Back in 1896 when auburn-haired Grace Graham Wilson bagged young Cornelius Vanderbilt, most of New York's 400 agreed that it was a most unsuitable marriage. As a great-grandson of the tough old Commodore who built the New York Central, Cornelius Vanderbilt had some claims to aristocracy. Grace's social assets were far more modest. Her father, Richard T. Wilson, was a onetime Georgia farm boy whom well-bred New Yorkers regarded with distaste because he had made his fortune himself and had started it by speculating in cotton while more gentlemanly Southerners were off fighting Yankees.

The elder Vanderbilts never really forgave...

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