The name Vanderbilt might conjure images of lavish parties and Gilded Age manses. But the youngest son in the wealthy dynasty couldn’t keep his nose out of books.
A new exhibition at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, “Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics,” opens February 10 and pays tribute to George Vanderbilt’s love of literature by presenting a selection of his favorite tomes alongside more than forty costumes from their screen adaptions. Visitors will see the grand costumes of nineteenth-century Russia from the 2012 film Anna Karenina; the humble attire from the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice; and an exquisitely embroidered and sequined dress Nicole Kidman wore in 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady, presented with the Biltmore’s editions of corresponding titles.
The Vanderbilts were certainly famous for financial wealth, but George Vanderbilt—the one who constructed the Biltmore mansion in the mountains of North Carolina—also was known for his wealth of knowledge. On his ninth birthday, his mother, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, gifted him three volumes from a young readers series, Elm Island by Rev. Elijah Kellogg. Inside each one, she inscribed, George from Mama, Nov. 14th 1871.
By age twelve, George was keeping track of his reads in a journal called “Books I Have Read,” and at the turn of the century, a New York journalist described him as “one of the best read men in the country.” George continued listing his reads until his last entry—Henry Adams’ History of the United States—before his death in 1914, ultimately logging 3,159 titles.
Beyond the exhibition, visitors to the Biltmore are sure to notice the many references to Vanderbilt’s love of literature throughout the mansion. John Singer Sargent’s 1890 portrait of George depicts him holding a book in his right hand; it hangs in the Tapestry Gallery above the entryway to the breathtaking library, which contains 10,000 books from his collection. And George himself designed the Biltmore House bookplate that graces nearly every one: An oil lamp symbolizing the eternal search for knowledge, surrounded by the Latin inscription, “Quaero Ex Libris Biltmoris,” translated as, “Inquire in the books of Biltmore.”