The story of Biltmore spans World Wars, the Jazz Age, the Depression, and generations of the famous Vanderbilt family, and features a captivating cast of real-life characters including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Teddy Roosevelt, John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.
Orphaned at a young age, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser claimed lineage from one of New York’s best known families. She grew up in Newport and Paris, and her engagement and marriage to George Vanderbilt was one of the most watched events of Gilded Age society. But none of this prepared her to be mistress of Biltmore House.
Before their marriage, the wealthy and bookish Vanderbilt had dedicated his life to creating a spectacular European-style estate on 125,000 acres of North Carolina wilderness. He summoned the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to tame the grounds, collaborated with celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a 175,000-square-foot chateau, filled it with priceless art and antiques, and erected a charming village beyond the gates. Newlywed Edith was now mistress of an estate nearly three times the size of Washington, DC and benefactress of the village and surrounding rural area. When fortunes shifted and changing times threatened her family, her home, and her community, it was up to Edith to save Biltmore—and secure the future of the region and her husband’s legacy.
This is the fascinating, “soaring and gorgeous” (Karen Abbott) story of how the largest house in America flourished, faltered, and ultimately endured to this day.
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The Last Castle
That was the year she started spending her winters in New York again.
Edith Dresser was fifteen years old when her grandmother, Susan Elizabeth Fish LeRoy, decided that she and the Dresser children would leave their Rhode Island home for the Christmas season. The year was 1888. Seasonal migrations from Newport to New York were common among their privileged set, and the allure of the great city on the Hudson still drew their grandmother into its predictably casted embrace. Grandmother was a woman at ease in the world of drawing rooms and calling cards, one who appreciated both the ritualistic behaviors and increased social diversions that New York could be counted on to provide. “New Amsterdam”—as Manhattan had once been known—had been home to their family’s Dutch ancestors. Now Grandmother, in turn, had become all that constituted home and family to Edith, her three sisters, and brother.
Grandmother had arranged to rent a house at 2 Gramercy Square, a very respectable—if not ultra-fashionable—address for the family. Its next-door twin, 1 Gramercy, had been the last home of the noted surgeon and professor Dr. Valentine Mott. Mott had helped establish the short-lived Rutgers Medical College in lower Manhattan, and gained attention as the chair of surgery at both the University Medical College of NYU and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. More salaciously, he earned some notoriety as a disruptor of all that was good and pure in the world of medical instruction when he promoted the idea of using human cadavers to instruct up-and-coming clinicians. His good works and surgical brilliance kept his reputation intact, even though the good doctor was known to have disguised himself as a laborer and visited graveyards to retrieve recently unearthed teaching aids.
Around the corner on the south side of Gramercy Square, at No. 16, was the brand-new Players Club, which was opening that winter. The building had been purchased by the actor Edwin Booth, who could currently be seen as Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar. Twenty-three years earlier, Booth had announced his retirement following his deranged brother John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Distraught over his brother’s actions, Edwin penned an open letter to “the People of the United States,” which was published in several newspapers:
“For the future alas,” he wrote. “I shall struggle on in my retirement bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory and a wounded name—dreadful burdens—to my too welcome grave.”
However, he curtailed his retirement to a nine-month hiatus from the limelight, returning to the stage—and welcome audiences—in 1866 as Hamlet, a role he continued to reprise. The newly founded Players Club would house an impressive library of theater history, as well as collections of paintings and autographs. Booth wrote a friend that he wanted the club to “be a place where actors are away from the glamour of the theatre,” and that thespians should spend more time mingling with minds that “influence the world.” To that end, founding members of the club included author Mark Twain and the celebrated Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman.
2 Gramercy Square, where young Edith and her family would be staying, was the home of the Pinchot family—businessman James Wallace Pinchot; his wife, Mary Jane Eno Pinchot; and their children, Gifford, Amos, and Antoinette. The Pinchot family had recently completed the building of a new Milford, Pennsylvania, home that had been designed by the noted New York City architect Richard Morris Hunt and subsequently dubbed “Grey Towers.” The Pinchots’ oldest son, Gifford, was away studying at Yale, and Edith and her sisters knew “Nettie” Pinchot from dancing class in Newport. The four-story brick house was Italianate in style, with cast-iron railings gracing its small balconies and floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. Edith’s brother, Daniel—who went by his middle name “LeRoy”—was in his final year at Columbia, which meant that he would again be living under the same roof as his sisters. Susan, the oldest, was now twenty-four, and two years older than LeRoy. Natalie was nineteen and Pauline, the baby, was still just twelve. The family would be together, nestled in this house across from the gated park.
From outside those parlor windows looking in, one might have seen four young ladies and one young man living the kind of gleaming nineteenth-century life envied by scores of less fortunate citizens of the time. A closer inspection of their lives, however, revealed signs of difficulty and strain, like scuff marks hidden beneath the smooth veneer of a freshly polished parlor floor. They were five siblings, separated in age by twelve years; joined, as so many other families of the time were, by tragic loss.
