In ‘The Last Castle,’ Denise Kiernan tells the story of the Biltmore Estate

Denise Kiernan
Author photo by Scott Treadway/Treadshots

Asheville-based author Denise Kiernan has an obvious passion for history and an impulse to personalize it. Asked what the land George Vanderbilt bought in the mountains of North Carolina would have looked like, she imagines how Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect Vanderbilt brought on to help design the estate, might have reacted.

“Olmsted showed up,” Kiernan says, laughing, “and George was about 2,000 acres in, and Olmsted says, ‘This looks really crappy!'” And yet, she explains, Olmsted’s familiarity with the forests in the surrounding mountains induced him to take on the the task of extending that distant outlook into Vanderbilt’s land. Kiernan launches her book on Biltmore — The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home — at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

As it happens, the author has some things in common with the historical figures whose story she tells. Like Vanderbilt, Kiernan was born in New York City and, like the scion and his wife, Edith, Kiernan traveled widely (including a stint in Italy reporting on soccer for ESPN) before settling in Asheville. When she and her husband arrived here, however, it wasn’t for the first time.

“I’ve always liked interesting houses,” she says, recalling her first visit to the Biltmore Estate, taken with her family when she was in high school. “But what really struck me there was just the sheer amount of land, and the views, and the gardens. As soon as we came back, that was certainly one of the places that I wanted to spend time.”

For that reason, writing about the estate seemed like a natural next step for Kiernan, who has penned several books of narrative history, including The New York Times best-seller The Girls of Atomic City. The Washington Post praised that book’s “deep reservoir of intimate details,” and a reader finds much the same intimate focus in Castle. Kiernan uses Biltmore as a lens to examine the rise and fall of the Gilded Age, and she weaves letters, journals, public records and newspaper archives together to present a picture of two people — George and Edith Vanderbilt — who refused to fall in with the expectations and distractions of the time.

“George grew up in the midst of this extravagant mayhem,” Kiernan says, “but he was a quiet rebel. A lot of people of his ilk were into travel and art, but he pursued it with authentic passion.”

For Edith, being an orphan shaped her character. “She and her sisters were quite adventurous and quite spirited,” Kiernan says. “It was almost inevitable that [she and George] were going to end up on a ship somewhere with some guy trying to play matchmaker.”

According to Kiernan, George and Edith also connected in other, unexpected ways. Edith’s instinct toward philanthropy reinforced George’s. And, despite its grandeur, their Appalachian home also brought them down to earth, eventually putting them in touch with a craft culture that inspired even George’s refined admiration. That led to one of the first legacies of their marriage: their significant influence in making homespun housewares mainstream as the American aesthetic scaled down for the more democratic age that followed.

Ironically, these two rebels against the Gilded Age ended up preserving one of its greatest monuments.

“It is hard to maintain that amount of wealth when financial crises come along,” Kiernan says. And yet, “even when money was a challenge, what Edith ended up buying was time.” At her death in 1958, the house had progressed beyond being, in Kiernan’s words, “a giant limestone albatross.” Instead of falling to the wrecking ball, like so many other great estates, it endured to become America’s largest private home.

As a result, the Biltmore Estate offers a unique experience in comparison with the other surviving homes of that era. “When you walk around the Biltmore house, it’s a very intimate visit,” Kiernan says. A visitor can look at a room and see it exactly as it was when it was first used: “They were sitting here, having tea, and looking at these very tapestries.”

Kiernan concludes Castle from the perspective of the estate’s acreage. Her visits now focus on the grounds of Biltmore — walking and kayaking on the property.  She suggests that that the extension and preservation of the surrounding forests may be the Vanderbilts’ greatest legacy.

“I don’t think Asheville would be the place it is today if those 87,000 acres of forest hadn’t been preserved,” Kiernan says. “We talk about what George built bringing people to town, but what George didn’t build also brings a lot of people.”

