• By Candace Brennan
  • Posted Monday, April 30, 2018

Denise Kiernan, author of Girls of Atomic City

Each year, more than 1 million visitors flock to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, to tour its gorgeous gardens and cavernous halls. The colossal Gilded Age château built by George Vanderbilt between the years of 1889 and 1895 is the largest home ever to exist in America—occupying 175,000 square feet and larger than three White Houses. Yet even more striking than the property’s staggering dimensions is the wider story of how this extraordinary place came to exist, the luminaries who made it their playground, the setbacks faced by its inhabitants—and why Biltmore still amazes today, a time when few past marvels continue to loom large.

In THE LAST CASTLE: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home (May 1; Touchstone; Trade Paperback; $17.00; 978-1-4767-9405-1), DENISE KIERNAN, author of the New York Times bestseller The Girls of Atomic City, reveals a fascinating saga of unimaginable excess, devastating tragedy, inspiring generosity, and unlikely endurance.

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—grandson of railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt and one of the world’s wealthiest, most elusive bachelors—was one of the most watched events of Gilded Age society. But none of this prepared her to be mistress of Biltmore House, George’s spectacular European-style estate.

Brimming with priceless art, antiques, and an unrivaled library, this palatial wonder was improbably set amid the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Appalachia. Designed by celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt, with grounds shaped by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore House was surrounded by more than one hundred thousand acres of woods that comprised what is now known as America’s Cradle of Forestry. Almost feudal in nature, George and Edith’s domain included a Hunt- and Olmsted-designed village outside the estate gates where workers, their families and other locals planted the seeds of what remains a vibrant community. Despite their drastically different circumstances, the Vanderbilts and the locals forged a powerful bond that transformed the region in ways that are still felt today.

Encompassing world wars, the Jazz Age, financial crises, scandalous marriages, natural disaster, murder and suicide, the story of Biltmore House takes readers from the wilds of Appalachia to the glamour of New York, Newport, and Paris, and features a captivating cast of characters including Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and James Whistler.

As the Gilded Age began to tarnish, the Vanderbilts’ fortunes shifted. When changing times threatened their family, community and estate, it soon fell to Edith to rescue Biltmore from the brink of insolvency. THE LAST CASTLE ultimately is the uniquely American story of a man who realized his impossible dream and the woman who saved it.

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