Coincidentally, a few months before I read Therese Anne Fowler’s latest novel focused on another dynamic woman in history (her previous gem was ZELDA), I visited some friends in Asheville, North Carolina and took an eye-popping tour of the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s sprawling 250-room French Renaissance chateau featuring 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, the landscaping for which was designed by Frederick Olmsted (also known for the landscape architecture of the Washington Capitol, Central Park, and the Chicago World’s Fair, among 500-plus other projects). The Biltmore, finished in 1895, is a testament to the astonishing wealth of the Vanderbilts, who built a shipping and railroad empire. It is, shall we say, one way to see how the other half lived.
So it was with special interest that I read A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN, the story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt (1853-1933), a woman from a respected Southern family that lost much of their wealth during the Civil War, who made the pragmatic decision to marry William K. Vanderbilt for his money. Ordinarily I wouldn’t waste my time on the saga of a gold-digger, but Alva was so much more complicated than that, and Ms. Fowler presents the details of her life in a way that actually invokes sympathy. Alva was both a force of nature and also very human.
While some of the particulars—e.g., decisions about what to wear to various social occasions—might seem superficial, they capture this historical period authentically, and the human interactions remind us that no matter how much money you have, money isn’t everything.