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Happy Birthday, George

Posted on 11/13/2012 by Leslie Klingner

It’s a special day at Biltmore: the 150th anniversary of George Vanderbilt’s birth! His parents, William Henry and Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, welcomed him into the world at their family home near New Dorp on Staten Island, NY on November  14, 1862. Named in honor of a paternal uncle, little George was the youngest of a large, lively brood. Every so often we run across objects in the collection that shed some light on how the Vanderbilt family celebrated special occasions together.  It’s always touching to me (particularly after 150 years!) to come across tokens of these traditions. Maria Louisa was a devoted and loving mother to each of her eight children and she and George maintained a particularly close relationship throughout their lives. Today seems like a fitting occasion to share two of the birthday gifts that Maria Louisa bestowed upon her youngest son.

Tucked among Biltmore’s 23,000 books are three treasured volumes that George received from his mother for his ninth birthday. Inscribed “George from Mama Nov. 14th 1871”, the books are part of a popular series of novels written by the Reverend Elijah Kellogg, Jr. With titles like Boy Farmers of Elm Island and The Ark of Elm Island, one might guess that George had a taste for adventure, but the stories are also instructive. Throughout the series, the main characters are faced with all sorts of ethical dilemmas challenging their resolve to be upstanding young men, all while navigating the treacherous waters of the West Indies.  Maria Louisa Vanderbilt’s carefully-selected gift gives us a hint of George’s boyhood interests, as well as how deeply she valued and encouraged her children’s moral and intellectual growth.

Filed away in George’s personal papers, we found an unsigned and undated poem. The three pages are bound with a ribbon and composed in perfect penmanship. Upon reading it, it becomes apparent that the poem is from his mother and was written on the occasion of his 21st birthday. She reflects back upon his birth, celebrates his coming of age, and shares her hopes for his future.

Crowned in an aureole of light, I see grand dreams and visions bright

…there is no scope to youth’s vast boundless wealth of hope, and boundless opportunity for good…

Through her carefully-crafted prose, Maria Louisa bids her son to heed the call of work, to put right what he finds wrong , and:

To give a kindly word of cheer

To those who heavy burdens bear

Such work will bless, when nobly done.

And such work comes to every one.

He helps the age in which he lives,

Who does his best – and his best gives

To carry sunshine everywhere…

A later stanza relates every mother’s dream of having her child’s greatest aspirations fulfilled.

If in thy heart deep-hidden some cherished wish there be,

One that may bless thy future – that wish is mine for thee.

And with this wish in parting, there comes to light the way

The season’s ripe perfection crowning this festal day.

I can only imagine the pride that Maria Louisa would feel in knowing that her son did indeed improve the age in which he lived, and was able to bring his “grand dreams and bright visions” to fruition as she had hoped. She would undoubtedly be elated to learn that George’s life’s work resulted in the creation of a bounteous estate, a peaceful oasis, and an enlightened community that are all still going strong 150 years later. Happy birthday, George!

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