Discussion Questions

1. In the book’s opening pages, author Denise Kiernan situates the reader in the rather distinct cultural and historical era of the late nineteenth century when Edith Dresser, the future Mrs. Vanderbilt, settles into a home in New York City during the winter of 1888. One aspect Kiernan makes clear is the bizarre former and current neighbors the Dresser girls will be living near. The first was Dr. Valentine Mott, who gained notoriety for exhuming recently deceased bodies for medical instruction. Another neighbor was actor Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln two decades earlier. The latter half of the nineteenth century was a time when innovation walked side-by-side with brute horror, when leaders of international renowned shared headlines with conmen, when the Confederate States of America and communal societies offered strikingly different perspectives on ideas like democracy and equality. Spend a little time online searching through major developments, stories, and personalities of the era. Can you put forward any of your own ideas about how this era gave rise to the Gilded Age that united Edith Dresser and George Vanderbilt in their lifelong pursuits of building, maintaining, and, ultimately, saving the Biltmore House?

2. Edith grew up both inside and outside of the rigorous social and financial class pressures of New York society, the apotheosis of which was represented by Mrs. John Jacob Astor. How did this liminal experience position Edith to become such an essential part of the Vanderbilt legacy? How did her childhood shape her differently than the experience of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was born into poverty in 1794 but rose to be one of the wealthiest men in the country?

3. Unlike his brothers, George had no interest in the family business. He was more inclined to art, literature, and travel. How do you believe his creative and cultural pursuits assisted in his decision to build the Biltmore House? On the other hand, how did his lack of business experience ultimately hurt him?

4. To envision the potential landscape around the Biltmore House, George tapped the famous Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed world-renowned landscapes like Central Park in New York City. While the park had been a public venture and the Biltmore grounds would be private, there were similarities in how the lands were acquired. In the early 1800s, the land that would become Central Park was actually a small predominantly Black community known as Seneca Village. The community would eventually grow to include Irish and German immigrants. In 1853, the city used eminent domain to seize tracts of privately owned land to create Central Park, displacing scores of Black families who owned their own property. When George Vanderbilt set out to purchase the thousands of acres surrounding what would become the Biltmore House property, he found countless small farms and communities owned by settlers and squatters, many of whom agreed to sell their land, others of whom struggled to hang onto it. When citing the marvels of places like Central Park and the landscape of the Biltmore House, how can we also honor those who struggled to forge lives on the land before these historical projects were undertaken, especially people like farmer and former slave Charles C. Collins, who refused to sell his six acres to George Vanderbilt?

5. Many times in the book, Kiernan and others describe the relationship the Vanderbilts had with construction crews and local artisans as “feudal.” Of particular note is the fact that, after George built Biltmore Village and All Souls Cathedral, he followed English manor tradition and kept the deed to the parish house and rectory. Other examples are the ways in which locals and employees flocked to celebrate Edith’s arrival at the property as well as Cornelia’s wedding. In your opinion, did the Vanderbilts and their employees see themselves as part of a feudal system, or were these expressions of love and celebration results of genuine affection?

6. The infamous Cholly Knickerbocker of the New York Recorder assiduously reported on the salacious celebrity gossip of the day, much of which focused on the country’s wealthiest families. How did this star-watching, which has carried into contemporary American media, affect public perception of celebrities? How does reality television, the internet, and social media currently affect our perceptions of the wealthy and famous?

7. While the grandeur of the Biltmore House as designed by William Morris Hunt and the grounds as designed by Olmstead cannot be overstated, the efforts Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck made to improve and sustain the thousands of acres of forests surrounding the property are similarly breathtaking. What effect did these preservation efforts have on western North Carolina?

8. In Chapter Four, which covers much of the period of Biltmore’s design and construction, Kiernan writes, “Acorns and oak leaves were scattered about the structure’s surfaces as well, newly co-opted symbols of a family that held no claim to historical arms or crests of their own.” Even by American standards, the Vanderbilt family was considered “new money,” especially when compared to families that could claim royal lineage or European aristocracy. In your opinion, how did the Vanderbilt family’s relatively recent wealth spur George and other members of the family to forge such grand undertakings?

