“A soaring and gorgeous American story” (Karen Abbott) from the author of the New York Times bestselling The Girls of Atomic City.
The fascinating true story behind the magnificent Gilded Age mansion Biltmore—the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.
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.
The Last Castle is the unique American story of how the largest house in America flourished, faltered, and ultimately endured to this day.
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This reading group guide for The Last Castle includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Denise Kiernan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City comes the fascinating true story behind the magnificent Gilded Age mansion of Biltmore—the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.
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. In addition to taming the grounds with the help of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, he 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 village just beyond its 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.
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, Teddy Roosevelt, and Edith Wharton. The Last Castle is the unique American story of how the largest house in America flourished, faltered, and ultimately endured to this day.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think Denise Kiernan chose to title her book The Last Castle? In what ways does Biltmore function like a castle for George Vanderbilt and his family? How does it differ?
2. Edith Vanderbilt’s mother hailed from the Fish-LeRoy and Stuyvesant families. These families were “exceptionally well known in New York circles where names carried the weight of history and bore the shackles of expected romantic pairings” (p. 3). What expectations do Edith; her mother, Susan Fish LeRoy; and their peers face with regard to marriage? Do you think these expectations lead to some disastrous marital pairings among Edith’s peers? If so, give some examples.
3. Describe the origins of the name that George chooses for his Asheville estate. What does “Biltmore” signify? Why do you think it’s important for George to choose a name for his estate? The citizens of Asheville have mixed reactions to the name “Biltmore.” Discuss them.
4. Kiernan describes William B. Osgood Field as being “like the Nick Carraway to George’s Gatsby: playing matchmaker, yet unable to keep up with his friend financially” (p. 99). Describe George’s friendship with Field. Do you think Kiernan’s comparison is apt? Why or why not? What other friendships are particularly important to George?
5. When Field accompanies George Vanderbilt to Europe, George’s sisters inform Field that “he should be more than George’s companion on this trip. He should seek to help George land his life’s companion” (p. 81). Why do George’s sisters think that Edith is a good match for him? Do you agree? What considerations must someone of George’s social class take into account when looking for a spouse?
6. During the Gilded Age, being “a son of the Vanderbilt dynasty was to have your every move, dalliance, chance encounter, and passing venture watched and analyzed” (p. 7-8). Why do you think the public is so interested in the lives of the Vanderbilt family? Discuss the impact the constant public scrutiny has on the behavior of members of the Vanderbilt family. Can you think of any modern equivalents that are scrutinized in the same way the Vanderbilt family was in their time? Who are they?
7. In letters, George’s niece, Adele, describes herself as “Biltmore homesick” (p. 46). What does she mean by this expression? Why does Adele enjoy herself so much during her visits to Biltmore? How is life better for women of Adele’s social class on country estates? What freedoms are afforded to them that they do not have while they are in cities?
8. One of Edith’s great strengths was that she “strode deftly between . . . two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity” (p. 156). How is Edith able to move between these two vastly different realms? What about her upbringing may have prepared her for this balance? In what ways is Edith able to make herself an integral part of the greater community in Asheville?
9. When Cornelia is born, the locals honor her by “conferring the ‘tar heel’ moniker upon [her]” (p. 134). How does Cornelia’s birth connect George and Edith with the community in Asheville? Why do the residents feel a sense of ownership over her? Describe Cornelia’s connection to her birthplace as an adult. Were you surprised by it?
10. In 1873, Mark Twain and coauthor Charles Dudley Warner wrote a book about the age of excess in which they lived titled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Do you think “Gilded Age” is an appropriate title for the time? If so, why? Would you have liked to live during the Gilded Age? Why or why not?
11. Why does George Vanderbilt elect to build Biltmore in Asheville, NC? What is the effect that Biltmore has on the region socially, economically, and in terms of infrastructure? If you could build an estate anywhere, where would you do so? Explain your answer.
12. Kiernan writes that Biltmore “may not have been in New York or Newport, but if this house didn’t make an impression on the Four Hundred, nothing would, acorns or no.” (p. 66). Explain this statement. What kind of impression did Biltmore make on visitors? Was there anything you found particularly impressive about the house? If there was, discuss it with your book club, explaining why you were so taken with that particular feature.
