Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of the least likely benefactors of higher education. The richest man in the world in his day, he was a difficult man to like, and his willingness to drive competitors to the wall was frightening. But he was also a compelling figure, frequently misunderstood. His founding donation to his namesake university is a reminder of the complexity of the human mind and heart.

The founding of Vanderbilt University is an extraordinary story, an unexpectedly salacious tale worthy of a primetime soap opera. Sex plays a leading role; so does sanctity—enough for a contemporary presidential campaign. And ghosts flit in and out of this story of the founding of a Methodist university in Nashville in 1873.