So I went to Biltmore castle last week. I don’t know what I’m supposed to refer to it as: Biltmore Manor, Biltmore Wonderland, Biltmore Palace? Whatever, it was a freaking castle, complete with gardens, lagoons, 15th century Flemish tapestries, elaborate servants quarters, grotesques guarding the entrances (both security guards and sculptures), beautiful flowers in different arrangements, and throngs of we little people clamoring at the gates. It’s a castle, same as the ones currently rotting all across Europe. But there is a distinctly American feel to Biltmore. While I was doing the tour, listening to the classic tale of a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and going from humble beginning as a multi-millionaire with only a hope chest full of dreams and a few million dollars to, well, more of the same, I tried to figure out what that thing was. I’ve never seen Hearst’s California castle, but I’d been to a few of the other prominent American castles, Callaway Gardens, Winterthur, Epcot Center, but Biltmore seems to do it right.
I was impressed that the kids were impressed. The sheer, unbelievable grandiosity of it all was enough to capture the meth-ish, gnat-like attention of today’s youth. And that ain't easy. I-crap and fast motion Japanese animation are hard to compete with, especially when you’re only armed with well-manicured gardens, 19th century opulence, fabulously ornate but really short beds that make me believe the conspiracy theorists are right about beef hormones, winding staircases, and bullshit VIP tours complete with the ultimate enemy of the plebeians, plush velvet rope tied between two brass poles. Americans will sneak onto secret military installations to spray paint political slogans. We’ll toilet paper huge granite sculptures in the likeness of former presidents. We’ll rob banks, trains, and cross country skiers. But for some reason we all respect and fear velvet rope. But I digress. People, kids included, followed the Biltmore rules, and we all got herded around a huge, beautiful home like goats. I didn't even see anyone texting or talking on their cell phones, no bored teenagers defiantly showing the world that they’re too cool for this through the use of gangsta rap and ear phones. The point is, it’s captivating. Everyone, young and old, black and white, poor and a little less poor all marveled at a rich family’s house and land.
That’s what it is. It’s just a really rich family and their stuff. Granted, they've got some really nice stuff, historically interesting and garishly large and pricey stuff, but it’s still just stuff. It’s like touring J.D. Rockefeller’s Storage Unit or Brooke Astor’s Ten Acre Garage Sale.
And we all paid a decent amount of money to be granted the privilege of looking at a bunch of stuff that we’ll never have enough money to be able to afford. Think about that for a minute. We’re paying money we barely have to see a bunch of crap we’ll never have. We’ll never even come within the ballpark of being able to afford Christmas trees as tall as fifteen Andre the Giants stacked on top of each other. In no universe I’m aware of will we ever be able to afford a room the size of a Detroit suburb for our hunting dogs, a medieval beer hall-sized banquet table that seats thirty but whose acoustics defy the laws of nature to the point that you can sit at one end and hear the guy at the other end talking about his pork belly futures and his new prostate which his doctor made from grinding up eight Indonesian boys. This is all stuff that we’ll never in a million years have.
I guess that doesn't differentiate it all that much from other theme parks, but at least many of those have roller coasters and deep fried Skittles. This one has the kind of food you’d expect, well, actually a poor man’s facsimile of it. I ate a fifteen dollar endive salad. It was good, but not that good. The food was all priced for the only segment of society that doesn't talk about money all the time, those who've had it for decades.
I’ll give Biltmore this. It’s not tacky. Well the idea of it is tacky, but the presentation isn't. It does exude that air of class that we’ll call the Anti-Trump. It’s the opposite of whatever swamp of sadness and shame that spawned the stars of Jersey Shore. It’s like Hoarders but with stuff worth hoarding and not ten foot tall stacks of Jet magazine and board games based on the movie based on the play based on the novel based on the movie.
Still, Biltmore is one of those places where it’s best not to think about the reason, the purpose, the rationale. Unfortunately, I did. And I think I finally get the point, why I got an American essence feeling when I was looking at imported Italian leather chairs and the bed where Henry James napped after shooting pheasant. This place is the American dream. I don’t mean that becoming as rich as these guys is the dream, because though that’s obviously a part of it, the idea is bigger and more interesting than that. The American dream is the struggle for. It’s the factory of. It’s the quest to reach a place where you can exhale, light up a cigar, put your feet up on the ottoman and realize that finally you can, once and for all, stop questing.
And that’s what Biltmore is to me. It’s the end of the quest. It made me seriously consider the merits of communism, but it was pretty.