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Under a Gilded Moon

Christmas at Biltmore 

We'll be adding loads more pictures in the coming days as we get closer to launch, but for now, here's the massive Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall of Biltmore Estate, a room in which several key scenes take place, a couple of them on Christmas Eve.

 

And, yep, that's a pipe organ up there on the second-floor balcony. George Vanderbilt was not only a lover of books, art, and the Blue Ridge Mountains but also of music.

George was an opera fan (which I am not, despite my mother's best efforts) and he loved classical music and art. There's a mention of a stringed quartet playing at several points--playing Straus, I believe, and other composers. In the Christmas scenes, there's a mention of the older kinds of carols like Greensleeves, Silent Night...

George Vanderbilt's Library 

 

The library included in the photo gallery is my favorite room—and George Vanderbilt's by the way, as well as the fictional character Kerry McGregor's.  

 

George's dog Cedric likes to lie here by the fire with his master. And, appropriately, Cedric plays a part in the novel, even making possible Sal's escape at one point.

Also, the library, where several key scenes take place (and my personal favorite room of the house) along with its masterpiece on the ceiling, also important to Kerry's piecing bits of information together; a view of the roofline, which becomes important for the final scenes.

 

As well as the Winter Garden, with its roof of glass and gorgeous wood—-also the setting of several key scenes, including when Lilli realizing that the scandals of her past might come to light—or already be known.

The Stableyard Café

Included in the gallery is the stable yard, now the location of the Stableyard Café, where I spend many the hour with my laptop--attracting some interesting stares, as you might imagine.

 

And, really, what kind of nutcase pounds away on a keyboard while everyone else is on holiday? But armed with a latte and a sweet cheese croissant, I was fine ignoring the stares and just trying to imagine the next scene. 

 As one of those women who never quite outgrew a girlhood obsession with horses, I also loved picturing that grand stable full of fine Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, and also draft horses for pulling the farm's wagons and delivering the estate's massive Christmas tree every year.

One of the delights of being a writer (and I can tell you plenty of harrowing tales of the downside, too) is getting to live into a life that isn't actually yours.

 

Take, for example, my girlhood passion for horses. Though for a short time as an adult I owned a horse--a retiring racehorse we adopted straight off the track while I was pregnant with my second child and in the midst of writing a doctoral dissertation--yeah, I'm not good with timing--my life since age thirteen hasn't really featured horses in a way I thought it would.

 

I've mostly lived either in the heart of the city, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in the suburbs, with the exception of a brief time out in ranch country in rural China Spring, Texas.

 

But as a writer, I can at least have an excuse to write about the gorgeous creatures, and research side saddles and breeds that George Vanderbilt would have favored...that sort of thing. I totally drooled over the stables at Biltmore—maybe more so than all the other venues except the to-die-for library.

 

Whether or not you're an equine lover, you'd enjoy the cafe and restaurant that is now where George Vanderbilt's horses were pampered and groomed.

Another piece of writing historical novels that I adore is researching the fashion of the era. The Biltmore Estate often hosts traveling displays of costumes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Servant's Quarters and Lower Levels 

Downstairs is the labyrinth of kitchens and pantries, where servants working preparing meals for George's guests as well as afternoon tea.

 

The servant bedroom is in the basement, as is the servants' dining room, the kitchens, the laundry rooms, the pantries, etc.—-but also, interestingly, the recreation areas for guests like the indoor swimming pool (the country's first indoor heated pool), the bowling alley, and the gymnasium.  (George did not miss a beat)!

 

The dumb waiter photoed (this one is electric and there is another one across from it that is manual) goes from the basement kitchen area up to the butler's pantry which leads into the Banquet Hall. The Christmas Eve dinner scenes take place here.

The servants' rooms and log cabins typical of those that once surrounded Biltmore, the kind in which the McGregor family and Dearg would have lived.

Inspiration 

Included in the gallery is a photo of my kids' and my brother's kids, my mother's six grandchildren, several years ago when we took the whole extended family to Biltmore for my mom's birthday. 

