Published by Atria Books on May 1, 2018
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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.