• • •
Edith’s parents had met at West Point, New York, where her father was a cadet and her mother, Susan Fish LeRoy, was staying nearby with her family at the Rose Hotel. After George Warren Dresser graduated from the United States Military Academy and posted at Fort Adams outside Susan’s home of Newport, he pursued his love. It was not an easy road.
The Fish-LeRoy family was exceptionally well known in New York circles where names carried the weight of history and bore the shackles of expected romantic pairings. First, middle, last, and family names were shuffled around from generation to generation—perpetually recombining DNA of societal rank—so that they would always be a part of one’s title, ensuring that even the smallest link to storied heritage was immediately evident upon one’s first introduction. Fish . . . LeRoy . . . King . . . Schermerhorn . . . Stuyvesant. Edith’s mother had bestowed upon Edith a middle name taken from the surname of their ancestor, the famed Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. It would serve Edith in future times when money could not.
Edith’s father was a congenial, accomplished, and educated man with an honorable if humbler background than that of her mother. George Warren Dresser was of New England stock, educated at Andover, and hailing from a line of teachers, farmers, and lawyers. Edith’s grandfather Daniel LeRoy did not consider him an appropriate match for Edith’s mother and objected vocally and often to George and Susan’s union. But her mother’s older sister, Aunty Mary King—who herself had made a predictably wealthy yet loveless match—stood firmly on the Dresser side of love. Aunty King welcomed George into her home in Newport, where he was free to call on her sister. Hearts won out. In April 1863 at Calvary Church in New York, a line of groomsmen in uniform stood proudly by as George Warren Dresser married Susan Fish LeRoy. Then George headed south to war along with classmates, volunteers, and countless immigrants just arrived from places like Ireland and Germany.
George rose from a second lieutenancy in the Fourth Artillery to major before the war ended. Along the way he fought in the Battle of Bull Run and commanded a company out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he played a vital part in securing federal supply lines against Confederate attack. Once the war ended, George’s accolades mattered little to Edith’s grandfather, who insisted his son-in-law resign from the military and give his daughter the opportunity to live a life more worthy of her bloodline.
George consented and began a career in civil engineering. He made friends easily, and acted as editor of the trade publication American Gas Light Journal. He had bright dark eyes, a barrel physique, and wore his hair parted down the middle with just the suggestion of a wave on each side. The lower half of his face was wreathed in the friendly muttonchops popularized by Civil War general Ambrose Burnside. George welcomed all into his home—the children of friends, army comrades, gas workers. Edith’s mother was more soft-spoken, attentive to her children, skilled with a needle and thread, and purposely eschewed much of the life laid out for her. She loved her George dearly.
Of any residences in New York or Newport, the one perhaps most deeply etched in the minds of the Dresser children was the house at 35 University Place. The salon on the front of the three-story home provided young Edith and her sisters a view through a French window of Manhattan life outside. Sitting among the brocade surroundings they watched the horse-drawn streetcars passing by. The sisters competed to see who could most quickly identify the car numbers as the vehicles made their way north in the direction of Times Square, hauled by a few of the hundreds of thousands of horses that powered the city’s transportation, baptizing its streets with their urine and fertilizing whatever weeds managed to sprout between pavers with their manure.
In the back of the house, a glass conservatory overlooked the yard. From this vantage point, young Edith, all gangly legs and long, bone-straight hair, could keep an eye on her nineteen turtles. She watched as they basked happily within their shells in a warm spot, dove deep under the soil and brush to hibernate for the winter, and erupted from the earth for another season in the sun. Edith shared a room on the second floor with her two older sisters. It had one row of beds with a small conservatory outside that normally remained empty, save for the time Edith was quarantined there during a whooping cough episode. The servants’ quarters were in the basement, where the children found an excellent roller-skating surface and there was always a soft perch for young Pauline atop warm, folded clothes.
It was a busy home, its halls reverberating with the broken English of French servants, the laughter of children, and the rumblings of adults at backgammon or immersed in conversation in the red library. Edith’s brother, LeRoy, entertained friends in his domain on the third floor. George and Susan had visitors as well, even if the calendar of social events that regulated their world held little appeal for Edith’s mother, who preferred to stay at home close to her children. Sunday evening suppers were for stewed oysters and roast chicken, often set upon a red tablecloth in the dining room. On Sunday, supper was eaten early—a high tea, as it was then called—and on those evenings Edith’s father went to serve as a vestryman at Trinity Church’s St. John’s Chapel on Vesey Street. It took several transfers to arrive there by horsecar, but once in the hallowed space, the children watched as their father passed the collection plate among the pews.
In January 1883, the Hazelton Brothers piano factory across the street at 34–36 University Place erupted in flame. Servants and parents bundled the family’s possessions into balls of sheets away from windows before the glass panes burst from the waves of heat emanating from the burning building. Once the flames subsided the Dressers were fortunate that their home survived relatively unscathed. Yet they did not avoid all tragedy.
Edith’s mother had become ill during a recent trip to Europe. Her condition was worsening, and it prevented her from presenting Edith’s sister Susan, then eighteen, to society. Luckily, her mother’s friend Mrs. John Jacob Astor stepped in to help Susan along—a lovely gesture by a formidable doyenne of society. Still, months of increasing silence fell over the once lively household. Spring came and Edith’s sister Pauline moved into the bedroom with her older sisters. Nurses arrived. Adults demanded quiet. Doors shut the inevitable from Edith’s view.