 

I'd just begun thinking it would be intriguing to set a novel at Biltmore, and various settings around the estate were suggesting ideas for scenes and conflicts--including one tour guide's mentioning the trouble George Vanderbilt had purchasing the last several parcels of land from locals who wanted to hold on to their land. Kerry MacGregor and her family began to take shape in my mind then, though it would be a while later before I could begin research in earnest.
 

 
 
Old Fashioned Library

Historical Notes 

 

Download Historical Notes 

Looking Back . . .

I should admit that I began research on George Vanderbilt fully prepared to depict him as merely a background, one-dimensional character, nothing more than the privileged benefactor of his robber baron relatives. But the more I read, the more intrigued I became by the actual man’s complexity: his love for art and the outdoors, his voracious reading, his desire early in life to become an Episcopal priest, his ongoing interest in matters of faith, his contributions to forestry and sustainability, his hospitality, his generosity, and his commitment to bring hundreds of new jobs, as well as training and schools, to western North Carolina.


I'd just begun thinking it would be intriguing to set a novel at Biltmore, and various settings around the estate were suggesting ideas for scenes and conflicts--including one tour guide's mentioning the trouble George Vanderbilt had purchasing the last several parcels of land from locals who wanted to hold on to their land. Kerry MacGregor and her family began to take shape in my mind then, though it would be a while later before I could begin research in earnest.
 

Sometimes as an author, you look back—way back—and realize you were doing research on a book long before that novel ever came to be plotted or pitched. In my early twenties—quite some time ago now—I was able to spend several summers working for two different and equally beautiful summer camps in western North Carolina, Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain, and Camp Gwynn Valley in Brevard. Those long, lovely summers helped solidify my enthusiasm for the Blue Ridge Mountains and my respect for the culture that has grown and evolved there.


One of the summers I worked for Camp Rockmont, some of us on camp staff—all of us sunburned and sweaty—were invited to a home on the grounds of Biltmore Estate belonging to a young woman my age, Dini Cecil (later Pickering), who was connected to Rockmont through a young man she was dating and would eventually marry. Dini, whom I remember as gracious, down-to-earth, and unassuming, turned out to be the person, along with her brother Bill, who would later inherit Biltmore. This seemed a fitting place to thank her again after all these years for the hospitality and pizza that night, and to thank the current staff of Biltmore Estate, who's unfailingly responded to all my questions with patience and interest.

Antique typewriter and vintage office to

"I should admit that I began research on George Vanderbilt fully prepared to depict him as merely a background, one-dimensional character, nothing more than the privileged benefactor of his robber baron relatives. But the more I read, the more intrigued I became by the actual man’s complexity: his love for art and the outdoors, his voracious reading, his desire early in life to become an Episcopal priest, his ongoing interest in matters of faith, his contributions to forestry and sustainability, his hospitality, his generosity, and his commitment to bring hundreds of new jobs, as well as training and schools, to western North Carolina."

Apartment Building

Characters  

 
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Bl

About George Washington Vanderbilt II 

Born:  November 14, 1862
Where: New Dorp, Staten Island, 
New York
Died:  March 6, 1914 (aged 51)
Washington, D.C.
Known for:  Owner of Biltmore Estate
Spouse: Edith Stuyvesant Dresser ​(m. 1898; his death 1914)​
Children: Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt  
Parent(s): William Henry Vanderbilt, Maria Louisa Kissam
Relatives: See Vanderbilt family

George Washington Vanderbilt II (November 14, 1862 – March 6, 1914) was an art collector and member of the prominent Vanderbilt family, which amassed a huge fortune through steamboats, railroads, and various business enterprises. He built a 250-room mansion, the largest privately-owned home in the United States, which he named Biltmore Estate.

