The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Vanderbilts.
At the end of the 19th century, the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, was the biggest, grandest, most opulent home in America. Set on 125,000 acres, the 175,000-square-foot mansion contained 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, 65 fireplaces, and a 72-foot-long banquet hall. Eight million bricks cloaked its 750-foot facade, and a massive dining table could seat more than 70 guests. Filled with art and sculpture, the house was the pride and obsession of George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862-1914), grandson of the shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Biltmore House is the setting for Kiernan’s (The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, 2013, etc.) family history, featuring George and his wife, Edith Dresser. Unfortunately, the house itself emerges as a livelier presence than its inhabitants. George was a mystery even to his best friend, who called him “cold-blooded,” moody, and reticent. He enjoyed napping and reading. “You know I do not for a moment envy the position of GV,” his friend noted. “He is not one speck as happy as I am, and the spending of money gives him absolutely no thrill.” He seemed not interested in women, either, but at the age of 35, “America’s richest bachelor” became engaged to Edith, the well-bred, though not wealthy, daughter of a noted New York family whose ancestors included Manhattan governor Peter Stuyvesant. Kiernan discloses little about their personalities and nothing about their courtship or relationship as husband and wife. She does chronicle their wedding, honeymoon, return to Asheville, and many other travels as well as the declining fortunes that made Biltmore an exceedingly expensive undertaking. Edith engaged in much charity work before and after George’s sudden death. The couple had one child, but the author hardly looks at her relationship with her parents, focusing mostly on the family’s financial woes, which became increasingly dire.
One-dimensional characters undermine the potential drama of life within a castle.