One morning that April, the doors and windows of her mother’s room were opened. The lifeless shell that was Edith’s mother remained for the time being. Mourners and friends came and went. Edith went with Mrs. Woodworth, a family friend, to the clothiers Arnold Constable, where she was fitted for an appropriate outfit of black crepe to wear to her mother’s service at Trinity. Edith’s sister Susan fainted at the church.
Edith and her family could see that George’s health was also waning. Still mourning her mother, Edith was faced with losing her father as well. Knowing the children would soon be orphaned, Edith’s Aunty King offered to take Natalie to live with her. George begged his sister-in-law to keep the children together once he was gone, and Aunty King was soon called upon to keep her word. Edith’s father died a little over a month after his wife. His funeral was held on a day best befitting his honorable career in the military—Decoration Day. Edith’s parents were interred beside each other in the Newport cemetery. Edith was not yet ten years old.
Shortly after, Edith and her siblings went to Newport for what would turn out to be a lengthy stay. Her grandmother and that same, stern grandfather, the man who had frowned on his daughter’s marriage to a New England army officer, took the children in. Daniel LeRoy was already eighty-five years of age, and Edith’s grandmother was seventy-eight. The following year, 1884, he built a two-story addition onto the old red house at 206 Bellevue Avenue in Newport to accommodate his younger family members.
Grandfather passed away in 1885 at the age of eighty-seven, just two years after Edith’s parents, his mind having departed well in advance of his body. Now, in 1888, Grandmother was bringing the Dresser brood back to New York. As another winter in the city ended, spring brought the emergence of shoots from age-old trunks, no one knowing which branches might cross and when, bending to the will of the wind.
• • •
That was also the year that another, more prominent, Manhattan resident had grown tired of New York winters and decided to make a change.
In 1888, George Washington Vanderbilt was twenty-five years old. As the youngest child of William Henry Vanderbilt and grandson of the infamously cutthroat tycoon Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, George may have wanted for nothing financially, but that hardly meant his life was void of all expectation. Quite the contrary. To be a son of the Vanderbilt dynasty was to have your every move, dalliance, chance encounter, and passing venture watched and analyzed, whether via opera glasses across the expanse of the Metropolitan Opera or by eager eyes scanning the society pages of the newspapers.
His grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt had known much simpler times. Born in 1794, Cornelius had grown up on a farm on Staten Island, where the Vanderbilt family—or van der Bilt or van Derbilt, depending on who was signing their name—had lived for more than a century. His ancestors had seen Dutch rule pass to the English and then, finally, the birth of the American colonies. Through all the changing of guards and flags, many of the family continued to dwell within a world of their home country’s language and religion. Though their farms expanded and the number of Vanderbilts multiplied, work remained arduous and compensation scant. Uneducated in the traditional sense, and lacking in the most common of courtesies, young Cornelius was a diligent worker. Whatever he lacked in finishing he made up for in grit and ambition. As the most popular version of the story goes, during Cornelius’s youth, his mother, Phebe, offered him $100 to clear some acreage on the family land. Once the task was completed, Cornelius used those earnings to buy what the Native Americans in the region called a piragua. This “perry auger,” a ramshackle boat, gave Cornelius access to the waters surrounding Staten Island, the same waters connecting their small island community to the nearby mecca of industry: Manhattan.
Thus Cornelius’s New York Harbor ferry service was born, and his nickname—“Commodore”—soon followed. As his business grew, so did rumors of his ruthless dealings. The Commodore outworked and undercut competitors, making no friends but scads of money along the way. His ferries developed into steamship lines, which eventually gave way to railroad investments in the New York and Harlem, and New York and Hudson, lines. The Commodore possessed both a fondness and knack for manipulating railroad stocks, which helped him further stuff his rapidly expanding coffers. In 1867, he began construction on St. John’s Freight Terminal, designed by architect John Butler Snook, on the site of St. John’s Park near Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The Hudson Street side of the freight terminal featured a not-so-subtle 150-foot-long bronze frieze featuring images from the Commodore’s life, including his steam yacht, North Star, and various tools of the marine trade. In the midst of this sculptural scene was the man himself, regal and proud, a master of water and rail.
The Commodore finally consolidated his accumulating rail lines and created the New York Central railroad which, by 1870, would carry more than seven million passengers and a million tons of freight into the city. In 1871, the Commodore opened the immensely unpopular Grand Central Depot, again designed by Snook. Fronting East Forty-Second Street, the structure covered 5 acres and was disliked—and perhaps envied—by many who passed by or through its doors. To gain control of the acreage he needed, the Commodore used tactics such as “seizure rights”—pertaining to railroad law—to run off those unwilling to sell. The area around the mammoth structure was clogged with trains, and lives had been lost crossing the maze of tracks. But as with much of what the Commodore did, the depot was huge, unlike anything else that existed. The scrappy young waterman-turned-rail-magnate’s riches eventually surpassed those of Manhattan’s reigning multimillionaire, William Backhouse Astor Sr., son of fur trader and real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire. The Vanderbilt name, once perhaps associated with farmers and river rats, was now synonymous with wealth and power.
