I took a road trip of the American South in the summer of 2009, and my first stop was Asheville, North Carolina. I wasn’t there long, but I did see Biltmore Manor. The Biltmore is the largest private home in America. Today, it’s still privately owned but also a tourist attraction, full of old art, furniture, and impressive architecture on sprawling grounds full of natural beauty. I would, if you are in the area, recommend stopping there for a visit. The ticket isn’t cheap, but you get a full day there.
Now, author Denise Kiernan has a book about the building of the Biltmore. Its full title is The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home.
So, here’s the thing about The Last Castle: your enjoyment of the book will probably reflect how much you want to know about the Vanderbilts. And in this case, that means George Vanderbilt, his wife Edith, and their daughter Cornelia. George didn’t build the Vanderbilt fortune. His father and grandfather did. As such, he lived entirely off inherited wealth. Even Kiernan acknowledges he probably never worked a day in his life outside of whatever he did to build Biltmore.
George, it should be noted, died a bit young. His death stuck his widow and daughter with a giant house George started as a place for his ailing mother to get vague health benefits from North Carolina’s mountain air. Edith herself proved herself as someone who could keep the building in family hands. And Cornelia…
OK, here’s the thing: there isn’t much about these people. Kiernan also acknowledges that they are rather enigmatic figures. They didn’t save personal correspondence, so all any biographer has are superficial details. We can know where they lived, worked, married, and divorced, We can’t know what they thought or felt in many cases. I didn’t feel much of anything for any of these people. Edith was the liveliest. She devoted much of her life to charity, taking care of the people who lived in Biltmore village and worked for the estate.
But then something hit me. It’s 2019. I rent a one bedroom apartment. I wonder how I pay my bills some months, but I do. I’m not in bankruptcy or anything. And I have low tolerance for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Admittedly, this isn’t the sort of book I might normally go for. True, I loved Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and would recommend that for anybody. At least half of that book is about a wealthy architect designing a World’s Fair. And that story works because there were many problems, and the architect worked through most if not all of them.
Hey, many of the men who worked on that World’s Fair also helped design the Biltmore.
But then I read this and ask myself, “How much do I care that really rich people are having problems building a giant house?”
Now, if we heard what many of the problems were, that would be different. But most of the Biltmore problems come down to the house is just too expensive to keep up. The Vanderbilts, usually Edith, solve those problems by selling property. If these people were more three-dimensional, maybe it would be interesting. All I can say about George is he was an introvert who loved reading, travel, and spending money. Edith did a lot of charity. And Cornelia…I guess she wanted more privacy than early twentieth century paparazzi would be willing to give her.
Plus, the set-up of Biltmore, with a village named after it where the worked lived before Edith sold it off sure sounded like feudalism.
Basically, I couldn’t really get into a book, only about 300 pages, about how rich people had problems keeping their large house intact. It’s a big reason why I stopped watching Downton Abbey ages ago. Heck, Kiernan doesn’t stay completely focused on the house either. Much of the book is given over to the Vanderbilts, their friends I couldn’t keep track of, or just famous people who may have stopped by the house at one point in time or another. It all ends up here as not much, including an Epilogue that might have worked as a tourism ad for the house. I’d say visit the house, but skip the book. 6.5 out of 10 poorly-thought out marriages.