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Remembering the 1898 April Engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Dresser

Posted on 03/05/2019 by Judy Ross

In celebration of the April 1898 engagement of George Vanderbilt and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, we ask an important question: what would you wear for a portrait commemorating your engagement to America’s most eligible bachelor? 

For Edith, the choice was a beautiful blue velvet gown—the perfect backdrop for a diamond and ruby brooch she received from her fiancé as an engagement gift.Archival portrait of Edith Vanderbilt

During the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, see not only a stunning re-creation of Edith’s gown, but also a replica of her exquisite brooch—part of a set of jewelry that also included a tiara and necklace. 

The groom-to-be also appears in the Tapestry Gallery of Biltmore House, stylishly attired in a formal evening suit befitting the man labeled “Cupid’s richest captive” in newspapers around the country. Vanderbilt’s engagement was a hot topic for the papers; in the U.S. alone, more than 60 articles were published about his forthcoming wedding. 

While George Vanderbilt drew much public interest, his bride-to-be was mostly unknown outside New York and Newport society. So how did this relationship blossom? 

It’s likely the couple met through George’s match-making relatives. Edith—a decade younger than her future husband—was friends with several of his sisters and nieces. She and her sisters were living in Paris after the death of their parents and grandparents, and it was in Paris and London where Edith and George renewed their acquaintance and embarked on a transatlantic courtship. 

The news of the engagement was welcomed by friends, including the author Paul Leicester Ford, who wrote to George:  
“My dear George,
I am very glad. Marriage is quite good enough for you, and is one of the few really fine things you haven’t had in your life. I wish I knew Miss Dresser better, but the mere glimpse I had of her was enough to make me like her, and time will perhaps fulfill my wish. That you both have my every felicitation, and hope for your happiness, need not be said.....It is a pleasure to me to think of you as having this great happiness added to your life. But in the big love, save a little if you can, for your affectionate friend
Paul.”

Re-creation of Edith Vanderbilt engagement dressChauncey M. Depew, who served as New York Secretary of State and president of the New York Central Railway, was a family friend who had known George Vanderbilt all his life. On May 13, 1898, he wrote:
“My Dear George,
Accept my cordial congratulations on your engagement. Possessing as you do every thing to make a happy home, and Miss Dresser so charmingly forming the complement. Surely the future is (illegible) secure for married life as the fates have arranged it for you...
Faithfully yours,
Chauncey M. Depew”

Just three months after their engagement was announced, Edith Dresser and George Vanderbilt wed in Paris with family and close friends attending. After an extended European honeymoon, the newlyweds arrived at Biltmore in October 1898, and Edith Vanderbilt began a new role as hostess of Biltmore.

Learn more about how the Vanderbilts entertained at A Vanderbilt House Party –The Gilded Age continuing through May 27, 2019.

Photos

Main image: Re-creation of Edith Dresser's engagement gown by Cosprop Ltd. of London, shown with George Vanderbilt evening clothing from the Cosprop collection.

Right: Edith Dresser's engagement portrait, 1898.

Left: Close-up of re-creation of Edith Dresser's engagement dress, headpiece, and brooch.

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