As we learn in The Last Castle, Denise Kiernan’s affectionate portrait of Biltmore and its sometimes turbulent history, the man who brought this pile into being, and who claimed it as a part-time home, was George Washington Vanderbilt, the ‘poorest’ of the Vanderbilts...Much of Ms. Kiernan’s narrative, naturally, focuses on George Vanderbilt and his pursuit of an extravagant dream: to own a country estate worthy of Gilded Age royalty. But the book also shows how, after his death, his widow managed both to keep Biltmore going (if on a reduced scale) and to raise their intelligent if fun-loving daughter. Ms. Kiernan’s research is prodigious … The Last Castle, with its engaging narrative and array of detail, allows us to pay a visit without discomfort and with all the pleasure of a stroll through one of American history’s more stately pleasure domes.
In The Last Castle, Denise Kiernan tries to reveal the answer to what is surely the greatest mystery for any of Biltmore’s million annual visitors: Who, exactly, conceived of such a huge undertaking? What kind of bachelor really wanted to inhabit a 250-room house, replete with an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley? Kiernan hangs her dense narrative on a potential love story featuring an unlikely lead … Kiernan’s wider lens on the Gilded Age compensates for her protagonists’ insipidness. The book’s vitality lies in the details she reveals about the architects, writers, artists and peers of the Vanderbilts who spent time at Biltmore.
Kiernan’s focus of this remarkable history is the Biltmore. As an American castle, its hyperbolic magnificence still stands as a touchstone for grandeur imagined and grandeur lost. The Last Castle is contextually rich in social, political, and economic history of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Part diary, part journalism, part social critique, the book’s broad narrative humanizes the rich and effectively characterizes an era. Kiernan’s almost 100 pages of meticulous research notes and photos lend a reassuring gravity to the ethereal world to which we are introduced … Denise Kiernan’s layered work reflects the depth of the Vanderbilts’ influence on generations in the Asheville community. The Last Castle reminds us that the Biltmore’s obsolete extravagance really is a story of a community and those who were elevated by the Vanderbilt legacy and stewardship.