Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Books: "The Last Castle" Looks At The Gilded Age

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and America's Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home
By Denise Kiernan
Touchstone, $17.00

Denise Kiernan, author of the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, is out with a new work focusing on the Biltmore Estate, The Last Castle, a story of unimaginable excess, devastating tragedy, inspiring generosity, and unlikely endurance.

Every year, more than one million people flock to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, to tour its gorgeous gardens and cavernous halls. The colossal Gilded Age chateau built by George Vanderbilt somewhere between 1889 and 1895 is the largest home ever to exist in America. It occupied 175,000 square feet and was larger than three White Houses.

As fascinating as its size was the story of how this extraordinary place came to exist, the luminaries who made it their playground, the setbacks faced by its inhabitants, and why Biltmore still amazes today, a time when few past marvels still loom large.

Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, orphaned at a young age, claimed lineage from one of New York's most-known families. She grew up in Newport and Paris, and her engagement and marriage to George Vanderbilt, the grandson of railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt and one of the world's wealthiest and elusive bachelors.

Their wedding was one of the most watched event of Gilded Age society, as Kiernan writes, "'America's richest bachelor is going to wed. Even in the midst of war we must pay some attention to this stupendous fact," crowed the New York Journal. The Courier out of Syracuse agreed, stating that since much news had been of the preparations for the Spanish-American War, George's marrying the daughter of a military officer fit in nicely with current events.

"Reports how the pair met varied. One popular theory held that Mrs. Charles McNamee, while George's guest in London for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, spotted Edith and one of her sisters during the festivities and that the young women were subsequently asked to join the Vanderbilt party. Another hypothesis proclaimed that George has specifically booked passage on a westbound steamer in order to spend time with Edith at sea. In truth, their first meeting, and any prior to their confirmed, if unremarkable, December transatlantic trip, could very well have happened in any number of places or countries. The overlapping circles of society in and around Newport, New York, and the colony abroad were like a Venn diagram of the Four Hundred, intersecting seasonally, perpetually, transatlantically.

"To be young, single, and of the right breeding in New York and Newport was to be watched, and Edith now found herself the center of unceasing attention. She had witnessed some of the fervor surrounding her sister Natalie's engagement to John Nicholas Brown. However, in the 1890s, the name 'Vanderbilt' carried with it a kind of notoriety - good or not so much - that garnered particular facination. Edith knew growing up that clocking the movements of New York's established families was pure sport for those who were on the outside looking in. Now she was the hunted one."

None of this prepared Edith to be mistress of Biltmore House, George's spectacular, European-style estate.

The house, filled with priceless art, antiques, and an unrivaled library, was a palatial wonder improbably set amid the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Appalachia. Designed by famous architect Richard Morris Hunt, with grounds shaped by legendary landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore House was surrounded by more than one hundred acres of woods that comprised what came to be known as America's Castle of Forestry.

The Biltmore House had a feudal feel to it, and their domain included a Hunt- and Olmsted-designed village outside the estate gates where workers, their families, and other locals planted the seeds of what is still a vibrant community. Despite their vastly different circumstances, the Vanderbilts and the locals forged a powerful bond that transformed the region in ways that are still felt today.

The story of Biltmore House encompasses world wars, the Jazz Age, financial crises, scandalous marriages, natural disaster, murder, and suicide. It takes readers from the wilds of Appalachia to the glamour of New York, Newport, and Paris. The cast of characters includes Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and James Whistler.

As the Gilded Age began to fade, the Vanderbilts' fortunes shifted, and as the changing times threatened their family, community, and estate, it was up to Edith to save Biltmore from the brink of insolvency.

Kiernan said of what attracted her to the story of the Biltmore Estate, "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, beautifully written by Kiernan, is a very American story of a man who saw his dream realized and the woman who rescued it.

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