Nonfiction: Biltmore House, America’s Original McMansion

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The Biltmore House, circa 1900. Credit John H. Tarbell/Library of Congress

THE LAST CASTLE
The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home
By Denise Kiernan
Illustrated. 388 pp. Touchstone. $28.

Three years ago, I toured Biltmore House, the 175,000-square-foot mansion in Asheville, N.C., that, on completion in 1895, became America’s largest private home. I found the labyrinth of rooms and architectural detail both intimidating and soulless. I recall thinking that, had I been alive and deemed suitable to merit an invitation in its heyday, I would have preferred one of the 66 bedrooms designated for the servants, in which I’d be less likely to get lost.

In “The Last Castle,” Denise Kiernan tries to reveal the answer to what is surely the greatest mystery for any of Biltmore’s million annual visitors: Who, exactly, conceived of such a huge undertaking? What kind of bachelor really wanted to inhabit a 250-room house, replete with an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley?

Kiernan hangs her dense narrative on a potential love story featuring an unlikely lead. George Washington Vanderbilt was the wealthiest grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the cunning entrepreneur nicknamed Commodore because he got his start undercutting New York ferry services, an enterprise he expanded into a network of steamships and railways. George’s father, William, inherited the Commodore’s nose for business and doubled his $90 million inheritance within six years, accumulating what Kiernan describes as the “greatest fortune in America, very possibly in the world.”

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All eyes, inevitably, are on young George from the first chapter of “The Last Castle,” but he never lives up to our expectations, no matter how hard the author tries. Kiernan, who lives in Asheville, recounts her difficulty in finding original sources that reveal much about Vanderbilt. But, one wonders, even if all his letters had been kept, would he have been worth her while?

An inheritor who never worked, Vanderbilt lived with and was inseparable from his mother, Maria. Only upon her death, in 1896, did her son, then 34, half-heartedly consider finding a wife. His friend William Bradhurst Osgood Field (whom I find the book’s most entertaining character) warns in exasperation to his mother while Vanderbilt is courting the New York blue blood Edith Dresser: “I think his attachment, in whatever quarter it might lie, would be on a basis of business, as the rest hardly comes into his constitution.”

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