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Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil

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  • Name: Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil
  • Born: August 22, 1900, Asheville, North Carolina
  • Parents: George Washington Vanderbilt, Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt
  • Spouses: John Francis Amherst Cecil, 1924–1934; Vivian Francis Bulkeley-Johnson, 1949–1968; William Robert Goodsir, 1972–1976
  • Children: George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil
  • Notable Projects: Public opening of Biltmore House, The Mrs Smith and Mount Trust
  • Death: February 7, 1976, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
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About Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil

“Mr. Cecil and I hope that through opening Biltmore House to the public, Asheville and Western North Carolina will derive all the benefit they deserve and that the people who go through the house and the estate will get as much pleasure and enjoyment out of it as Mr. Cecil and I do in making it possible. I also want to say that we both feel in doing this, it is a fitting memorial to my father. After all, it was his life’s work and creation.”

—Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil on the 1930 opening of Biltmore House

A Star Is Born

As the only child of George and Edith Vanderbilt, the birth of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt in the grand Louis XV Bedroom at Biltmore House was a newsworthy event for the society pages of the era.

Asheville’s First Daughter

Although the Vanderbilts traveled a great deal, Biltmore was their primary residence. After George Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, Cornelia and her mother split their time between Asheville and Washington, D.C. where Cornelia attended a private girls’ school.

After graduation, the young heiress returned regularly to Biltmore, spending time with close friends to enjoy the beauty of the estate and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1924, Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, First Secretary of the British Embassy, whom she met in Washington. A second generation of Biltmore babies was born in the Louis XV Bedroom: George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil in 1925, and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil in 1928.

Community Contributions

As the Great Depression took hold of America, Cornelia supported her hometown by partnering with the Asheville Chamber of Commerce to spur growth and interest in the region. In the spring of 1930, the Cecils opened portions of Biltmore House to the public, setting the stage for America’s Largest Home® to become a National Historic Landmark.

Even before the public opening of Biltmore House, Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil was deeply engaged in philanthropic activities, just as her parents had been. She organized three annual charity galas to benefit the Biltmore Hospital that had burned down and desperately needed new facilities. Cornelia was the driving force behind these “Watch Y’r Step” events, soliciting donations, booking acts, selling tickets, and even personally crafting the decorations.

A Life of Her Own

Like her father, Cornelia was passionate about arts and culture, and her continued interest in becoming an artist motivated her to relocate to New York. Following this period of separation, the Cecils divorced amicably in 1934, with Cornelia moving to Europe and John remaining at Biltmore. The couple’s two sons continued spending time with both parents. Before the onset of World War II, Cornelia continued her altruistic endeavors by establishing The Mrs Smith Fund—an anonymous trust offering support to those in need. In 1949, she married British war veteran and bank manager Vivian Francis Bulkeley-Johnson and they lived in London.

Several years after Vivian’s death, Cornelia met and married William Robert Goodsir. Although Cornelia had changed her name to Mary, her new husband was aware of her past and helped protect her wish for a degree of anonymity. Together they enjoyed a quiet life at “The Mount,” their farm in the scenic Cotswalds.

A Philanthropic Legacy

During this time, Cornelia amassed a phenomenal art collection emphasizing Asian art, which was gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum upon William Goodsir’s death. The proceeds from the sale of her art collection went toward The Mount Trust, which had similar aims as The Mrs Smith Fund: supporting mental health and wellbeing in disadvantaged communities in the southern United Kingdom. Eventually the two trusts were merged into what is still known today as The Mrs Smith & Mount Trust.

Although she never returned to Biltmore, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt carried with her the philanthropic lessons instilled by her parents, continuing throughout her life to give of her own resources to better the circumstances of those around her.

Images of Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil

Cornelia and John with their first son, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil, who was born in 1925 in the Louis XV Room where Cornelia herself was born in 1900

Cornelia and her mother, Edith, with their horses and one of their Saint Bernards on the Stable Courtyard Porte Cocherè, circa 1916

Cornelia with one of the Vanderbilt family’s Saint Bernards on the Front Lawn of Biltmore House, 1905

Baby Cornelia with her mother, Edith Vanderbilt, around the time of Cornelia’s christening, October 1900