Mona Charen

Biltmore (it's never "the Biltmore," a modern Vanderbilt descendent sniffs; that's a hotel) had its heyday between 1895 and 1914. Though George was bookish and intellectual (he read about 80 books a year in at least four languages), he and Edith Vanderbilt lived and entertained luxuriously. But by the time of George's early death in 1914, it was becoming clear that even the Vanderbilts could be guilty of that most American of vices -- wanting too much house. George spent most of his inheritance on Biltmore and when Congress created the income tax in 1913, he had trouble affording the upkeep. He died suddenly at age 51 in 1914. His widow was forced to sell more than 86,000 acres of forest around Biltmore to the federal government and undertake other (always unspecified) economies to keep the elaborate white elephant from sinking. A dairy and later a vineyard helped to pay the bills.

The estate was intended to be a self-sustaining retreat and aerie for the leisured Vanderbilts, but by 1930, the family began to admit the paying public as they do to this day. Biltmore remains the property of George and Edith's descendants, but as a business, not a home. A million tourists pass through the house and grounds annually to marvel -- but perhaps also to reflect that while Biltmore is certainly something to see, it is, in the end, a monument to excess. To live in that style seems not so much unreachable as unseemly today. This recession notwithstanding, we are wealthier than ever as a society, but also perhaps (and as someone who does not hobnob with the superrich, I could be mistaken) more appropriately modest in our personal styles.

Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago that "The soil of America absolutely rejected a territorial aristocracy." Yes, but the commerce kings of the Gilded Age made quite a run at aping them.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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