The Commodore had fathered thirteen children, the oldest of whom was George’s father, William Henry. George’s mother, Maria Louisa Kissam, had met his father while William was still a young clerk in the banking house of Drew, Robinson & Company. (Partner Daniel Drew was one of the Commodore’s business rivals.) The Commodore was as brusque and harsh with his children as he was with any businessman who dared cross his train tracks or ferry routes, and he routinely called his son William a “blatherskite,” a fool. When William’s health faltered, the Commodore gave his son a small family farm to run in New Dorp, Staten Island. William soon increased his initial 70 acres to 350, and respectable earnings followed. The Commodore took notice, giving William more attention and responsibility. William then took the Staten Island Railroad from insolvency to profitability. Every challenge the Commodore put to him, William met and then some. As the Commodore grew older and weaker, his respect for William deepened and strengthened. When the Commodore died in January 1877, he left the bulk of his massive fortune to his son and George’s father, William Henry Vanderbilt.
Though the notoriously hard-nosed and impossible to impress Commodore eventually recognized William’s abilities to run the family business, he likely would never have imagined that his primary heir’s accomplishments would so quickly dwarf his own. Within six years, the blatherskite had more than doubled his inheritance of about $90 million. William Vanderbilt’s income in 1883 was estimated at more than $10 million—and income was not taxed at the time. George’s father had an estimated net worth of $194 million and an estate exceeding $200 million. George’s parents, who once had not enough money to furnish their small house on Staten Island, soon amassed the greatest fortune in America, very possibly in the world.
George’s family home was a resplendent brownstone at 640 Fifth Avenue. Finished in 1881, the “Triple Palace,” as it was known, took up the entire block of Fifth Avenue between Fifty-First and Fifty-Second Streets on the West Side. The so-called palace was actually two conjoined town houses comprising three distinct addresses and residences. George and his parents occupied the southern structure. A one-story vestibule connected this to the northern structure, which was divided in two and occupied by George’s older sisters and their families. Emily, who had married William Douglas Sloane, lived at 642 Fifth Avenue, and Margaret, who had married Elliott Fitch Shepard, had an entrance at 2 West Fifty-Second Street.
The west side of Fifth Avenue was dominated by the Vanderbilts. George’s brother Frederick and his wife, Louise, lived at 459 Fifth Avenue, William Henry Vanderbilt’s home prior to the construction of the Triple Palace. Another brother, William “Willie K.” and his wife, Alva, lived at 660 Fifth Avenue in a house known as the Petit Chateau de Blois. George’s father built 680 and 684 Fifth Avenue for George’s sisters Lila and Florence, and their husbands William Seward Webb and Hamilton McKown Twombly, respectively. George’s oldest brother, Cornelius II or “Corneil,” who had been living in the heart of New York society at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Second Street, moved uptown to join the rest of the clan, building a mansion at 1 West Fifty-Seventh Street that would become the largest private home in the history of Manhattan. This encampment of Vanderbilt homes was located farther north than the homes of most moneyed New York families twenty blocks south. Before William Henry Vanderbilt broke ground on the Triple Palace, the lot was the domain of a vegetable gardener who occasionally dealt in ice and cattle. Now the area was a much desired neighborhood referred to as Vanderbilt Row (or, depending on one’s view of the family, the less patrician “Alley”).
Unlike his older brothers, George had no interest in his family’s railroad business. Cornelius II was chairman of the New York Central railroad and taught Sunday school at St. Bartholomew’s, where the Vanderbilt family attended services. Willie K. was second vice president of the New York Central and chairman of the board of the Lake Shore and “Nickel Plate” (New York, Chicago, and St. Louis) lines. Frederick was director of the West Shore and Canada Southern lines.
In contrast, George enjoyed other pursuits available to members of their class. George’s father had amassed a tremendous collection of paintings, sculpture, and books, and George had delighted in all of them since he was young. While his father may have enjoyed spending leisure time driving his sleek, trotting mares Maud S. and Aldine along fashionable stretches like the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Morrisania or along Harlem Lane, George was content to spend hours, if not days, in the parlors and sitting rooms of 640 Fifth Avenue, reading and studying. He had grown up devout in his faith and for a time thought he might pursue a calling in the Episcopal church. A priest perhaps. Diary entries from when George was thirteen years old reveal him to be a penitent, thoughtful young man: “I read my Bible this morning and began Isaiah and I think that was what made me feel so happy through the day. . . . I have been reading a book this afternoon from which I ought to learn a very useful lesson of truth and gaining control over my temper, but I can do nothing without God’s help because if I rely on my own resolution I am sure to fail. . . . I don’t think I have spent today as I should have done. I have trusted too much in my own ability and not enough in Jesus.”
