The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan
Published by Atria Books on May 1, 2018
Source: Purchased
Genres: History
Pages: 416
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

A New York Times bestseller with an "engaging narrative and array of detail” (The Wall Street Journal), the “intimate and sweeping” (Raleigh News & Observer) untold, true story behind the Biltmore Estate—the largest, grandest private residence in North America, which has seen more than 120 years of history pass by its front door.

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.

David and I spent a day at Biltmore on vacation a couple of weeks ago. It’s a gorgeous house and estate and we happened to be there when it was mostly decorated for Christmas inside; the big tree hadn’t arrived yet though. I just wish it hadn’t been raining. At that time I was over halfway through The Last Castle. I had picked it up to read before we left and had hoped to have it finished by our trip, but time doesn’t always work like I want it to. I had finished the most important parts about the building of the house, the life George and Edith Vanderbilt had there as newlyweds, the early growth of the village around Biltmore and Asheville itself, and the loss of important people in the couples’ lives.

The Last Castle is thoroughly researched and reading it definitely added to my enjoyment of my visit to the estate. I loved seeing the rooms and views I had read about, the art and gardens and the view. The Last Castle does a wonderful job of tracing the history of Biltmore and placing it in its eras. We see the “rich and fabulous,” but we also see some of the servants and poorer people of the town. We see the effects of both World Wars and The Depression. We read about the Lusitania and the Titanic, meet famous authors and politicians. There are so many interesting stories, like the National Gallery hid paintings at Biltmore during WW II. Fortunes come and go and a house like Biltmore is incredibly expensive to maintain, and yet the family manages to hold onto the estate. It’s still privately owned by descendants of George and Edith.

While the book is interesting and full of details, it’s also a slow read. I’m not sure I would have kept reading if we hadn’t seen the house itself. Yes, it includes photos, but that’s just not the same.

About Denise Kiernan

Denise Kiernan is an author, journalist and producer and has been working as a writer for more than 20 years. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, Ms. Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Discover and many more publications. She has also worked in television, serving as head writer for ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” during its Emmy award-winning first season and has produced for media outlets such as ESPN and MSNBC.

Her last two books—The Last Castle and The Girls of Atomic City—were both instant New York Times bestsellers in both hardcover and paperback. The Last Castle was also a Wall Street Journal bestseller, a finalist for the 2018 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and a finalist for the Southern Book Prize. The Girls of Atomic City was also a Los Angeles Times and NPR bestseller, was named one of Amazon’s “Top 100 Best Books of 2013,” and is now available in seven languages. It was also awarded the 2014 American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award for the best book published in the United States on government, politics, or international affairs.

Kiernan has also co-authored several popular history titles including Signing Their Lives Away, Signing Their Rights Away, and Stuff Every American Should Know. Throughout her career, Kiernan has been a featured guest on many radio and television shows, including NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” PBS NewsHour, MSNBC Morning Joe and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She lives in North Carolina.

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