The polar vortex may have moved on but there is a lot of winter left to come and it is a great time to get reading. During these slow months at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast sitting by the fire with a good book is a pleasure which we are happy to have free time to indulge in. Here are three books you may enjoy which, while they are all about Asheville and its people, are great reads in their own right.
When people think about Asheville a number of things come to mind. The first is usually the Biltmore, George and Edith Vanderbilt’s country estate built in the style of Versaille. Billed as the largest private home in the United State, people come from all over the world to view its wonders. Who were the Vanderbilts? Where did their money come from and where did it all go? Fortune’s Children: the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II takes us through the story from their Empire builder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, to the present day Cecils, forced to open their home to the public in order to keep it. It’s a story of trickery, dubious business practices, vanity, greed and conspicuous consumption and it makes a great read! The Biltmore likes to compare the home and the lifestyle of its builder to that of the Grantham family of Downton Abbey. While there are comparisons to be drawn the story of the Vanderbilt family is a uniquely American story without the the ties to the past and nobility essential to English tradition. The book is well written and the story is a page turner. We highly recommend it as an adjunct to a visit to the Biltmore but it also stands on its own as worthwhile to read.
Before the Vanderbilts, and after, Asheville was a city of commerce and the arts. Much is made of our favorite son, Thomas Wolfe, and many reading lists about Asheville include his novels, Look Homeward Angel among them. But he was not the only famous author to spend time in Asheville. Not far from the Wolfe’s grave in nearby Riverside Cemetery lies that of short story author, O. Henry. (Interestingly enough, he was buried under his pen name, O. Henry, instead of his given name, William Sydney Porter). You may be familiar with O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. But did you know F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time in Asheville? His wife, Zelda, sought treatment after a mental breakdown at Highland Hospital in repeated visits and eventually died in a tragic fire there. The original hospital building stood about 1/2 a mile from our Asheville Bed and Breakfast and nearby Homewood, the residence of Robert Carole, founder of Highland Hospital, is a popular wedding venue today. Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth chronicles the fictional story of Evalina Toussaint, a 13 year old orphan who arrives at Highland Hospital in 1936. Famous people of the time flit in and out of the story and the attention to detail concerning the geographical layout of the Hospital is intense. I knew exactly where everything was taking place as the characters strolled the grounds of the hospital and visited downtown Asheville. (If you visit our B&B here in Asheville, I will be happy to direct you on a short walk to both the grounds of Highland Hospital and the cemetery).
The last book is a smaller work. I am including it because I know the author, I know the subject and it begins at our inn on Cumberland Avenue. While the name David Webb may not mean anything to you, I am pretty sure you recognize his work. Think of the 1960’s and jewel encrusted leopards, snakes, dragons and other animals fashioned of gold and turned into bracelets, necklaces and earrings. President and Mrs Kennedy so appreciated David’s jewelry that they commissioned him to make gifts for visiting heads of state. When they were not satisfied with the original design for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, they brought him in to fix it. Angie Burgin Kratzer is the grandniece of the David Webb. Like her Uncle, Angie grew up living in the house which has since become the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. I have been fortunate enough to communicate with her as she worked on the story of her famous Uncle. While much of the book is taken up with glossy photographs of Webb’s jewelry, early chapters paint a fascinating picture of life in the boarding house that was 177 Cumberland Avenue before it became a B&B. David Webb, The American Jeweler will take you back to yet another era in Western North Carolina history.
(N.B., Since I wrote this blog I have been notified by Angie Kratzer that David Webb, LLC has stopped her book from being sold as they believe it conflicts with their “authorized” monograph. She is reworking the book to conform to their demands. In a future blog I hope to share with you the story of David Webb from his family’s eyes).