Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman, a woman of captivating style, was a member of one of America’s most prominent families – the Vanderbilts of the legendary Gilded Age, a period when Vanderbilt men were the merchant princes of American life through their prominence in the business world and the Vanderbilt women were international patrons of the arts.
Born to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II and Manuela Hudson, Wendy was a direct descendent of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, who started the family fortune in shipping, real estate and railroads. He was the founder of the New York Central Railroad and builder of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
Cornelius Vanderbilt’s descendants gained fame as successful entrepreneurs while several achieved prominence in other fields. Wendy’s father, Alfred, was the son of the first Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who died a hero after giving his life jacket to a woman on the Lusitania when the ship was sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic in 1915. His mother, Margaret Emerson, came from Bromo-Seltzer wealth and was one of the most sought-after hostesses of her time, operating at least seven large estates around the country. Wendy’s great grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built The Breakers, the famous family summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, had been one of America’s most revered businessmen; her great great-grandfather, William Henry Vanderbilt, was reputed to be the richest man in the world during his time. Artistic expression came naturally to Wendy’s great aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a talented sculptor who went on to establish the Whitney Museum of American Art; another great aunt, Gladys Moore Vanderbilt, inherited The Breakers; an uncle, William Henry Vanderbilt III, was governor of Rhode Island from 1938 to 1940. It was this environment of enormous privilege, surrounded by history, wealth and opportunity, in which Wendy Vanderbilt grew up.
Wendy’s father, Alfred, was given Sagamore, his mother’s 600 acre horse farm in Maryland on his 21st birthday. Elegantly embodying sportsmen in society, Alfred spent his life breeding, owning and racing his horses. He managed Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park while in his twenties, but his greatest achievements in racing came through the brilliance of one gray colt, Native Dancer, who won 21 of his 22 races – losing only the 1953 Kentucky Derby by the length of his head.
Alfred was also at the helm of arranging the famous match race between the Californian Seabiscuit and the East War Admiral in 1938. It was during this period that he was introduced to Wendy’s mother, the strikingly beautiful Manuela Hudson, by her cousins Marcela and Charles S. Howard, the racehorse owners of Seabiscuit. Alfred and Manuela, otherwise known as Mollie, married but eventually divorced; she later married Edward (Ned) Beale Mclean Jr. Ned was the son of American mining heiress and socialite Evalyn Walsh Mclean, who was famous for being the last private owner of the famed Hope Diamond. It was during this marriage that Ned purchased this extraordinary diamond fringe necklace for Mollie and the necklace was later inherited by Wendy.
Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman was a sculptor and painter. Her works can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and other museums. She was married to the Orin Lehman, a great-grandson of Mayer Lehman, a founder of the Lehman Brothers investment house and New York State’s longest-serving commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, serving from 1975 to 1993.
Lot 243 is a magnificent necklace of great intrinsic importance with distinguished provenance. Of impeccable craftsmanship, the front of the necklace suspends a graduated fringe of detachable pear-shaped diamonds, each from an inverted pear-shaped diamond link, to a graduated line of circular-cut diamonds.
Christie’s New York proudly offered jewelry from the collection of Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman, including The Vanderbilt Diamond Necklace, in October 2010, where it was purchased by the current owner. We are honored to offer it for sale once more.