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The Ladies of Biltmore

Wednesday, 06 June 2012 19:49

feat_biltmoreA parade of more than 200 costumed partygoers mingled at Asheville’s grand Biltmore House on the evening of August 23, 1921, to celebrate the 21st birthday of Cornelia, the daughter of George and Edith Vanderbilt. The society page of the Asheville Citizen newspaper the next day presented a view of the range of costumes: “... Japanese geisha girls, Gypsies, Pioret and Piorettes, Chinese coolies, pirates, Dutch girls, Sultans and Red Cross nurses.” The paper also gave nod to Rachel Strong, a close friend of Cornelia, who traveled in from Cleveland, Ohio, reporting she “was charming as an oriental dancing girl, her frock being among the most gorgeous.”

But where was the Vanderbilt’s only child? The visitors surely must have been scanning the room once everyone was gathered, searching for the birthday girl. Their curiosity was further piqued when a sedan chair emerged—it’s sort of like a rickshaw that is toted by four men using wooden rails extending in the front as well as behind. A black sedan chair painted with ornate scenes and featuring fringed curtains was the device Cornelia used to make her grand entrance.

“We have oral history from a little girl at the party and she talked about how Cornelia popped out. That’s a pretty dramatic way to make an entry,” says Leslie Klingner, Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation.

George Vanderbilt died at age 51 in 1914 following complications from an appendectomy, but this birthday extravaganza illustrates how Edith and Cornelia eventually moved on from their grief and once again filled America’s largest private residence with fun, laughter and good friends.

The newspaper account reveals this birthday event included dinner served in the banquet hall and dancing in the sunken garden, accompanied by The Barber-Davis Orchestra from Atlanta.

“This party in particular shows Biltmore becoming a place of celebration again,” explains Klingner. “You can tell it’s a turning point and a really fun party. It’s over the top, but not super showy. You can tell they had a great time planning it.”

Rare Treasures on Display

A new exhibit, “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad,” opened in April of this year at Biltmore’s Antler Hill Village, which is adjacent to the Inn on Biltmore Estate. It’s here that estate guests can get a close view of the sedan chair as well as the Renaissance page costume that Cornelia wore. The outfit features a black velvet hat with a dramatic ostrich feather, breeches and a bolero jacket complemented with crystal rhinestone buttons, a lacey blouse, and fuchsia waist scarf to match the color of the feather.

“The feather is original to what she wore on her 21st birthday,” says Klingner. “We didn’t even realize it until we put the exhibit together. We had not connected all of the dots.”

A photograph in Biltmore’s collection preserves a moment from that night. Cornelia lounges on a pillow on the left side, while her friend, Rachel Sword, sits on a pillow on the right. Seated next to Cornelia is Edith Vanderbilt, bedecked in a pearl headdress and a pale green dress with pearl fringe running down her arms. Other guests are seated and standing around them, dressed in their ornate costumes.

In time, the estate will rotate some of the items, especially those at a risk of deterioration from exposure to light. Cornelia’s outfit is one that will eventually be returned to storage and in its place they already have one of Edith’s costumes on standby. In the mid-1920s, she wore an elaborate mermaid costume (fashioned in pink, black, and silver) for one of the many masquerade parties she hosted.

One other outfit currently on display is one of Edith’s traveling outfits featuring a long coat and veiled hat, positioned near her Louis Vuitton trunk.

Edith’s Favorite Items

Living in a 250-room house surrounded by priceless treasures, it’s anyone’s guess what Edith Vanderbilt might identify today as the objects she prized the most. It may be, however, that she would point to her cameras. She was an avid photographer and is credited with leaving an intimate glimpse of what life was like at Biltmore.

Some of the most touching photographs are the ones she took of her husband and daughter. She captured George holding his infant daughter in 1900. And when Cornelia was 10, Edith snapped delightful photos of her standing with her dad on the front lawn of Biltmore as she prepared to take a swim in the fountain.

The exhibit features two of Edith’s beloved cameras—a No. 4 Panoram Kodak Model B camera and another Kodak model that took snapshots.

“We have 8,000 photographs in the collection at Biltmore. I’d say a couple dozen are ones we are sure that Edith took. There are about 12 of Edith’s photos on display at the exhibit,” says Klingner.

“Most gilded age families only have formal pictures taken by professional photographers,” she adds, “but through Edith’s passion in photography we have intimate family pictures. I think her cameras were really significant.”

Along with the cameras, Edith might also gravitate to two books in the exhibit deeply connected to her love for her husband. The first is believed to be the small prayer book that Edith carried when they married at the American Episcopal Cathedral in Paris on June 1, 1898. She had received extravagant jewelry from George and certainly had the means for elaborate wedding accessories, but she chose a simple statement for her vows. She wore no jewelry, a simple gown and her grandmother’s veil, and carried only the prayer book.

