Many years ago, right before The Biltmore Estate began offering behind-the-scenes guided tours of the upstairs and downstairs of the massive home built by George Vanderbilt, it invited members of the media in for a first look. I went for The N&O and got a personal tour. I loved seeing the inner workings of the kitchen and laundry, imagining what it would have been liked to have kept that place humming for multitudes of guests. My favorite memory is being allowed to climb out on the roof for a close-up look at of one of the gargoyles – exquisitely ugly.
Reading “The Last Castle” is reminiscent of that day. Author Denise Kiernan peels back the layers of the Vanderbilts’ lives to tell a story that is both intimate and sweeping. And it says much that she starts the book with Edith Dresser, orphaned at 10, who along with her four siblings was raised by her grandmother, a member of an old and prominent New York family.
We’re 80 pages in before Edith meets George Vanderbilt, and by then he’s already had his life changed by a visit to Asheville, where he became smitten with a mountain peak and ended up with 125,000 acres and a 250-room French-styled chateau, village, church and hospital. But Edith, whom Vanderbilt married in 1898, would leave her own mark on the home and on Asheville.
“The Last Castle” is not simply a story of a fancy house and how it was built. The book is subtitled “The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home,” and lives up to that by putting a very human face on both Vanderbilts. Indeed, Kiernan’s research is deep and she writes tellingly of a host of others who were instrumental to both the estate and the family, including architect Richard Morris Hunt, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and forester Carl Schenck. We also get asides on Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton and Teddy Roosevelt.
Along the way Kiernan chronicles the coming of age of Asheville, the creation of the Grove Park Inn and the formation of the Arts and Crafts movement and, of course, the way of life of the very rich – from the Gilded Age of masked balls and travels to Europe to the heady times of the Jazz Age to the dissolution of it all with the Great Depression. The losses illuminated here are of more than money and a way of life. The family mourned friends and family who were taken by illness, murder, suicide and war. Vanderbilt, himself, died at 51 from a myocardial infarction. A pulmonary embolism developed after an appendectomy and caused his heart to fail.
Edith Vanderbilt, nee Dresser, would live another 44 years and would eventually remarry, but not before she had helped create the Pisgah National Forest and become the first woman in the state of North Carolina elected president of the N.C. Agricultural Society, which meant she was in charge of the State Fair.
She also had a role in protecting the National Gallery’s art works during World War II, but you really should read the book to find out exactly how she managed that. It’s just one more mystery of the Biltmore House waiting to be revealed.
“The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home”
By Denise Kiernan
Touchstone Books, 303 pages (and 54 pages of footnotes).
7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9, Quail Ridge Books, North Hills, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh.
7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 10, Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.