9. What do you make of the ways in which Edith was portrayed in the press after her engagement to George Vanderbilt? Particularly striking was the violent language used to explain their union: “Captured Millionaire”; “A Multi-Millionaire in Cupid’s Clutches”; and “A Wealthy Benedict Who Surrenders at Last.” Do we still see marriage and women portrayed this way in contemporary America?

10. Guests at Biltmore enjoyed countless modern conveniences, from electric call buttons to electric dumbwaiters. They also enjoyed copious amounts of food and drink, which were kept cool in a mechanical refrigeration system that could chill up to 500 pounds of meat and vegetables and 50 gallons of liquid. In the winters, guests were kept comfortable by a hot water heating system that, at one point, burned as much as 25 tons of coal during a two week period in 1900. Given our contemporary concerns about environmental degradation, food sustainability, and climate change, how should we perceive this incredibly conspicuous consumption?

11. At the close of Chapter Nine, Kiernan, when discussing Edith’s burgeoning interest in regional artisans, tracks the evolution of the Vanderbilts’ taste from “the rage for Louis XV flourishes” to “the simple elegance of the Arts and Crafts movement,” writing, “The artificial would give way to the natural; that which was of the elite, would soon be of the people.” Can this turn toward “simplicity” be connected with Edith’s settling in at Biltmore and embracing local culture?

12. Kiernan suggests that forester Carl Schenck first intuited the Vanderbilts’ impending financial struggles after he accidentally saw a letter in which Edith’s brother LeRoy Dresser shared financial information with George. Schenck would eventually consider Biltmore “a rich man’s hobby” with “no grounding in economics.” Aside from LeRoy’s struggles and the effect they had on George and Edith, were there other signs – personal, national, or global – that financial strain was on the horizon for the Vanderbilts?

13. Richard Morris Hunt and Rafael Gustavino not only played a major role in the design and construction of the Biltmore House, they also played a major role in many structures built in the city of Asheville at the turn of the century. After doing a little research on your own, what are some of their most notable local structures? In your opinion, how do these buildings continue to define the city?

14. Kiernan mentions a number of literary luminaries and their connections to Asheville and the Vanderbilts: Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, Edith Wharton, and Henry James to name a few. Did this literary star power surprise you, or is it unsurprising that such stars were drawn to the grandeur of Biltmore?

15. After George’s untimely passing, Edith is forced to step in and protect George’s legacy while also shoring up the sagging finances of the property. She succeeded beyond anything George had been capable of achieving, perhaps because, as Kiernan points out, building Biltmore and stuffing it with treasure was “the closest thing to work George had done in his life.” While Edith did not forge a career, how did her life on the fringes of society perhaps prepare her for the eventual financial struggles that awaited her after marrying into one of America’s wealthiest families?

16. After George’s death, Edith continued to lend her financial and personal support to numerous charitable and civic organizations in the region. Even young Cornelia eventually became a benefactor in her own right. Discuss how their philanthropic efforts played a role in their legacies.

17. Can you explain Cornelia’s decision to depart from the halls of Biltmore while leaving the life of an American heiress behind? At the end of Chapter Fifteen, Kiernan writes, “Jazz and freedom and cigarettes and speakeasies called to many a young woman in the 1920s. Perhaps some of those jazz rhythms moved Cornelia, imbued in her a sense of wanting something more.” Perhaps it was cultural upheaval and change that influenced Cornelia, but were there other – perhaps personal or political – influences at work?

18. Cornelia and Jack Cecil officially opened the doors of the Biltmore House to the public on March 15, 1930, which was a defining moment in the history of North Carolina. How did this decision influence the legacy of the Biltmore House and the course of history in western North Carolina?