WHO: Denise Kiernan presents The Last Castle in conversation with Karen Abbott
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 26, 6 p.m. Tickets are $32 and include a copy of the book

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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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8 thoughts on “In ‘The Last Castle,’ Denise Kiernan tells the story of the Biltmore Estate

  1. Lisa Lindberg

    The story I would like to hear more about is Cornelia’s, as the little bit I have read makes me want more. E.g., After George’s death when Cornelia was a teenager, her mother Edith had a teeny apartment built for herself and her daughter on Biltmore’s 2nd floor overlooking the stables. (It looks quite odd — an architecturely awkward, added-on, plain box.) That small set of rooms is where mother & daughter spent their time when at Biltmore — that is, when they were not on their world travels or “in residence” at their various other stately mansions. (Sometime in here, her mother Edith remarried and spent even less time in Asheville.) When Cornelia was 22 (1922), she married (in Asheville) an English baron named Cecil who she had met in DC, and had two kids with him. Then at age 32 (1932), she left Biltmore in the hands of her husband and took their 2 sons to New York, and completed the divorce. Two years after leaving Biltmore, she moved with sons to Paris, then England, changed her name, re-married — twice — and never again spoke about her family, her heritage, or her life in America — nor let anyone else inquire. (Had she grown to be mortified at her family’s obscenely gargantuum Guilded Age riches? — at his death, her grandfather’s net worth was the 2016 equivalent of $6,000,000,000,000. ( 6 trillion dollars. The entire U.S. budget for 2017.) Cornelia’s sons eventually returned to Biltmore, where first the older son took over the then-more-lucrative farming operation. Later, the younger son took over the white elephant monstrosity of a house, and proceeded to — in his words — “trade shamelessly on the family name and heritage.” Cornelia died in Scotland and is buried in her last husband’s grave on Orkney, his name engraved on the stone, but hers not. What a story. I want more.

    • Lisa Lindberg

      (My paragraph breaks did not “take” — so it’s all one big run-on paragraph. Anybody who reads it will have to imagine where new ones would logically start.)

    • Lisa,

      You’re right—Cornelia’s is a fascinating story, and one that Denise Kiernan does give considerable space in The Last Castle. But you’re not the first person I’ve encountered who hopes to see her get her own book someday. Given the amount of writing talent in Asheville, I’m sure it will happen sooner rather than later!

      • Lisa Lindberg

        Great — looking forward to finding more about Cornelia’s story, both in Kiernan’s book, and also — hopefully some day soon — in a whole book primarily about her.

    • Sarah Lockett

      Contrary to what another person said in reply to your comment, you get precious little about the “Cornelia” angle in this book. It doesn’t provide any information about her beyond what we already know.

    • Alan Toney

      In later life, Cornelia had married William Robert Goodsir and gone by the name C. Mary Goodsir, disavowing her Vanderbilt name and Biltmore provenance.
      Words had thus been chosen for her marker: “Interred here are the ashes of C. Mary Goodsir. Died 7th February 1976 aged 75 years.”
      …but for some reason, a marker was never installed.
      So, there she lay, anonymously and unknown, for thirty-three years, until recently.
      A brass plaque set in a small block of local sandstone appeared on the grave, without ceremony or fanfare, during the Summer of 2017.
      It sits well-centered in front of the Goodsir family headstone in St Peter’s Kirkyard, Eastside, South Ronaldsay, Orkney.
      Nicely leveled, the stone seems professionally installed.
      The plaque is inscribed thus: “Here lies the dust of Cornelia Vanderbilt 1900-1976.”
      Local residents, including Orkney gravestone and monument makers and officials of St Peter’s Kirk, are mystified and unable to shed light on the matter.
      How wonderfully curious.
      Cornelia Vanderbilt, or to give her full due recognition, Cornelia Stuyvesant Nilcha Mary Vanderbilt Baer Bulkeley-Johnson Goodsir, continues to fascinate in death, as she did in life.

      • Alan,
        What a wonderful and mysterious addition to the Cornelia legend! Thanks so much for posting. Do you have a link to a news article? I’d love to put it out on social media.

  2. Ted M. Glasgow

    It is way past time that there were definitive biographies of George, Edith, and Cornelia…definitely…Cornelia left America to pursue a life of her own creation, feeling totally stifled by her life and marriage at Biltmore and not wanting to be “owned” by the Biltmore Estate for the rest of her life. Her two trusts, now combined into one, The Mount Trust,
    gave away far more than her initial inheritance of a $5M dollar trust from her father
    — finally turned over to her in August 1929. At least this book may spark interest in serious research leading to definitive biographies. It is my hope to read all three before I die, but I have been waiting and discussing since the 1970’s!

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