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Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding—it’s all in the details

Posted on 04/28/2014 by Judy Ross Comments(3)

Our focus on Biltmore weddings continues with a look at Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding 90 years ago on April 29, 1924. Many people say that the success of an elaborate event lies in the details. Cornelia Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Hon. John F. A. Cecil was no exception—from photographers to invitations to accommodations, many hands insured that all was perfect for the big day.

According to Lori Garst, Biltmore Curatorial assistant, society columns were aflutter as soon as rumors began about the engagement of John Cecil to Cornelia. Letters from the Washington Times and other inquirers arrived at Biltmore asking if the engagement rumor was indeed true. No information was officially released by Edith Vanderbilt until the decision was made as to what photographer would capture the moments of the wedding and take the official bridal portrait for the newspapers.

A formal announcement was made at a dinner hosted by Mrs. Vanderbilt at Biltmore on March 8, 1924. After much conversation, Mrs. Vanderbilt awarded two professional photographers from Washington, D.C. the job. Underwood and Underwood photographed the actual wedding, while Harris Ewing captured incidental photographs including the social whirl which occurred the week prior to the wedding.

Cornelia Vanderbilt wedding invitationWedding invitations were one of the first details to secure. While famous New York jewelers, such as Cartier, wrote offering to print the wedding invitations, Adolph & Dungan engravers of Louisville designed the wedding invitations, and Inland Press of Asheville printed them. There were two separate invitations to the occasion. Five hundred people received an invitation to the ceremony at All Souls Church at 12 noon and the reception immediately following at Biltmore House. Another 2,500 received a separate invitation to attend only the wedding reception at 12:30 p.m.

With guests arriving from across the globe, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s secretary, William Ashby, had the job of making travel arrangements to Biltmore and arranging accommodations for the wedding party, close family, and friends. Most guests stayed at the Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Country Club, and Kenilworth Inn. However, 43 guests including members of the wedding party stayed in Biltmore House. Ashby sent extensive instructions for cleaning and furnishing Biltmore House to Mrs. Donohue, the head housekeeper, as early as March 15.

Rooms were updated with new wallpaper and paint, iron beds and mattresses were ordered for the visiting guests’ staff, and all sheets were washed and ironed. The bride’s wedding party stayed in the Oak Sitting Room and Mr. Vanderbilt’s Room, while the maid of honor, Rachel “Bunchy” Strong, stayed with Cornelia in her room. The groomsmen stayed at the Biltmore Forest Country Club which opened just two years prior.

Other house guests included the bride’s cousins Mr. and Mrs. John Nicholas Brown, the groom’s father Lord William Cecil, and several of Mr. Vanderbilt’s sisters. Meticulous notes were kept by Mr. Ashby documenting when guests arrived, departed, and what room they stayed in Biltmore House.

He also kept lists of last minute specifics to make sure nothing was forgotten. His records included seating charts for the church, train reservations for guests’ departures including their preferred train accommodations, wedding gifts and addresses, and cars to be provided for the guests’ convenience. As a final detail, Mr. Ashby secured the assistance of the Biltmore Fire Department to sprinkle the streets of Biltmore with water to keep the dust down.Cornelia and John Cecil

The Asheville Citizen published extensive accounts of the wedding for two days. While many of the details of the wedding ceremony are found in these articles, the lists and correspondence found in Biltmore’s archives give us a true understanding of the specific arrangements made to insure that Biltmore’s only bride had a perfect day.

A poem written by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister, Pauline Merrill, painted a beautiful picture of April 29, 1924.

The First Bride of Biltmore
The sun rose clear and beautiful from the hills that surrounded Biltmore.
All the world seemed happy on that day.
The daughter of the house was to be married.
The beautiful Cornelia who knew all the mountain people;
The Cornelia who loved the house and grounds;
The Cornelia who was loved by all.
The wedding bells pealed joyfully from the belfry of the little old church.
The tenants were crowding to the gate to behold their beloved mistress.
The guests crowded into the church.
The musicians played his best of the little organ.
Finally the bride entered the church escorted by eight bridesmaids and leaning on the arm of her widowed mother.
She looked more beautiful than ever before.
John Cecil, her bridegroom, had reason to smile proudly on his pretty Cornelia.
The marriage service was gone through with, and when Cornelia walked out, with a radiant smile on her face, the children streamed flowers at her feet.
Then they went back to the house.
The enormous rooms were fuller than ever before as the crowd surged forward to congratulate the first bride of Biltmore House.
Her English husband shook hands with a proud smile.
But, at last, it was over and the setting sun shone rosily over the young couple as they started on their honeymoon.

Main photo: The wedding party photographed at Biltmore House.

Left: Excerpt of invitation to Cornelia Vanderbilt's wedding reception.

Right: Cornelia and John Cecil leaving All Souls Church.

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Posted on 12/03/2014 By Ashleigh R

Love it. Please add some facts about her childhood. Thank you.

Posted on 09/17/2014 By Debbie S

What is the name of Cornelia's room. Can't find it anywhere in literature. Was just there and would like to know her room name.

Posted on 04/29/2014 By Moriah C

What a dream of a day it must have been! The most beautiful place for someone to grow up and get married. Thanks for sharing the history with us. Also, I love visiting the Legacy museum at Biltmore village.