The Secret Life of Madame Vanderbilt
The Tragedies & Triumphs of a Middle-aged Heroine (a writer's challenging journey towards publication
photography: courtesy Annie Vanderbilt
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Although Bill is one of THE Vanderbilts, descended from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, 6th generation, the two have chosen to lead fairly normal lives. They’ve always worked (eg., teaching, running Wood River Nordic and Bigwood Ski Touring Center), or been busy with community volunteer projects and other good works through their Family Foundation in places like Nepal, Tibet, Haiti, Honduras and the U.S.
When they moved to Ketchum in 1982, Vanderbilt returned to her first love, writing. She searched for an agent to represent her novel Yesterday’s Woman (a “sort of science-fiction book” about a woman who has blackouts that transport her back in time.) But then a sudden turn in life put a halt to her literary dreams.
The Vanderbilts love backpacking and were exploring the canyons of southeastern Utah when Annie fell from a cliff. Bill hiked out to get help. After an agonizing 24 hours alone in great pain, she heard a helicopter. “There was Bill. It was just so amazing to be alive.” Doctors told the athletic Vanderbilt she would lose her foot and never walk again.
But she didn’t lose her foot and although enduring five surgeries, her spirit never gave out. “I grew up overnight. I had a lot more wisdom and was more aware of my inner strengths after that. I thought I was going to die that night so I realized what mattered. I didn’t care if I had a book published. All I thought about were Bill, my family and friends. That was it. Period. I learned what was important at the age of 35. Usually you don’t learn what actually matters until you’re old. That was the gift of the accident. Plus it took my relationship with Bill right down to bedrock. He saved my life. We thought we’d lost each other. After that we knew we’d be together forever.”
Because the couple couldn’t continue their beloved backpacking, they took up another hobby—biking. Beginning gradually, they ended up triumphantly taking a year off to bike first from the northern tip of Norway to the Rock of Gibraltar, then the length of Japan, and finally New Zealand tip to tip. “We biked about 12,500 miles that year. Pedaling polished the shattered joint and created a healthier ankle. She could walk again without a cane.
“When I came back from that trip in 1991, I sat down and started writing Gathering Speed,” a nonfiction story of their four-month bike trip across Japan, interwoven with the story of her accident. The book was snapped up by a literary agent but never sold because it was in two different categories in the bookstore—survival and travel.
“The minute I finished Gathering Speed I started writing The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti in 1994.” (Madame Olivetti, by the way, is the Olivetti typewriter Lily Crisp uses to type her memoirs.) The book took 10 years because during that time Vanderbilt became part-time caretaker for her aging parents. That experience added depth and layers to the book as well as to her life, she says. >>>