In Dead End Gene Pool, first-time memoirist Wendy Burden, a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, recounts her fabulously wealthy upbringing with hilarious incisiveness. Of the eccentric clan of blue bloods she brings to life — an absentee mother obsessed with getting the perfect tan, a Hitler-loving uncle, a brother who thinks he’s the reincarnation of their dead father — no one is as riveting as the wickedly funny narrator herself.
Between growing up on your grandparents’ many East Coast estates, terrorizing their army of decrepit servants, and suffering a stepfather who was an arms dealer, your life begged for a memoir.
Well, it took me years to write because I’m not trained [as a writer]. I’m a painter by education. It started as a cookbook about 12, 15 years ago. I owned a small French restaurant in Maine, and my father’s family always had French chefs, so I’d just been around it all my life. I started researching my family’s recipes, and it got really anecdotal. It kept morphing into a memoir. My biggest fear was not being funny enough, because the writers I really admire are so funny — Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, and my all-time favorite, Nancy Mitford.
But you were always funny, right? You did work at National Lampoon after graduating from Parsons.
Yeah, but I was a grunt in the art department there, the lowest of the low! Apparently my father had a really good, dry sense of humor. I like to think I got it from him because my mother had no sense of humor. None. Mine is kind of a whistling-past-the-graveyard mentality. I get into it more in my next book, which is about me, a total New Yorker, moving to Portland, Oregon, and finding love and tragedy. [Burden’s second husband, William Warren, and his three sons died in a float-plane crash in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River in 1999. She has two daughters, ages 21 and 24, from her first marriage.]
I’m guessing your father’s suicide when you were 6 led to your obsession with the macabre — your passion for dead animals, obituaries, The Addams Family…
Absolutely. A part of me really wants to go to mortuary school. I was just reading Apparition & Late Fictions [by Thomas Lynch]. He’s a poet and an essayist and he actually runs a funeral home! I was like, What?! That’s the perfect job! [Laughs]
The second half of your book deals with the decline of your family’s wealth and the unraveling of some of its members. Your younger brother was a heroin addict; the other, an alcoholic. What’s been the reaction from your relatives?
Uh…God. My family’s been pretty upset. It’s my story and it’s frank, but there’s so much more I could have put in. I left the real dirt out! [Laughs] I half expect my family to be outside of the bookstore [at upcoming readings], wearing sandwich boards and screaming, ”Don’t buy this book! It’s all lies!”
You write about how Jacques Cousteau ”came on like a barracuda” to you while you were taking the Concorde from Paris. Did you ever see him again?
Oh! No. [Laughs] Uch — he was so disgusting. I couldn’t watch anything with Jacques Cousteau again after that.