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How Reading The Last Castle Might Actually Cure Your Desire for Wealth:

If the workings of the upper class in America is your thing, Denise Kiernan’s — book, The Last Castle is definitely for you.


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Melissa Gouty

5 months ago | 4 min read
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Biltmore and the Vanderbilts

The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan

Some books I appreciate for their plot. Some for their character development. In others, I’m awed by the scope of the story, and sometimes I’m fascinated by the uniqueness of the concept.

Denise Kiernan’s nonfiction book, The Last Castle, wowed me with the enormity of its research. Beginning in the late 1880s, Kiernan tells the story of Edith Dresser Stuyvesant, a woman of notable ancestry, who married George Washington Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in the world.

George Washington Vanderbilt, a man who didn’t want to live the prescribed life of the upper echelon in New York, traveled through the hills of North Carolina and decided to build his residence there in Asheville, ‘far away from the madding crowd.’

Bringing Together the Greatest Artisans of an Era

Money was no object, and George Vanderbilt spent more than six million dollars creating the largest private home ever built in America. The 175,000+ square foot mansion incorporates the work of some of the era’s greatest artisans.

Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect and creator of New York’s Central Park, and Richard Morris Hunt collaborated to create a massive chateau with more than 250 rooms gracefully situated in strategically placed gardens, roadways, and woodland areas.

Spanish architect, Rafael Guastavino, who had completed impressive tiled domes in projects along the East Coast, like the Boston Library, Carnegie Hall, the New York City Subway, and the Plaza Hotel, brought his skill and vision to Biltmore.

A beautiful, tiled, vaulted ceiling arches over the massive swimming pool. Entryways, staircases, and floors exhibit his masterpieces in tilework.

Then George Vanderbilt bought in great artwork, tapestries, and sculptures from all over the world, created by the greatest artists of the time.

The Last Castle meticulously documents the six-year process of building the magnificent structure, the relationships between the architects, the plans to combine the natural setting with the newly-created mansion, and the protection and management of the surrounding forests.

But Kiernan’s research doesn’t stop with the architecture.

The Requirements of Wealth and Status

Denise Kiernan’s nonfiction book about the building of Biltmore is also a look into the social strata at the turn of the 20th Century. We learn about “The Four Hundred” and see why the rich stay rich.

We get glimpses into the courtship practices of the wealthy requiring that a monied family marry into money. We see that wealth is acquired by merging companies and joining families through wedlock.

We begin to understand that wealth requires sacrifices…like finding a “suitable” mate, with or without the benefit of love.

George Vanderbilt had invited a good friend, William B.

Osgood Field, to travel with him on a transatlantic voyage. Field had been instructed by George’s older sisters to help George move toward a suitable match, and the Vanderbilt sisters were most interested in setting George up with another traveler, the 24-year-old Edith Dresser, as the potential mate for the 35-year-old confirmed bachelor.

Field’s matchmaking skills worked, and Edith and George were married in a quiet ceremony in Paris in June of 1898. When they returned home from their trip, Edith became the mistress of Biltmore, not yet completed, and one of the wealthiest women in the country.

The Glitterati and Literati

Presidents and politicians made trips to Biltmore. Movers and shakers of contemporary culture were frequent guests of the Vanderbilts in Asheville, Musicians, authors, and artists walked the hallways and roamed the gardens, mingling ideas and rubbing minds.

John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler both painted George Vanderbilt’s portrait. President McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt stayed at Biltmore.

Authors O. Henry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, all called the Vanderbilts friends.

But regardless of the glamor of the glitterati and literati, The Last Castle shows that being wealthy carries its own cost.

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo: ZakZeinert via Shutterstock.

The Pain and Problems of Money

My dad used to always say that money doesn’t buy happiness, a cliché apparent through the pages of The Last Castle.

People with prestige and affluence commit suicide, including Edith’s older brother. Matches made not in heaven, but in the upper stratosphere of society, fail miserably. Affairs. Bankruptcies. Dementia. Disease. Death.

The wealthy were not immune. It’s even possible they suffered more than us poor schmucks who are used to having to struggle.

Edith was almost twelve years younger than George.

When George died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 51, from complications from appendicitis, Edith, had to take on the managing of Biltmore Estate and all the various industries that the Vanderbilts had created in the nearby village.

If you watched Downton Abbey, you remember how the Crawley family struggled to support the costs of keeping their ancestral home.

The same thing happened at Biltmore. Even the vast wealth of the Vanderbilts was depleted with the constant drain of maintenance, entertaining, labor, and taxes required to keep Biltmore going.

The Last Castle meticulously details the efforts of Edith Vanderbilt and her descendants to find a way to support Biltmore and give America this lasting legacy.

(As someone lucky enough to have seen it in person and to have spent hours wandering its gardens and taking tours of its treasures, I appreciate the struggle Edith went through to preserve this amazing artifact of American history.)

Read This Book If…

The book is so filled with facts that it sometimes feels as heavy as the Indiana limestone blocks that form the foundation of Biltmore. Don’t feel like you have to remember all the details and all the characters.

Instead, read it to absorb what it was like to be incredibly wealthy at the beginning of the 1900s. Read it to understand what goes into planning a masterpiece of landscaping and architecture. Read it to see how the input of money into a community can generate jobs and industry.

Read it to dissuade yourself of the desire to be wealthy, because — Oh my! — it’s a lot of work and responsibility; struggle and stress!

If you’re interested in architecture, landscape design, or art…

If you’re interested in economic development and community growth…

If you’re fascinated by forestry and conservation management…

If the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age, or the Great Depression and its impact on the country are topics that turn you on…

If the workings of the upper class in America is your thing, Denise Kiernan’s — book, The Last Castle is definitely for you.

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Created by

Melissa Gouty

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Content Writer and Marketing Manager.

Award-winning teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Marketing manager in the HVAC and Optometry industries. Author of The Magic of Ordinary, a memoir of a "Daddy," his daughters, and the power of one good man to change the world.


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