At a young age, George began diligently recording all of his expenses, down to the penny. He also detailed all the literary and academic titles he consumed in a series of notebooks titled “Books I Have Read.” His fondness of the written word was well known, and he had been invited to become a founding member of the bibliophilic Grolier Club. He could often be found with his head of dark hair bowed over a tome penned in another language. He was said to be fluent in eight of them.
In 1888, three years after his father died, George, the youngest and only unmarried child of William and Maria, continued to live at 640 with his mother. The home would pass to him upon her death, along with “lots and stables” on Madison Avenue, furnishings, and “chattels and carriages.” William Henry Vanderbilt left eight surviving children. (Another son, Allen, had died at the age of twelve, four years before George was born.) The bulk of his fortune and business went to George’s oldest brothers Corneil—nineteen years George’s senior—and Willie K. The remainder was divided between George, the youngest child, and his five older siblings: Frederick, Margaret, Emily, Florence, and Lila (Eliza).
There was more than enough wealth to go around. George had already received more than $1 million in stocks and bonds when his grandfather, the Commodore, died. That was now worth closer to $2 million. His father gifted him another million in cash, as well as the title to the family estate, “Homestead,” on Staten Island, when he turned twenty-one. And now, upon his father’s death, George received $5 million in cash and the interest from a separate $5 million trust. (He could not access the capital.) This brought the sum of George’s monies to be in the neighborhood of $12 to $13 million by the age of twenty-three, with an annual income of about $520,000.
What to do with such a sum when one had not lifted a finger to earn it? This was the enviable dilemma of many in George’s class. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the answer to that question was often presented in mortar and limestone, friezes and tapestries. It was de rigueur for a man of George’s station and family name to have a summer “cottage” somewhere like Newport, or perhaps the Berkshires, to construct something lavish and lasting, a structure both opulent and memorable.
That could have been how George decided to make his mark. A year earlier, he had purchased a property in Bar Harbor, but the Maine winter held little enticement. No, George craved something other. Few, frankly, would have anticipated that young George would eventually land so far, at the very least geographically speaking, from the fold.
• • •
The train pulled into the station at a small crossroads known to some as Asheville Junction, to others as Best. The station, post office, and handful of structures were named for W. J. Best, a Boston railroad magnate who had headed up the Western North Carolina Railroad in 1880 and was credited with bringing rail service to this mountain town in North Carolina. In 1888, three years after his father’s death, George had come South. After a near daylong journey from Manhattan—a long ride no matter how tufted the seats in George’s private railcar—a few more miles by carriage remained. George, whose persistent bachelorhood and bursting bank accounts made him quite the New York society catch, was traveling with the most significant female in his life—his mother.
George’s mother, Maria, was now in her sixty-seventh year, and agreed with her son’s desire to seek out a winter climate milder than that of New York. No matter how luxurious, the walls of their city mansion were unable to keep the chill at bay. George was slight and possessed a healthy fear of tuberculosis. He was viewed by members of the society press as weak, ill, or lacking that robust manner many men of means born to a family of industry might seem to possess. But then, George was no man of industry. He was a scholar.
Mother and son stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, a grand, shingled structure perched high above Asheville, yet still dwarfed in turn by the imposing colossus of nature looming on the landscape beyond. The peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains adopted varying shades of that indigo hue, each ridge growing lighter as it receded behind its neighbors, until they faded into a wash of pale-gray azure grazing the sky, cloudy wisps clinging to their slopes. The beautiful and bewitching smokiness emanated from the trees themselves—the lungs of the slopes—exhaling emissions often in the form of a blue haze of isoprene. The Battery Park had views to spare, its own house orchestra, and wide, awning-topped verandas.
Asheville was growing rapidly due in great part to the area’s well established reputation as a resort and sanitarium destination. In this part of the country, those who could afford the views and the springs might be healed of everything from tropical diseases to mental distress by cures as exotically enticing as “electric bitters” and as ordinary as plain old air inhaled in the usual manner on plain old porches.
George was not the first person of means to consider a more permanent foothold in the Land of the Sky. Charlestonians had begun coming to Asheville and nearby Flat Rock from the Low Country of South Carolina at least a century earlier, building spectacular summer homes there. Milder, breezier summers lured the highest of the well born to abandon their palmettos, magnolias, and fashionable shops for a life 2,200 feet above their sweltering sea-level homes. They followed in the footsteps of decades of river explorers, holler settlers, game hunters, timber cutters, and French speakers. The Cherokee preceded all of them, calling the area Shaconage, “place of the blue smoke.” The Cherokee, in turn, had myths about those who had preceded them, like the great mound builders and Judaculla, the Great Slant-Eyed Giant, who controlled thunder and rain and leaped and bounded from boulder to stream, leaving his footprints etched in the ancient stones. These aged mountains had seen more than a billion years of life in all its forms. Now many well-heeled visitors and the doctors who cared for them believed the mountain air could heal lungs ailing from tuberculosis or the suffocating by-products of the industrial age. They came, they spent, they built “breathing porches” and marveled at the freshness of a timeless resource that was free to all, but for which they were happy to pay dearly.