13. When President McKinley expresses a desire to visit Biltmore, E. J. Harding, the auditor of Biltmore Estate, specifies that McKinley, his wife, and any cabinet members are welcome to the estate, but the media is not. Why does Harding object to the presence of the press? Is he right in doing so? How does the press interact with members of the Four Hundred and with the president? Why do you think McKinley might want to have press during his visit?
14. Lillian Exum Clement, who became the first female legislator in North Carolina, said, “I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing” (p. 245). Discuss the role that women played in politics prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In what ways were women active before they were granted the right to vote?
15. As a young man, George Vanderbilt tells Field that he wants to see the world before getting married, and that when he does get married, “he imagined she would perhaps be ten years his junior” (p. 85). Contrast George’s philosophy with regard to finding a life partner with Field’s. Do you agree with either of the men? Which one and why? Given the men’s philosophies, were you surprised by the choices they made in choosing their spouses?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. At a young age, George Vanderbilt began to keep a series of notebooks titled “Books I Have Read” where he recorded all of the literary and academic texts that he consumed. Create your own list and share it with your book club. Do any of your book club members have titles on their lists that intrigue you? Pick a selection from your shared lists for your next book club meeting.
2. Kiernan writes that “[w]alking the halls of Biltmore House for a day is a journey back in time” (p. 297). Visit Biltmore’s official website at Biltmore.com and take a virtual tour of the estate through the site’s photo gallery. Was there anything about the house and the grounds that you found particularly striking? If so, what?
3. Edith Wharton became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence. Read the novel with your book club. Discuss the ways in which it depicts upper-class society. Is this a time you would have liked to live during? Why or why not?
4. To learn more about Denise Kiernan and find out if she will be in a city near you, visit her official website at denisekiernan.com. You can also connect with Denise Kiernan at facebook.com/DeniseKiernanAuthor, Twitter.com/DeniseKiernan, and Instagram.com/iamdenisekiernan for updates about her writing and tour schedule.
A Conversation with Denise Kiernan
The story behind Biltmore Estate and its influence on the Asheville, NC, community is fascinating. What attracted you to it?
A combination of factors played into it. I visited Biltmore for the first time while I was still in high school and loved the grounds in particular. I never anticipated, at that time, that I would ever live in Asheville. When my husband and I moved here more than eleven years ago now, I had the opportunity to visit as an adult and fell in love with the place. I was also stunned at how many people I knew—especially in other parts of the country—who had no idea about the rich history of Biltmore, let alone the fact that no other house in the United States has ever come close to equaling it in size. I kept collecting information over the years, the way I do with lots of ideas, but this one wouldn’t leave me alone. Then I just felt that it was time to write about it.
The Last Castle is meticulously detailed. Can you tell us how you conducted your research?
I spent many, many hours buried in old documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I traveled to New York; Washington, DC; Providence, RI; and elsewhere to dig into archives. I read books, researched academic journals, and also spoke to longtime residents of Asheville whose family members would tell stories of the house and the family. And of course, I have visited the house countless times over the years.
Your previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and NPR bestseller and was named one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of 2013. As a result of all this acclaim, did you feel any added pressure when you were writing The Last Castle? How did you combat it?
I absolutely do feel more pressure, but I think that’s unavoidable. To combat it, I speak to other writer friends who have been in the same situation. I also look to the experiences of extremely well-known authors whom I admire greatly from afar who have endured ups and downs in their careers. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that Girls did so well and that I have been given the opportunity to share another story I find fascinating with readers.
Your descriptions of Biltmore in The Last Castle make the estate come alive. Do you have any favorite parts of the estate? Which parts of the estate would you advise visitors not to miss and why?
As a writer, I am absolutely in love with the library. It is a spectacular sight. I really enjoy the view from the loggia and like to stand out there and try to spot wild turkeys. The view is astounding. The basement is remarkable. It is fantastic to get into the bowels of the house and marvel at what a massive undertaking Biltmore House was on a technological level and try to envision the space buzzing during the holidays in the early 1900s or when famous visitors came to call. So much has been preserved in the house that you really can let your imagination take you back a hundred or so years.
