A Birthday for Edith Vanderbilt

Written By Leslie Klingner

Posted 01/17/14

Updated 01/17/14

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In honor of the 141st anniversary of Edith Vanderbilt’s birthday, we have been reflecting back on the festive days surrounding her arrival at Biltmore in 1898. Since George Vanderbilt had mainly courted Edith Stuyvesant Dresser abroad, estate managers and employees were filled with curiosity about the future Mrs. Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilts were married in a relatively simple ceremony in Paris in June.  While George and Edith were on an extended honeymoon in Europe, the estate made preparations for a celebration befitting a queen.

What would their first impressions be? No one was quite sure what to expect. When the newlyweds’ train arrived at the passenger depot in Biltmore Village, curious onlookers, civil authorities, and hordes of media watched on as Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt boarded a carriage bound for their future home.  Biltmore’s Chief Forester, Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, shared a vivid description of this momentous occasion in his book Birth of Forestry in America:

“The young couple, our lord and his lady, arrived on a gorgeous afternoon and were welcomed by the officials of the estate at a huge horseshoe of flowers overarching the approach road to Biltmore House. All was cheers and smiles and happiness! Mrs. Vanderbilt! One could not help but love her! Her face…was sparkling with kindness, sweetness, lovability, grace, and womanliness.”

After passing under this emblem of good luck, the Vanderbilts were greeted by estate employees and their families lining both sides of the road. Following an English baronial tradition, each worker held a symbol of his trade and the children joined in welcoming Edith to her new home.  The sheer number of estate employees must have been overwhelming, but there were still many more surprises in store for Mrs. Vanderbilt. A lengthy article from the Asheville Daily Citizen detailed the celebrations once the party had reached Biltmore House:

At night the employees continued the festivities… Shortly after 9 o’clock the men met north of the esplanade and Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt viewed the scene from the roof balcony over the main entrance to Biltmore House.

The Biltmore band, stationed in the tea garden at the top of the vista began an inspiring march, and the men with torches moved in converging lines…to the winding steps of the rampe douce, where the march continued in crossing belts of fire…Suddenly their appeared a glow of light on the ridges of the deer park and within a brief period there was a brilliant illumination of the grounds by colored arc, extending to the lake and through the shrubbery of the winding roads and walks.

The finale of the illumination came in showers of flaming stars from fireworks that exploded in different points surrounding the mansion.  On Pisgah and other prominent peaks of the estate huge bonfires were lighted and beamed their welcome. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt evinced great interest in the event of the evening and frequently applauded the hearty endeavors of the men who were showing their good will to the bride. At the conclusion of the illumination and until past midnight the employees enjoyed refreshments in the open before the conservatory. 

Dr. Schenck’s memoir makes it clear that the employees offered Edith a grand welcome not only onto estate, but into their lives. Schenck wrote:

“…Mrs. Vanderbilt took a personal interest in every man and woman connected with the estate. … she went to every humble cabin of a forest worker in Pisgah Forest when she was near it; she encouraged the small home industries… at Christmas she had a small gift for every child of every employee of the estate; and  whatever she did or said, she did or said so gracefully that she put at ease whomever she met.”

Mrs. Vanderbilt’s long legacy of grace and heartfelt hospitality is still very much alive at Biltmore. What fun it has been to look back at first impressions, grand celebrations, and the cherished memories of such a special woman who helped to shape and preserve the estate.  Happy Birthday, Edith!

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