Biltmore | The Last Castle: The story behind the largest home in America
While his siblings were building opulent mansions in the summer resort towns of Hyde Park, N.Y., Newport, R.I., and Lenox (Elm Court was built by a sister, Emily Thorne Vanderbilt Sloane White), George Vanderbilt II built his 175,000 square foot "mountain escape" on 125,000 acres in Asheville, N.C.
Although tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Appalachia, the Biltmore Estate was never far from the center of high society. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Biltmore House would host the likes of Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry James, James Singer Sargent and James Whistler. At the same time as they played host to famous family and friends, the Vanderbilts were forging bonds with the local townspeople, investing in the artisans and businesses around them.
Following the death of George, Edith Vanderbilt fought to keep the Biltmore House intact, finding creative ways to fund the estate as family fortunes shifted.
In "The Last Castle," author Denise Kiernan tells the multi-decade story of George and Edith Vanderbilt and their heirs through lens of their family home.
Kiernan, who first visited the estate as a teenager, fell in love with the building, the estate grounds and its rich history.
"I kept collecting information over the years, the way I do with lots of ideas, but this one wouldn't leave me alone. Then I just felt it was time to write about it," Kiernan said in a statement. "I spent many, many hours buried in old documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I traveled to New York, Washington D.C., Providence, R.I.; and elsewhere to dig into archives. I read books, researched academic journals and also spoke to longtime residents of Asheville whose family members would tell stories of the house and family."
Kiernan, who recently took the time to answer a few questions for the The Eagle via email, will read from her book and sign copies during a book tour stop at The Mount on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m.
Q. When you embarked on this project, I'm sure you had an idea of what the end product would be. Did you start out with the intention of telling the story of the Vanderbilts or Biltmore (or both)? How did the end result compare to your original vision?
A. My intent was to use Biltmore House and the Vanderbilt family that resided there as a lens through which to examine critical moments and larger themes in American history. I was amazed at how often eras and events in America's past had a connection to Biltmore and its residents. Biltmore is an incredibly unique structure — the largest ever in the United States — and its continued existence, and the fact that it remains in one piece is remarkable. However, there was a lot of struggle and strife along the way, some of which was emblematic of what was happening elsewhere in America. In the end, the result always differs from the initial vision to a certain extent because so much depends on what you find along the way.
Q. Many hours of research and travel went into this book to tell the stories of the many individuals involved. How did you decide which stories to tell and which stories had to be left out?
A. Who and what stays and who and what goes ... those are always the difficult choices when writing a book like this. It was also one of the most difficult aspects of writing my last book, "The Girls of Atomic City." There are so many interesting stories, it can be difficult to choose. First, I limit the book to those characters whom I consider integral to the narrative. There were a lot of stories that I came across that were very interesting or quirky or colorful but that in the end were more tangentially related to the story. It would have been forcing to include them in the end product. When I come across interesting tidbits, I have to ask whether it serves the overall narrative arc. Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
Q. There are so many fascinating individuals in this book. Was there any individual that you were drawn to more than others?
A. It's got to be Edith Vanderbilt. I found Edith's childhood and her life before marrying George to be fascinating. Without giving too much away, I was routinely moved by her resilience and spirit in the face of great personal loss. I also admired the personal touch she had with members of the larger Biltmore Village and Asheville community. She gave a lot of her time and energy, not just her money, to those who needed it.
Q. There seems to be a recent surge in the interest in the Gilded Age and families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts. In your opinion, why is there such an interest in this time period and these families?
A. I think we have always, in a sense, been fascinated in the lives of those who live in a way that most of us can only imagine. In some ways it seems to parallel our modern-day fascination with celebrity. The wealthy members of New York and Newport society in George and Edith's days were relentlessly followed by the press. What they were wearing, who they were spending time with ... all of that was newspaper fodder.
Q. George and Edith seemed to be more involved in the community of Asheville than most people in their station of life, who often limited their actions to donations of hospital wings and the like. What made this couple different?
A. I think that a tendency toward charitable giving is one of those shared interests that probably brought them together as a couple. As I mentioned with regard to Edith, I think it was the personal touch, that interaction with the community, especially on Edith's part, that really set these folks apart.
Q. Following George's death, Edith was left in a position similar to many widows of her income bracket, however, it seems her actions were contrary to many of her counterparts who sold off their estates as a means to survive. What, do you think, made Edith choose to preserve and keep Biltmore?
A. It may have been that she wanted to preserve her husband's legacy and the legacy of the incredible artisans who made Biltmore House a reality. I think she was willing to work at finding a way through the difficult times. She had incredible perseverance and in the end she bought enough time to keep the estate in the family, and it still is to this day.
"The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home"
By Denise Kiernan
List Price $28
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