For both your Signers and Stuff series, you worked with a coauthor. How did that experience differ from that of writing The Last Castle? Does your writing process change when you’re collaborating versus working independently? If so, how?
That’s kind of a loaded question, because in that situation the coauthor was my husband, Joseph D’Agnese (josephdagnese.com). Collaboration can be challenging for writers, because most of us are used to spending hours alone inside of our own heads. For Joe and me, the general approach is that what one of us writes, the other edits. In the beginning, we write and swap smaller sections until we’re fairly confident that we have arrived at the same voice. Even when we are working on our own titles, we are each other’s first readers, and it is very helpful to have an in-house editor. We disagree at times, but so far the marriage has survived it.
As a New York Times bestselling author, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had known before beginning your career?
The advice I will give is the advice I still work to follow: 1.) Write every day. It’s a muscle. It’s a skill. You need to work out to stay in shape. 2.) Also incredibly important—and this one can be difficult to follow—is to give yourself permission to write really, really badly. Write a horrible first draft, but get it out of your system. If you’re obsessing about things being perfect along the way . . . they won’t be. Also, you are a better editor once you have the whole thing down. Books are often best edited with the entire text in mind, no matter how drastically you end up changing it. 3.) Be careful who you share your work with and when. Outside readers are very important, and you want ones who will be both astoundingly blunt AND considerate of how unnerving feedback can be. You want someone who is critiquing you from a frank yet compassionate place. You don’t want people telling you everything is great—that’s a red flag—but you also don’t want creative saboteurs, either. 4.) TURN OFF THE INTERNET. You don’t have to do it all day, but you need large stretches of quiet for things to rumble around a bit.
In addition to your career as a New York Times bestselling author, you are a professional producer. Has your background as a producer helped you in your writing career? If so, how?
I think perhaps it helps me visualize scenes. I like to think visually when I write and keep lots of images around. It certainly helps with project management as well. There can be a lot of moving parts when you’re promoting one book, traveling for research for another, and still needing time to write. I like visual storytelling and sometimes thinking of how a story might be told on film or television gives me structural ideas when I write.
What would you like readers to take away from The Last Castle?
Honestly, whatever they want. Over the years, I have heard so many different reactions to and perspectives on books I’ve written—I can never anticipate what they are going to be. I also would never want to tell anyone what to think about anything I’ve written. Everyone brings a little bit of themselves to stories they read, and I sincerely hope the story of The Last Castle is relatable enough that readers will be able to engage with it in their own unique way. I, personally, find the philanthropic activities—not just check writing—that Edith, especially, engaged in rather inspiring. I also find that no matter how much money you have, there is no protection from harrowing tragedy and personal loss. What is impressive to me is how people handle those kinds of situations.
Is there anything you have found particularly rewarding about publishing The Last Castle? Can you tell us about it?
More of my friends are interested in actually reading The Last Castle—as opposed to just buying it to support me—than The Girls of Atomic City. I know a lot of folks who don’t want to read about science or war, so it has been nice to hear from people who have been genuinely excited about the book. It’s fun to dive into a different time and place for a while.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am, and no . . . I won’t. Nonfiction can be tricky, because history belongs to all of us. No one has “dibs” on anything. In the early stages of a book, I am very protective of my material, in part because if I’ve come across a way of discussing a certain moment in history, I want to make sure I hang on to that. Also, and this is probably more important, I am HORRIBLE at discussing things in the early stages, and I don’t want to turn off anyone unnecessarily.
Denise Kiernan’s previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, is a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and NPR bestseller, and was named one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of 2013. Kiernan has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The 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 producing for media outlets such as ESPN and MSNBC. She has been a featured guest on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” PBS NewsHour, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“The Last Castle is a soaring and gorgeous American story that gripped me from the very first page. With a historian’s keen insight and a poet’s gift for language, Denise Kiernan depicts life at Biltmore with such skill, I felt like I was there through it all: weddings, divorces, elaborate (and slightly bizarre) balls, financial glory, financial ruin, murder, suicide, natural disasters, betrayals, love, loss, despair, and triumph. The story of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s remarkable lives will stay with me for a long time to come.”
– Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
“If you inherited billions, how would you spend it? Don't bother building America's largest and most lavish home. It's already been done in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where more than a million visitors a year stroll the grounds of Biltmore Estate. Yet only in the pages of Denise Kiernan's The Last Castle will they come to know George Vanderbilt, the bookish heir who began Biltmore in his 20s, and his determined widow, Edith, who kept it alive as a working estate and a time capsule of the Gilded Age. In the pages of The Last Castle, Kiernan serves up a true tale of American excess, generosity, and perseverance.”
– Bill Dedman, New York Times bestselling author of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
"This is as much a story about the creation of Biltmore House as it is a window into what it was like to be an American at the turn of the 20th century. Kiernan makes Edith and George Vanderbilt, among the wealthiest Americans at the time, feel like living, breathing human beings navigating life's obstacles in this magnificent book. And she tells the story of how one fiercely devoted woman was able to save the home her husband loved."
– -Kate Andersen Brower, author FIRST WOMEN: The Grace & Power of America's Modern First Ladies and THE RESIDENCE: Inside the Private World of the White House
"The rich have secrets. In her well-researched and captivating book, Denise Kiernan tells the fascinating story of how a phenomenally wealthy Vanderbilt scion transformed a rural North Carolina town by building the ultimate rich man's folly and reveals the eccentricities, heartaches, and even money problems of these Social Register denizens and their friends and employees."
– Meryl Gordon, author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend
"This is a timely and timeless American story of wealth and the responsibility and opportunity it carries. In Kiernan’s hands, this mashup of Downton Abbey-like extravagance set amid the “rugged mountain simplicity” of Appalachia reads like a Southern fairy tale — Brothers Grimm meets Gone with the Wind. A passionately researched family saga of death and divorce, suicide and sickness, fortunes gained and lost, spanning two world wars and set at the crux of the Gilded Age yielding to the modern era, The Last Castle is ultimately a story of fortitude and survival. A stunning and important achievement."
– Neal Thompson, author of A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It Or Not!" Ripley
"Ms. Kiernan's research is prodigious....she brings the place to life. And she doesn't leave out the juicy bits from the family history: adultery, bankruptcy, suicide."
– The Wall Street Journal
“The book’s vitality lies in the details [Kiernan] reveals about the architects, writers, artists and peers of the Vanderbilts who spent time at Biltmore.”
– The New York Times Book Review
“Evocative, meticulously researched. . . Kiernan brings a deft eye for detail and observation to a very different kind of story. . . . Her re-creation of Biltmore’s origins hits like a flute of fine champagne while lending social context to the mansion. . . . ‘The Last Castle’ is Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence sprung to life. . . . Biltmore is an ideal vessel for an exploration of our worship of affluence and social cachet, and more importantly, the American myth of classlessness. ‘The Last Castle’ plumbs these themes and history with subtle insight and élan. “
– Knoxville News-Sentinel
"But reading The Last Castle, the flowing novel-like narrative really is 'about America.' It's about celebrity culture, wealth disparity, the remarkable charity and foresight of a few wealthy people, the urge to create and maintain a family legacy and, in its darker moments, the ever-present potential for personal tragedy. It's grounded in Kiernan's years of globe-trotting research and yet also immediately relevant to the topics that clog social media in 2017."
– Asheville Citizen-Times
"A story that brings the glitz and glamour of the British royal family to American soil.... Reigning royalty of the Gilded Age, Edith and George Vanderbilt, and their lifetime of financial excess, ruins, scandal, and perseverance come alive on these pages.
"A story that is both intimate and sweeping."
– Raleigh News & Observer
"This is fantastic stuff...."
– Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“For those who couldn’t get enough of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Last Castle’ might satisfy that desire to peer into the lives of wealthy members of the reigning elite.”
“Intriguing . . . With plenty of famous characters sprinkled throughout, there is enough action and history to keep readers engaged and eager to turn the pages... Kiernan fans and those new to her work are sure to devour this latest volume.”
– Library Journal
"The many diverting detours Kiernan takes make the book enticing for even those who will never set foot on Biltmore grounds."
Kiernan evokes the grandeur of Biltmore House...the starring character in this fascinating look at the creation of the largest private home built in the United States.
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