When the documentary “The Queen of Versailles” was released in 2012, it bragged that the film was following a couple building the largest home in America – 90,000 square feet. Author and journalist Denise Kiernan balked at that notion remembering a childhood trip to Asheville’s Biltmore Estate. At over 170,000 square feet, George Vanderbilt’s home is still the biggest in the country. Fresh off of her New York Times best-seller “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” (Touchstone/2013), Kiernan was looking for her next book idea.
She joins host Frank Stasio to talk about how a childhood fascination and relocating to Asheville inspired her newest work: “The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home” (Touchstone/2017). The New York Times best-seller which was just released in paperback, spotlights the heroine of the Biltmore House, George Vanderbilt’s wife Edith. Kiernan will be reading from her book Tuesday, May 1 at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville at 6 p.m.; Tuesday, May 2 in the Triad with stops at Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem at 2 p.m. and Scuppernong Books in Greensboro at 7 p.m.; and on Thursday, May 3 Kiernan will be in Chapel Hill at Flyleaf Books at 7 p.m.
On the legacy of the Biltmore House:
Biltmore House is the largest home ever built in the United States. There was never a bigger home before. There’s never been a bigger home since. We’re talking more than 175,000 square feet. That does not include the conservatory. That does not include the stables. At the height of his land holdings in and around Asheville, North Carolina, George Vanderbilt had in the vicinity of 25,000 acres under his belt at the height of his holdings. We’re talking larger than Washington, DC.
On Edith Vanderbilt as an inspiration for the book:
I start the book with Edith, and I do that for a couple reasons. Mostly, I wanted to show Edith as an independent woman, as a young woman, as a single, unmarried woman before she becomes Mrs. George Vanderbilt.
On Edith’s sense of hands-on giving:
She was not the kind of person who sort of sat behind these big fancy gates and wrote checks and sent them off to whoever might need them. She was the kind of person who would hop on a horse with a basket of blankets and food and go visit an employee who was sick – go visit the spouse of an employee who was expecting … People took to her quite well in this area.
On Edith’s desire to save the Biltmore House:
She’s facing all of these financial challenges related to George’s dwindling funds before he passed away but also incredible costs in upkeep, changing tax laws. She really did not want the house to be knocked down as so many of them began to be. Some of the most gorgeous homes up and down Fifth Avenue in New York, including George’s childhood home at 640, just got knocked to the ground.