As her heels clicked on the polished marble floor of the foyer, she could hear the tires turning the gravel as her visitors made their way to the main entrance of her house. She quietly opened the door and smiled. She wanted them to know she could handle this, she could open the door herself, she could be independent. She was determined to prove that she could stand among the men. As she welcomed 15 top financial leaders into her home, she recognized all the challenges that lay ahead. As they found their seats and sipped their tea, Edith Vanderbilt took a deep breath and for the first time took on the finances of Biltmore, as the lady of the house.
At least that’s how I imagine Edith—a courageous woman ready to conquer the many challenges of running Biltmore all on her own. Edith wasn’t new to leadership roles in the community; for years she had worked alongside her husband George to create programs and initiatives that forever changed their community. But this was different—this was just Edith.
Thrust into the role of widowed mother and sole head of the estate, she suddenly had a lot of people relying on her. Her only daughter Cornelia was just 13 years old and there were many families that depended on Biltmore for their livelihood. She confidently fulfilled her husband’s vision in 1915 when she sold 87,000 acres of the Pisgah Forest to the federal government—ensuring its preservation and creating what would become America’s first national forest.
Over the next few years she continued to sell areas of the Biltmore including Biltmore Estate Industries in 1917 and Biltmore Village in 1921. By the 1920’s the estate included about 11,000 acres. In the subsequent years it was Edith’s inner strength, business acumen and unwavering devotion to Biltmore that guided the estate into the 20th century. I imagine she felt good knowing that George would be proud of her—and her management of what he had created.
Edith breathed a sigh of relief as she closed the door behind her guests. She could hear Cornelia’s voice calling for her—sometimes her daughter reminded her so much of George. She smiled, taking in the beauty of her home, knowing her plans would honor her loving husband and their family for years to come.