As the youngest of William's children, George was said to be his father's favorite and his constant companion. Relatives described him as slender, dark-haired, and pale-complexioned. Shy and introverted, his interests ran to philosophy, books, and the collection of paintings in his father's large art gallery. He acquired a private library of more than twenty thousand volumes. George Vanderbilt traveled extensively, becoming fluent in several foreign languages.  

Living in one or another of his family residences well into adulthood, Vanderbilt decided to construct his own country mansion and estate in 1888. For this purpose he acquired 125,000 acres of woodland in North Carolina, employing the architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a limestone house modeled on the Chateau de Blois among other chateaux of the Loire Valley. With up to four acres of floor space, this is believed to be the largest domestic dwelling ever constructed in the United States.  Read more  

 

Madison Grant 

Although Under a Gilded Moon is, of course, a work of fiction, many of its characters either represent or were inspired by historical figures, many of whom would now be considered obscure but who influenced the course of history—Madison Grant, for example. Below is a bit of background readers may find intriguing. 

 

George Washington Vanderbilt II was the first owner and, along with Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the visionaries of Biltmore. The character Emily Vanderbilt Sloane is based on one of his nieces who, like her uncle, became an ardent philanthropist.


Though he’s little known now, Madison Grant was a prominent name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century eugenics movement, as well as in land and wildlife conservation. While there’s no evidence that he ever visited Biltmore, he knew the Vanderbilt family, some of whom contributed to his Bronx Zoo project, and was close to George Vanderbilt’s age. They shared a common interest in the natural world, as well as prominent friends in New York, including Theodore Roosevelt.

While Grant’s conservation efforts did, as the novel suggests, contribute to national parks and to saving the American bison, his other legacy was an incredibly toxic view of racial superiority that would later help fuel the Holocaust.

 

During the years of this novel’s setting, 1895–96, Grant was apparently known at least in some circles for his carousing, while publicly he was praised for his nature preservation leadership. He was also just beginning to formulate the white supremacist ideology that he would later pour into his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, which was translated into German and became a kind of model for the race-hygiene arguments that would be embraced by the Third Reich. Prior to World War II, Adolf Hitler wrote Grant a fan letter referring to The Passing of the Great Race as “my bible.”

Madison Grant:  The villain of Under a Gilded Moon. The actual person who would later write the book that Adolph Hitler called "my bible." Above Photo:
How he would have looked in 1895 when the novel is set.

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The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History is a 1916 book by American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant (1865-1937).

Madison Grant: 

Right Photo: how he looked around the time he published the horrific Passing of the
Great Race.

A number of the household staff characters are based on actual people.

 

The head of stables in Biltmore’s early days was Italian, and while Salvatore Catalfamo and his contribution to Richard Morris Hunt’s architectural drawings are fictional, the surname comes from the author’s husband’s family. The violence against Italians in New Orleans in 1890–91 is, sadly, historical, although Maurice Barthélemy as the instigator of it is a product of the author’s imagination (fueled by the fact that some merchants did apparently benefit from the Italian community’s being blamed for the police chief’s death).

 

As in this novel, the head chef at Biltmore was French, and other members of the staff included the forestry expert Carl Schenck and Vanderbilt’s manager, Charles McNamee. Biltmore’s first head housekeeper of note—and long tenure—was an Englishwoman named Emily King, but since Mrs. King didn’t arrive until 1897, the author invented a fictional Mrs. Smythe.

Lilli Barthélemy  

The character Lilli Barthélemy was inspired, as fans of Edith Wharton will no doubt have guessed, by the protagonist Lily Bart in Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Mentioned as Lilli’s aunt in this novel, Wharton was a close friend of George Vanderbilt and a visitor to Biltmore.

Ling Yong   

Ling Yong (listed also as Ling Gunn, which the author surmised was a mishearing of the Chinese name) is based on an actual man who lived in Asheville in 1895–96. Clippings referring to his existence and apparently brutal death after this novel’s time period were deep in the city archives.

Robert Bratchett  

Robert Bratchett is based on an African American man who lived in the region at the time. His life ended tragically at Biltmore Junction in 1897, the year after this story stops, in racial violence. He is also commemorated at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by Bryan Stevenson.

