George Vanderbilt: One of the Best Read Men in the Country

Written By Amy Dangelico

Posted 01/16/17

Updated 04/05/24

Estate History

While other members of the Vanderbilt family were recognized for their lavish parties or successes in the stock market, when it came to George Vanderbilt, the press instead focused on his love of learning and, more specifically, his preoccupation with reading.

A turn-of-the-century New York journalist wrote of the youngest Vanderbilt:

“He was a bookworm, a student… And his love of books came all from his own inner consciousness, for he was not graduated from any college, and his education, while not neglected, had not been carried beyond the ordinary limits of high schools, though now, I doubt not, he is one of the best read men in the country.”

Let’s take a look at a few items in the Biltmore House collection that speak to George Vanderbilt’s passions for reading and books.

Birthday Gift from Mama

For George Vanderbilt’s ninth birthday, his mother, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, gave him three volumes from Reverend Elijah Kellogg, Jr.’s Elm Island Series and within each, she inscribed “George from Mama Nov. 14th 1871.” 

Thanks to this special gift set, we gleam that George was interested in reading at a young age.

Portrait by John Singer Sargent

As his interest turned to passion with age, George’s love of books became more prominent.

One example of this is his 1890 portrait by John Singer Sargent, one of the most celebrated society portraitists of his time. In it, George holds a book in his right hand.

The portrait hangs in the Tapestry Gallery, above the door leading into the Library.

Bust by Mary Grant

Another example of the prominence of this passion is a bust of George by Scottish artist Mary Grant.

Appropriately displayed in the Library, the bronze sculpture shows George Vanderbilt with his left elbow and right hand resting on a stack of two volumes.

This bust is one of four by Grant in the Biltmore House collection.

Biltmore House Bookplate

Designed by George Vanderbilt himself and engraved by Edwin Davis French, the Biltmore House bookplate is found in nearly all of the books in the Library.

The oil lamp motif featured in the center symbolizes the eternal quest for knowledge and enlightenment.

The surrounding Latin inscription, “Quaero Ex Libris Biltmoris,” may be translated, “Inquire in the books of Biltmore.”

“Books I Have Read”

Finally, the most definitive testament to George’s love of reading in the Biltmore House collection: his journal series titled “Books I Have Read.”

George began logging works and authors at the age of 12 and continued the habit until his death in 1914. 

He ultimately logged 3,159 books, which means he read an average of 81 books each year, or about a book and half per week.

The last entry was the third volume of Henry Adams’ History of the United States.

We invite you to join us as we celebrate George Vanderbilt’s love of reading with more than 40 award-winning movie costumes on display throughout America’s Largest Home®, accompanied by the original books in his 22,000-volume personal collection that inspired the films. 

Feature image: One of George Vanderbilt’s “Books I Have Read” journals opened to the 1,817th entry: Richard Carvel by Winston Churchill. Right above it is George’s note about daughter Cornelia’s birth on August 22, 1900.

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