George’s mother was still struggling with the lingering effects of a bout of malaria, so she sought treatment as well as peace and quiet while away from New York. In Asheville, she was cared for by Dr. Samuel Westray Battle, a physician well known to the area and its Northern visitors. George left his mother to relax and breathe deep the curative atmosphere while he took in the exquisite vistas the hotel offered, or hired a horse to ride out for a closer look at lands farther afield.
That’s when he saw her. Pisgah.
George found her to be simply stunning. Standing proud among her neighbors, nestled in the crook of their slopes, the peak beckoned him with her silent grace. She had seen much in her time here, and age had perhaps rendered her softer, but she retained a stature and elegance that captivated George.
“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. . . .”
If Moses viewed the Promised Land from atop Pisgah, then so did this dreamer from a faraway northern island see promise in this ancient mount on the other side of the world from its biblical namesake. Promise for the kind of life he believed he wanted, for his vision. Was this the promised land, then? These peaks and valleys dotting the banks of the French Broad River? If so, then this heavenly kingdom was fit to house a castle.
That June George bought his first 661 parcels. His initial play was to buy land as secretly as a Vanderbilt could, cleverly purchasing tracts in a piecemeal fashion through purchasing agents who included Edward Burnett, an agriculturist; and Charles McNamee, a lawyer with the firm Davis, Worth and McNamee in New York. Why let the cat out of the carpetbag and run up prices? The acres began to add up. Asheville, though not a stranger to outside seasonal visitors, was still a small town. Rumors about land being snapped up and who was doing the snapping seeped into the press. It wasn’t long before the man behind the money was revealed. When George’s name made it into print, citizens began to wonder what this “young Croesus” intended to do with the quickly accumulating tracts.
Despite that scrutiny, the mountain town must have seemed a refuge for the quiet young man. Here is where he would build his country home. Here is where he would make his mark, far from the rocky shore of Newport, where straw boaters and candy-striped umbrellas dotted a tired scene he knew all too well. Here, in southern Appalachia, the land of Highland Scots and mountain laurel, regal Pisgah would stand as his anchor, and estates of time past and castles beyond the sea would soon serve as his muses. The altitude had his head swimming in visions of what might be.
While the land was all-important, those fields and mountains, streams and slopes, banks and burrows were merely a canvas upon which his vision would be painted. Every stroke of stonemasonry, every line drawn of maples, they all mattered. To bring this vision to life he needed a team that would see this world as a whole, an integrated destination, a place with a life and a pulse all its own. George was in a position to employ the greatest creative minds of the time to help him shape his vision, and bring it down to the earth he believed had so much promise.
He could also afford it.
Table of Contents
1 A Winter's Tale 1
2 A Lady of the Long Man Rising 17
3 Rhapsody in Mauve 37
4 Collaborations and Consecrations 57
5 A Crossing of Some Consequence 75
6 New Mistress 91
7 Forest for the Trees 105
8 Births of the Century 123
9 Trials and Toymakers 139
10 The More Things Change 157
11 High and Dry 177
12 Final Crossings 197
13 Washed Away 209
14 Homespun and a Great War 227
15 Freedoms and Flappers 243
16 Glimpse of a Castle 263
17 You Might Go Home Again 279
Notes and Sources 309
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Last Castle includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Denise Kiernan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City comes the fascinating true story behind the magnificent Gilded Age mansion of Biltmore—the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.
Orphaned at a young age, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser claimed lineage from one of New York’s best-known families. She grew up in Newport and Paris, and her engagement and marriage to George Vanderbilt was one of the most-watched events of Gilded Age society. But none of this prepared her to be mistress of Biltmore House.
Before their marriage, the wealthy and bookish Vanderbilt had dedicated his life to creating a spectacular European-style estate on 125,000 acres of North Carolina wilderness. In addition to taming the grounds with the help of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, he collaborated with celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a 175,000-square-foot chateau, filled it with priceless art and antiques, and erected a village just beyond its gates. Newlywed Edith was now mistress of an estate nearly three times the size of Washington, DC, and benefactress of the village and surrounding rural area. When fortunes shifted and changing times threatened her family, her home, and her community, it was up to Edith to save Biltmore—and secure the future of the region and her husband’s legacy.
The story of Biltmore spans World Wars, the Jazz Age, the Depression, and generations of the famous Vanderbilt family, and features a captivating cast of real-life characters including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Teddy Roosevelt, and Edith Wharton. The Last Castle is the unique American story of how the largest house in America flourished, faltered, and ultimately endured to this day.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think Denise Kiernan chose to title her book The Last Castle? In what ways does Biltmore function like a castle for George Vanderbilt and his family? How does it differ?
2. Edith Vanderbilt’s mother hailed from the Fish-LeRoy and Stuyvesant families. These families were “exceptionally well known in New York circles where names carried the weight of history and bore the shackles of expected romantic pairings” (p. 3). What expectations do Edith; her mother, Susan Fish LeRoy; and their peers face with regard to marriage? Do you think these expectations lead to some disastrous marital pairings among Edith’s peers? If so, give some examples.
