Denise Kiernan was in high school the first time she set foot in Asheville's Biltmore Estate, an ornate historic house turned tourist attraction that dates to 1895. "It was like this really cool time capsule you could step into," she remembers. When she moved back to Asheville with her husband eleven years ago, one of the first things they did was take a trip to Biltmore. It quickly blossomed into something like an obsession.
"We've been pass holders for years, taking tours, looking at the gardens—and, of course, when anyone comes to visit you, you take them to Biltmore," she says. "It's always fun to see it anew through their eyes."
Kiernan, who had a best-seller a few years ago with The Girls of Atomic City, a chronicle of the women who unknowingly helped work on the first atomic bomb, has parlayed her Biltmore fascination into the new historical nonfiction book The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home. The book delves into the people who built Biltmore, the unique society that formed on its grounds, and the unexpected impact it had on the community of Asheville.
"I remember vividly the bicentennial celebration of 1976," Kiernan says, explaining that she's always been a history nerd. "It made a big impression on me that history was more than just memorizing dates and events. Who were the people, what did they wear, where did their kids go to school, what was an average day like, and what were the concerns of the time? I really liked being able to sink into another time period."
In researching The Last Castle, she discovered all manner of offbeat stories in the archival material. "One of the most surprising things I came across, and I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't picked up the book yet," Kiernan says—so consider this your spoiler warning—"was a direct connection between Edith Vanderbilt's family and the creation of the teddy bear. And, completely unrelated to the book, I found a letter by George Washington Carver and a letter by Franz Liszt. That's often what I get excited about, these things with people who have nothing to do with what you're writing, and the texture of old paper, the feel of an old pen in your hand. I wonder what archival research is going to be like thirty years from now, when all you have to do is scroll through somebody's hard drive."
Kiernan's fascination with Biltmore House extends to all levels of the massive estate, and her favorite parts aren't necessarily the grand landscapes and architecture that are so often advertised.
"I love the basement, the kitchen, the indoor pool, the bowling alley, the servants' quarters—the kind of working bowels of the house," Kiernan says. "The laundry rooms alone—what a massive undertaking it must have been, trying to run a place like that! And of course, as a writer, I love the library."
Kiernan is also interested in Asheville's history and the area's continuing evolution as an artistic and a cultural center, beyond its natural attractions. "Asheville itself has grown tremendously in the eleven years we've been back here," she says. "You drive around downtown and the beer tourism has picked up, we have tremendous restaurants, people are flocking here for foodie-drinky tours."
The Last Castle puts a human face on George Vanderbilt, the multimillionaire behind the house, and Edith Vanderbilt, who helped create the Pisgah National Forest after George's death. Kiernan feels that the Vanderbilts' focus on preservation and philanthropy are as important to their legacy as Biltmore House.
"I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that if these forests were not here, we wouldn't have the same number of hikers and climbers and paddlers and so many other people who come here to enjoy the Pisgah Forest," Kiernan says.
Kiernan, who's already started her next book, roots her ongoing fascination with historical nonfiction in the "wow factor" that true stories contain.
"I think the weight of it being true carries its own fascination," she says. "The Girls of Atomic City—there's a lot of stuff in there that, if it was fiction, people would say, That could never happen! I want to be that kid again at the bicentennial. I want to see into another world."