Other 

Other historically based groups and events mentioned in the novel include the Ligue Nationale Antisémitique de France, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s and the lynchings of Italians in New Orleans in 1891. The Center for Peace and Justice has documented that the 1890s saw more lynchings of African Americans and all groups in the United States than any other single decade.


The Biltmore Estate, still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants, remains the largest private residence in the United States and has become one of the largest employers and tourist destinations in the Asheville, North Carolina, area.


Just for fun, as a kind of shared wink with the savvy reader, I included some addresses with historical and literary significance. The boardinghouse where Kerry visits Dearg Tate at 48 Spruce Street, for example, was indeed owned at the time by Mrs. Alice Reynolds but was later where the writer Thomas Wolfe lived as a boy and is the boardinghouse at the center of his novel Look Homeward, Angel. Ling’s fictional shop at 55 Haywood Street is the address of what is now the much-loved Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café.


Dog-loving readers will be pleased to learn that the four-legged character Cedric, the faithful, drooling Saint Bernard, is based on the historical canine, and was beloved by George Vanderbilt. A pub in Antler Village on Biltmore Estate is named in Cedric’s honor.


 
Old World Map

Additional Reading 

Interior of Book Store

Like all historical novels, a significant amount of research went into the writing of this book. I’d particularly like to thank the following authors for their books, which were among the most helpful:

 

  • Denise Kiernan for The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home

  • Ellen Erwin Rickman for Biltmore Estate (Images of America)

  • Emma Bell Miles for The Spirit of the Mountains

  • Drema Hall Berkheimer for Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood

  • Jerry E. Patterson for The Vanderbilts

  • Witold Rybczynski for A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century

  • John Alexander Williams for Appalachia: A History

  • Arthur T. Vanderbilt II for Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt

  • Sean Dennis Cashman for America in the Gilded Age

  • The Foxfire series on Southern Appalachian Life 

  • Jonathan Peter Spiro’s biography Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant was enormously helpful in sparking my imagination about the complex and appalling Grant. 

Fruit Pie

For Your Book Club 

 
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The Biltmore House

History Timeline 

Tour The Biltmore Historic Gardens 

Virtual Tour: Biltmore’s Antler Hill Village

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Christmas Cake

Book Club CookBook
Under a Gilded Moon 

 
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Book Club Cookbook 
Under a Gilded Moon by Joy Jordan-Lake


 
Set at the Biltmore Estate in 1895, Under a Gilded Moon includes characters from two starkly different populations, Gilded Age millionaires coming down from New York and native Appalachian mountaineers, so the food a book club could serve would be such a blast—from two different worlds.

 

Protagonist Kerry MacGregor, who straddles these two worlds, eats her Aunt Rema’s incomparable biscuits with salted pork and fried apples on the train down to Asheville, and her family has for years sold roasted chestnuts to help pay the bills. Biltmore’s chef Pierre produces platters of French pastries for the guests, who also consume a steady flow of champagne and various wines (pro tip: these days, Biltmore’s own winery produces some excellent choices available at your local grocer).

 

If serving a meal, you might want to go for the Gilded Age fare of roast duck or lobster with locally grown vegetables, various cheeses, fruits, and a chocolate torte (in seven courses if you want to be historically accurate) rather than the possum, trout, dogwood bark tea and bleached apples Appalachian characters are eating—but your call!

 

Several of the chapters take place during Christmastime, so wassail, mulled cider and hot cocoa would also be perfect. I hope you enjoy, and I’d love to see pictures if you’d like to tag me on social media!

 
Christmas Cake

Two Menu Choices.  Elegant or Rustic.

To fully experience the holiday selections below for your book club, please CLICK ON THE PHOTOS to navigate and expand into a popup SLIDESHOW.  Read the fun descriptions, how they relate to the book, helpful hints, pairings, and links to some delicious recipes. 

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