3. Describe the origins of the name that George chooses for his Asheville estate. What does “Biltmore” signify? Why do you think it’s important for George to choose a name for his estate? The citizens of Asheville have mixed reactions to the name “Biltmore.” Discuss them.
4. Kiernan describes William B. Osgood Field as being “like the Nick Carraway to George’s Gatsby: playing matchmaker, yet unable to keep up with his friend financially” (p. 99). Describe George’s friendship with Field. Do you think Kiernan’s comparison is apt? Why or why not? What other friendships are particularly important to George?
5. When Field accompanies George Vanderbilt to Europe, George’s sisters inform Field that “he should be more than George’s companion on this trip. He should seek to help George land his life’s companion” (p. 81). Why do George’s sisters think that Edith is a good match for him? Do you agree? What considerations must someone of George’s social class take into account when looking for a spouse?
6. During the Gilded Age, being “a son of the Vanderbilt dynasty was to have your every move, dalliance, chance encounter, and passing venture watched and analyzed” (p. 7-8). Why do you think the public is so interested in the lives of the Vanderbilt family? Discuss the impact the constant public scrutiny has on the behavior of members of the Vanderbilt family. Can you think of any modern equivalents that are scrutinized in the same way the Vanderbilt family was in their time? Who are they?
7. In letters, George’s niece, Adele, describes herself as “Biltmore homesick” (p. 46). What does she mean by this expression? Why does Adele enjoy herself so much during her visits to Biltmore? How is life better for women of Adele’s social class on country estates? What freedoms are afforded to them that they do not have while they are in cities?
8. One of Edith’s great strengths was that she “strode deftly between . . . two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity” (p. 156). How is Edith able to move between these two vastly different realms? What about her upbringing may have prepared her for this balance? In what ways is Edith able to make herself an integral part of the greater community in Asheville?
9. When Cornelia is born, the locals honor her by “conferring the ‘tar heel’ moniker upon [her]” (p. 134). How does Cornelia’s birth connect George and Edith with the community in Asheville? Why do the residents feel a sense of ownership over her? Describe Cornelia’s connection to her birthplace as an adult. Were you surprised by it?
10. In 1873, Mark Twain and coauthor Charles Dudley Warner wrote a book about the age of excess in which they lived titled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Do you think “Gilded Age” is an appropriate title for the time? If so, why? Would you have liked to live during the Gilded Age? Why or why not?
11. Why does George Vanderbilt elect to build Biltmore in Asheville, NC? What is the effect that Biltmore has on the region socially, economically, and in terms of infrastructure? If you could build an estate anywhere, where would you do so? Explain your answer.
12. Kiernan writes that Biltmore “may not have been in New York or Newport, but if this house didn’t make an impression on the Four Hundred, nothing would, acorns or no.” (p. 66). Explain this statement. What kind of impression did Biltmore make on visitors? Was there anything you found particularly impressive about the house? If there was, discuss it with your book club, explaining why you were so taken with that particular feature.
13. When President McKinley expresses a desire to visit Biltmore, E. J. Harding, the auditor of Biltmore Estate, specifies that McKinley, his wife, and any cabinet members are welcome to the estate, but the media is not. Why does Harding object to the presence of the press? Is he right in doing so? How does the press interact with members of the Four Hundred and with the president? Why do you think McKinley might want to have press during his visit?
14. Lillian Exum Clement, who became the first female legislator in North Carolina, said, “I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing” (p. 245). Discuss the role that women played in politics prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In what ways were women active before they were granted the right to vote?
15. As a young man, George Vanderbilt tells Field that he wants to see the world before getting married, and that when he does get married, “he imagined she would perhaps be ten years his junior” (p. 85). Contrast George’s philosophy with regard to finding a life partner with Field’s. Do you agree with either of the men? Which one and why? Given the men’s philosophies, were you surprised by the choices they made in choosing their spouses?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. At a young age, George Vanderbilt began to keep a series of notebooks titled “Books I Have Read” where he recorded all of the literary and academic texts that he consumed. Create your own list and share it with your book club. Do any of your book club members have titles on their lists that intrigue you? Pick a selection from your shared lists for your next book club meeting.
2. Kiernan writes that “[w]alking the halls of Biltmore House for a day is a journey back in time” (p. 297). Visit Biltmore’s official website at Biltmore.com and take a virtual tour of the estate through the site’s photo gallery. Was there anything about the house and the grounds that you found particularly striking? If so, what?
3. Edith Wharton became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence. Read the novel with your book club. Discuss the ways in which it depicts upper-class society. Is this a time you would have liked to live during? Why or why not?
4. To learn more about Denise Kiernan and find out if she will be in a city near you, visit her official website at denisekiernan.com. You can also connect with Denise Kiernan at facebook.com/DeniseKiernanAuthor, Twitter.com/DeniseKiernan, and Instagram.com/iamdenisekiernan for updates about her writing and tour schedule.
A Conversation with Denise Kiernan
The story behind Biltmore Estate and its influence on the Asheville, NC, community is fascinating. What attracted you to it?
