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Cornelia Vanderbilt’s Wedding: It’s All in the Details

Posted on 04/28/2014 by Judy Ross Comments(10)

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 on April 29, 1924 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.

An Official Announcement

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.

Invitations to Cornelia Vanderbilt's wedding and receptionInvitation to Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding (left); invitation to the wedding reception (right)

Wedding 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.

Arrangements & Accommodations

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.

Cornelia Vanderbilt's wedding processionEdith Vanderbilt escorting her daughter Cornelia into All Souls' Church for Cornelia's wedding

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.

No Detail Overlooked

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.

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.

The Honorable and Mrs. John F.A. CecilThe Honorable and Mrs. John F.A. Cecil as they left All Souls Church

The First Bride of Biltmore

A poem titled "The First Bride of Biltmore," written by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister, Pauline Merrill, painted a beautiful picture of April 29, 1924.

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.

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Posted on 11/10/2018 By Glenda H

I have been to Biltmore 3 times. Love the place; it is magical. Please, when is Cornelia's bedroom going to be restored? Surely, the only daughter's room should be restored.

Posted on 04/19/2017 By Ted g

Who WERE the guests at the engagement dinner on March 8th? Likely to be in the Guest Book?

According to the Guest Book, those present at Biltmore on March 8, 1924, include Natalie Bayard Brown, (Edith's sister), John Cecil, John Nicholas Brown (Edith’s nephew), Leander McCormick-Goodhart, and Henry B. Anderson. This is by no means a complete list of guests who attended the dinner, but simply those who decided to sign the guest book. – Biltmore Blog Editor

Posted on 04/29/2016 By Crissy k

I visit often, all times of the year,, never can get enough... Luv to come by myself .. Go thru the house and grounds,, have lunch, then shop and buy a Doll for my collection.. Great wY to recharge my batteries!!!! Wish there was a Cornelia Bride Doll.....

Posted on 04/29/2016 By Cheryl C

I know her father passed away about 10 years earlier. Who was the man who walked her down the aisle in his stead?

Edith Vanderbilt escorted Cornelia on her wedding day. - Biltmore Blog Editor

Posted on 04/29/2016 By KAREN H

Been going there for years as I live here in the area.. I have also wondered , but never been able to find which room was Cornelia's bedroom. ?

Posted on 04/29/2016 By Ted G

I think you will find John Nicholas Brown married in 1930. Wasn't it he and his MOTHER, Edith's Sister,Natalie, who were the guests at Biltmore House for Cornelia's wedding?.

Posted on 07/14/2015 By Jennifer D

Yes, I would love to know which room was Cornelia's also.

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.