An Extraordinary Life

In an earlier post I wrote about the magnificent Biltmore House and Gardens in Ashville, North Carolina. The grand estate consists of 250 rooms and covers four acres of floorspace; it is the largest privately-owned home in the United States. Today’s post will introduce you to the individual who was responsible for the Biltmore Estate. 

Extraordinary best describes the life…

Extraordinary best describes the life into which George Washington Vanderbilt II was born (There is some debate as to whether George is the II or III –– for our purposes here today, we will stick with II). On March 14, 1862, George became the newest member of America’s wealthiest family.* His father, William Henry Vanderbilt had amassed a prodigious fortune as a railroad and steamboat tycoon. The youngest child of William Vanderbilt and Maria Louis Kissam, George was a lanky, intellectual introvert who adopted his father’s interest in art, had a passion for philosophy, and developed an insatiable appetite for the written word. His personal library consisted of more than 20,000 volumes.* Upon his father’s death, George inherited a small share of the Vanderbilt fortune, a share which amounted to more than $10 million (roughly $250 million when adjusted for inflation!).

After his father’s death, George and his mother traveled to Ashville, North Carolina. Vanderbilt was enchanted by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and purchased more than a thousand acres. In 1889, construction began on what he deemed as his country get-away. The prodigious estate took six years to complete. Draped with the most exquisite trappings of Christmas, the mansion was opened to the Vanderbilt family to celebrate the occasion in 1895.

In 1898, when George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, his life was complete—almost. Adding to his list of accomplishments was the birth of his only child, daughter, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt.

Known as a generous man…

Known as a generous man, George Vanderbilt held elaborate Christmas parties for his staff, inviting their children as well to join the festivities. In his magnanimity, he saw to it that every child received a gift, even for those not in attendance. George paid all expenses for the All Souls Church built near the estate, so that the entirety of the weekly giving could go to charity.

A Brush with the Titanic

In 1912, White Star Line’s Titanic was set to make its maiden voyage. At the time, the ship was the world’s largest and most extravagent commercial liner. As the ship for the world’s elite, the Titanic was naturally the proper mode of trans-Atlantic transportation for George Washington Vanderbilt II and his wife. He booked a first class cabin, and also booked a cabin in second class for his assistant, Edwin Charles Wheeler. The following is a portion of a letter he wrote to a Mr. Beadle, stating the fact of his travel:

Dear Mr. Beadle

I am remaining here a few weeks longer than I first intended and have practically decided to sail April 10th on the maiden trip of the Titanic & will come directly to Biltmore after landing….

Most sincerely yours,

Geo. W. Vanderbilt

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Fortunately, George nor Edith boarded the Titanic, heeding the warning of one of the family members that a maiden voyage could be disastrous, George cancelled their reservation on the Titanic and rebooked their passage on the Olympic. 

The following is a letter received from George’s niece later after his travels.

“On receiving news of the disaster which happened to the Titanic I at once thought of you and my mind was relieved when I got a letter…that same morning saying that you were on the Olympic….”

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Wheeler’s life, on the other hand, was not spared. Having loaded the luggage on the ship days before, Mr. Wheeler was not given enough time to unload the baggage he’d brought on board; therefore, the footman remained on the ship to see it safely across the water. His body was never recovered.

An Extraordinary Life

George Washington Vanderbilt II’s life was anything but ordinary. He amassed millions, he was a prominent member of the Vanderbilt family, he commissioned and owned what is still the largest private residence in the United States. His success was great enough to earn a place in history. Yet, despite the extraordinary life he lived,  George met an ordinary end. On March 6, 1914 George Washington Vanderbilt died from complications from an appendectomy.

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If you found George Washington Vanderbilt II’s life to be interesting, be sure to comment below. You can learn more at one of our two sources for this post. Also feel free to share this post using the social media share links below.

Next week we’re going to be sitting down with Gloria Glasgow to talk to her about her new book, To Blossom Out From Hiding. Join our mailing list below to be automatically entered for a chance to read Gloria’s book.

This week, I’m going to leave you with a couple of interesting thoughts about George Vanderbilt that didn’t fit into our short discourse on his life.

* Interesting bits that don’t quite fit in above.

  • George Washington Vanderbilt II has many notable relatives. Some of his more notable relatives from our time are Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.
  • George had 20,000 volumes in his personal library. To put this in perspective, the average school library holds about 8,000 books.

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