A combination of factors played into it. I visited Biltmore for the first time while I was still in high school and loved the grounds in particular. I never anticipated, at that time, that I would ever live in Asheville. When my husband and I moved here more than eleven years ago now, I had the opportunity to visit as an adult and fell in love with the place. I was also stunned at how many people I knew—especially in other parts of the country—who had no idea about the rich history of Biltmore, let alone the fact that no other house in the United States has ever come close to equaling it in size. 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 that it was time to write about it.
The Last Castle is meticulously detailed. Can you tell us how you conducted your research?
I spent many, many hours buried in old documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I traveled to New York; Washington, DC; Providence, RI; 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 the family. And of course, I have visited the house countless times over the years.
Your previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and NPR bestseller and was named one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of 2013. As a result of all this acclaim, did you feel any added pressure when you were writing The Last Castle? How did you combat it?
I absolutely do feel more pressure, but I think that’s unavoidable. To combat it, I speak to other writer friends who have been in the same situation. I also look to the experiences of extremely well-known authors whom I admire greatly from afar who have endured ups and downs in their careers. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that Girls did so well and that I have been given the opportunity to share another story I find fascinating with readers.
Your descriptions of Biltmore in The Last Castle make the estate come alive. Do you have any favorite parts of the estate? Which parts of the estate would you advise visitors not to miss and why?
As a writer, I am absolutely in love with the library. It is a spectacular sight. I really enjoy the view from the loggia and like to stand out there and try to spot wild turkeys. The view is astounding. The basement is remarkable. It is fantastic to get into the bowels of the house and marvel at what a massive undertaking Biltmore House was on a technological level and try to envision the space buzzing during the holidays in the early 1900s or when famous visitors came to call. So much has been preserved in the house that you really can let your imagination take you back a hundred or so years.
For both your Signers and Stuff series, you worked with a coauthor. How did that experience differ from that of writing The Last Castle? Does your writing process change when you’re collaborating versus working independently? If so, how?
That’s kind of a loaded question, because in that situation the coauthor was my husband, Joseph D’Agnese (josephdagnese.com). Collaboration can be challenging for writers, because most of us are used to spending hours alone inside of our own heads. For Joe and me, the general approach is that what one of us writes, the other edits. In the beginning, we write and swap smaller sections until we’re fairly confident that we have arrived at the same voice. Even when we are working on our own titles, we are each other’s first readers, and it is very helpful to have an in-house editor. We disagree at times, but so far the marriage has survived it.
As a New York Times bestselling author, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had known before beginning your career?
The advice I will give is the advice I still work to follow: 1.) Write every day. It’s a muscle. It’s a skill. You need to work out to stay in shape. 2.) Also incredibly important—and this one can be difficult to follow—is to give yourself permission to write really, really badly. Write a horrible first draft, but get it out of your system. If you’re obsessing about things being perfect along the way . . . they won’t be. Also, you are a better editor once you have the whole thing down. Books are often best edited with the entire text in mind, no matter how drastically you end up changing it. 3.) Be careful who you share your work with and when. Outside readers are very important, and you want ones who will be both astoundingly blunt AND considerate of how unnerving feedback can be. You want someone who is critiquing you from a frank yet compassionate place. You don’t want people telling you everything is great—that’s a red flag—but you also don’t want creative saboteurs, either. 4.) TURN OFF THE INTERNET. You don’t have to do it all day, but you need large stretches of quiet for things to rumble around a bit.
In addition to your career as a New York Times bestselling author, you are a professional producer. Has your background as a producer helped you in your writing career? If so, how?
I think perhaps it helps me visualize scenes. I like to think visually when I write and keep lots of images around. It certainly helps with project management as well. There can be a lot of moving parts when you’re promoting one book, traveling for research for another, and still needing time to write. I like visual storytelling and sometimes thinking of how a story might be told on film or television gives me structural ideas when I write.
What would you like readers to take away from The Last Castle?
Honestly, whatever they want. Over the years, I have heard so many different reactions to and perspectives on books I’ve written—I can never anticipate what they are going to be. I also would never want to tell anyone what to think about anything I’ve written. Everyone brings a little bit of themselves to stories they read, and I sincerely hope the story of The Last Castle is relatable enough that readers will be able to engage with it in their own unique way. I, personally, find the philanthropic activities—not just check writing—that Edith, especially, engaged in rather inspiring. I also find that no matter how much money you have, there is no protection from harrowing tragedy and personal loss. What is impressive to me is how people handle those kinds of situations.
Is there anything you have found particularly rewarding about publishing The Last Castle? Can you tell us about it?
More of my friends are interested in actually reading The Last Castle—as opposed to just buying it to support me—than The Girls of Atomic City. I know a lot of folks who don’t want to read about science or war, so it has been nice to hear from people who have been genuinely excited about the book. It’s fun to dive into a different time and place for a while.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am, and no . . . I won’t. Nonfiction can be tricky, because history belongs to all of us. No one has “dibs” on anything. In the early stages of a book, I am very protective of my material, in part because if I’ve come across a way of discussing a certain moment in history, I want to make sure I hang on to that. Also, and this is probably more important, I am HORRIBLE at discussing things in the early stages, and I don’t want to turn off anyone unnecessarily.