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
Publication date: September 26, 2017
Genres: History, Non-fiction
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One of the main nonfiction backlist books I wanted to read this month is The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan. I loved her book The Girls of Atomic City about the women in America who were part of the effort to win WWII. The Last Castle is about an almost mythical point in American history where money and society were being minted at an extraordinary pace. It was called The Gilded Age and amongst the gilded there were few earning or spending more than the Vanderbilts. The book follows George, in his quest to build a European-inspired summer estate. That house would become the Biltmore Estate, the largest single-family home ever built in America.
George was the youngest son of William, the successful oldest son of the family’s patriarch, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the family’s intellectual, prizing books and art over business. The Biltmore was his passion project. He purchased 125,000 acres of depleted forest land in Asheville, North Carolina, hired one of the country’s best architects, and its greatest landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, to create what he hoped would be a self-sufficient estate. The project began in 1889 with the house ‘opening’ at Christmas 1895, although there was still work left undone.
The details in The Last Castle make for marvelous reading in their absurdity. A rail line had to be built, 1,000 workers housed onsite, and factories assembled to produce many of the house’s materials. It was an incredible boon to Asheville’s economy—nothing more than a sleepy spa town at the time. The mansion has 250 rooms and covers 175,000 square feet. The kinds of numbers that boggle the mind, all for one couple and later, their only child, Cornelia.
George’s lack of interest in money was (not surprisingly) problematic. He created a grand estate with its own village, forestry school, church, post office, and rental cottages, without any thought of what they would cost to maintain. This, plus his unexpected death in 1914 left his wife Edith being dragged down by a behemoth folly the family could no longer afford.
Which is where The Last Castle get truly interesting. Edith came from a prestigious family, the Stuyvesants, but had been orphaned and had no money. Marrying George thrust her into a world that is still beyond imagining for most of us today. It turned out she was well-suited for all the expectations society placed on her as a Vanderbilt, but her heart lay in philanthropy and in executing George’s vision even after his death. A woman who never dealt with money now had to find a way to pay massive tax bills (income tax only started in 1913) as well as sustain the estate.
Edith’s ingenuity, determination, and perseverance make her life the more notable one. George had vision, but no practicality. I love that he had a book collection of 10,000 volumes in a two-story 40’x60’ library, but he burned through almost all of his inheritance with no thought to the future. Aside from her charitable work and herculean efforts to keep Biltmore afloat and in the family (which it is to this day), Edith also remarried—a senator named Peter Gerry, who’s nonstop efforts to reorganize Massachusetts’s districts to his benefit led to the term gerrymandering.
Kiernan’s use of these intimate details in a book that spans the beginning of a century, a world war, prohibition in North Carolina, the Titanic, a stock market crash, and a global pandemic keeps the book engaging. The Last Castle moves at a pace like fiction, but is replete with facts from a time in America that feels almost as tumultuous as today.
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