Written By Joanne O'Sullivan
You only need to look at the Library at Biltmore House to understand how important books were to George Vanderbilt. Throughout much of his adult life, he read an average of 81 books per year, or one and a half books every week. A New York journalist who knew him wrote of Vanderbilt: “He was a bookworm, a student… I doubt not, he is one of the best read men in the country.” Given his literary leanings, it’s not surprising that he counted several prominent writers of the day among his friends.
Edith Wharton was born into New York society the same year as George Vanderbilt and moved in the same social circles, so it’s likely that the two knew each other most of their lives. Wharton rented the Vanderbilts’ apartment on the Left Bank in Paris from 1907 to 1910. She also visited Biltmore twice that we know of: her signature can be found in Biltmore’s guest book, dated November 1902 and December 1905. On December 26, 1905, she sent this correspondence from Biltmore to her friend Sara Norton:
Yesterday we had a big Xmas fete for the 350 people on the estate – a
tree 30 ft. high, Punch & Judy, conjuror, presents & “refreshments.”
It would have interested you, it was done so well & sympathetically,
each person’s wants being thought of, from mother to last baby.
(From The Letters of Edith Wharton)
During this holiday visit, the author signed a copy of the recently published The House of Mirth: “To George Vanderbilt from Edith Wharton, Biltmore House, Christmas 1905.”
The novelist Henry James—author of Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller—was a friend of Edith Wharton and also an acquaintance of George Vanderbilt. He stayed at Biltmore in the winter of 1905.
One of George Vanderbilt’s closest friends was Paul Leicester Ford, an author who was well known in his time as a biographer of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Ford had an affluent upbringing in Brooklyn and it’s believed that he met Vanderbilt at New York’s Grolier Club—a famous association of bibliophiles where both men were members. They became close friends. Ford was a guest at Biltmore in December 1899 and came to the 1901 New Year’s Eve house party.
In 1898, he spent several weeks at Biltmore while working on his novel, Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution.
When Janice Meredith was published the following year, it contained a dedication to George Vanderbilt:
…And so, as I have read the proofs of this book I have found more than once that the pages have faded out of sight and in their stead I have seen Mount Pisgah and the French Broad River, or the ramp and terrace of Biltmore House, just as I saw them when writing the words which served to recall them to me. With the visions, too, has come a recurrence to our long talks, our work amongst the books, our games of chess, our cups of tea, our walks, our rides, and our drives. It is therefore a pleasure to me that the book so naturally gravitates to you, and that I may make it a remembrance of the past weeks of companionship….
Janice Meredith sold over 200,000 copies and was adapted for the stage in 1901. In 1902, Ford tragically died in at the hand of his brother.
While George Vanderbilt was not himself a writer, his love of literature created a legacy that we can still admire today in the nearly 24,000-volume collection at Biltmore, part of which is on display at the Library.