fitted with the finest materials and included a drawing room, library and dining saloon.
To escape his wife and the entertaining that she brought with her, Neily joined the army. World War I proved to be his finest hour. Neily also developed horrible habits of smoking and drinking regularly. He was quite mean to his son, who claimed he liked Neily better when he was drunk than when he wasn't.
Neily also thought he might like to enter politics, so he attended the Republican National Convention in Saratoga Springs, although he realized it was too expensive for him saying "Look I may be a Vanderbilt, but I am not a Rockefeller!" Most of the time, Neily just retreated to his other yacht, the Winchester.
While Neily would be sailing around on his yacht, Grace would be back in New York City entertaining . Every year at the New York City mansion and "Beaulieu", Grace would be entertaining up to 10,000 people a year. Every night at dinner parties, Grace would have a red carpet rolled out across the sidewalk to lead the guests inside. Greeting guests inside, she would be beside two footmen in livery, welcoming them inside. Although she hated the press, they loved her. She was mostly photographed at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera.
When Alice died in 1934, she left Neily the Gwynne Building in Ohio and about $7 million, if it hadn't been for her money, Grace and Neily would have been broke. Grace and Neily were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on parties, jewelry, taxes, clothes, food, servants and numerous amounts of other things, although this didn't stop Grace.
When Grace and Neily's son, Neil, announced he would be working as a newspaperman, they promptly kicked him out. Neil had had an unfortunate childhood, Grace had been a distant mother and Neily had wanted nothing to do with his children, so he was not surprised when they kicked him out.
While Grace was entertaining and mixing with royalty, the world around her was changing. Over time the residences around the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion had been replaced with large skyscrapers and soon the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion became lost in a sea of skyscrapers.
Slowly they came down, one by one Vanderbilt Row disintegrated and soon only Grace and Neily's aunt, Florence Twombly, were left. 640 Fifth Avenue became a shrine of a bygone era, the only private residence left on that side of town.
When Neily died, he left an estate of $4 million. Grace inherited $2 million and $900,000 to his two children. It had turned out that shortly before his death, Neily had sold 640 Fifth Avenue to developers to raise money. Under the terms of the agreement Grace would get to remain at 640 Fifth Avenue until two years after Neily's death. Grace continued to entertain just as lavish as she always had, hosting her last ball in 1941. Finally she too had to give up.
Grace Vanderbilt moved to another New York City townhouse, which was now in the heart of the fashionable district, which had formerly belonged to William Starr Miller, Grace called it "The Gardener's Cottage" because it contained only 28 rooms, compared to the 85 rooms at 640 Fifth Avenue.
It was at the Miller mansion when Grace passed away with her family by her side, worrying if the money would last. Grace once said "Poor Marie Antoinette, If the Revolution ever came to America I would surely be the first to go"