Another book on display in the same case as the prayer book is a copy of Quo Vadis that Edith is said to have slipped in George’s Christmas stocking in December 1897. Researchers uncovered that nugget from a diary written by one of George’s best friends who documented details of that Christmas. 

“I think it’s a very clever gift,” says Klingner. “It was published in 1897 and is a love story. It’s about a Roman solider from a wealthy family who traveled widely and partook in a decadent culture. He fell in love with a woman who wasn’t as wealthy and lived a simple Christian life. It’s a touching love story and I think it’s an interesting gift because it parallels their lives. “

Behind the books, there’s another item worthy of mention. It’s a 12-sided Tiffany and Company silver teapot sporting a pineapple on the top (a symbol of hospitality) and ivory rings where the handle connects to the pot. The ivory does not conduct heat, which enables the handle to remain cool to the touch. This very feminine teapot was a wedding gift from Anna Roosevelt Cowles, Teddy Roosevelt’s sister and trusted advisor. She was a frequent guest at Biltmore.

Cornelia’s Outdoor Passions

Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924 at an elaborate ceremony at All Souls Episcopal Church in Biltmore Village, near the estate’s main entrance. Gifts poured in from around the world, and the new exhibit shows off a few of them. There are detailed bisque figurines depicting Cupid and Psyche, a stunning hat pin, and an intricate diamond and jade encrusted vanity with attached lipstick case and accompanying cigarette holder designed by Cartier.

It’s really stylish and beautiful,” says Klingner as she describes the Cartier items, showcased in the original white box. “I don’t know if it was one of Cornelia’s favorite items, but it certainly would be mine.”

During her childhood, Cornelia was more of an outdoors girl. She loved riding horses, playing with her dogs, fishing and exploring Biltmore’s huge backyard. When her father was alive, the estate encompassed 125,000 acres. After his death, Edith sold the majority of land to the government for formation of the Pisgah National Forest. Today, 8,000 acres remain as part of the estate.

Cornelia received a donkey, named Jack, as a present for her 10th birthday. Jack’s packsaddle is on display next to Edith’s sidesaddle. There’s also a carriage whip she received when she turned 16.

Another gift on view at the exhibit was one she received in the morning of her 21st birthday. Estate workers presented her with a game bag for hunting. It’s embroidered with her initials—a “C” on top of a “V”—on the front.

“When you think about birthday presents, they are often reflective of what a person loves to do,” says Klingner. “Cornelia’s gifts often dealt with the outdoors.”

Cornelia also played polo and helped establish the golf course in Biltmore Forest. One large photo in the exhibit shows a smiling Cornelia and two men watching as Edith tees off at the Biltmore Forest Country Club golf course.

Look Carefully

While there are many valuable and expensive items in the exhibit, curators say one of the rarest items included is one of the Holland House books. It’s currently opened to a page with Napoleon Bonaparte’s signature. This is only the second time it’s been on display. The book is positioned near an intricate chess set once owned by Napoleon.

The Holland House books consist of a set of volumes from the Holland House in England, which was a gathering place for noted thinkers, leaders and philosophers. The books reveal details of British history from the mid-1500s through the late 19th century as recorded in letters, prints and drawings.

Like the clothing, the current page on display is at risk of damage from light exposure, so it will be replaced by other documents—one signed by Elizabeth I and another signed by Catherine the Great.

The new exhibit is deceiving. Upon entrance, it seems small because there are nooks and crannies devoted to one or two objects—like the area showing Cornelia’s costume and sedan chair. Yet as rooms merge with other display areas, it’s clear there’s a much greater inventory here than presumed.

Look carefully. It’s easy to miss some items on the first walk through as attention gravitates toward the larger items: a wheelchair Edith used after delivering Cornelia, a large case boasting extravagant formal china and silver, the elaborate armor of a Samurai warrior and a 1920 Harley Davidson motorcycle on loan from the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley. It’s almost identical to the 1922 model owned by the Vanderbilts. They owned six early Harley Davidson motorcycles, two 1913’s, and one each from the following years: 1915, 1917, 1922 and 1937. The estate no longer has any of the motorcycles owned by the family.

There are also smaller items to discover—miniature carved animals, an impossibly intricate business card holder, and an elephant surrounded by blind men.

The exhibit concludes with a movie about the Vanderbilts and Biltmore Estate narrated by George and Edith’s great granddaughter, Dini Cecil Pickering. It’s clear from her words that money and material goods aren’t the things she most reveres when she thinks of her ancestor’s legacy, but the sense of family, hospitality, laughter, love and happy memories.

— By Marla Hardee Milling

The Vanderbilts At Home and Abroad and Antler Hill Village at Biltmore Estate are included with estate admission. Call 800.411.3812 or visit biltmore.com for more information.

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