Answer Man: Biltmore's Bill Cecil narrowly avoided being shot down by Nazis?

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Today’s batch of burning questions, my smart-aleck answers and the real deal:

Question: I saw this story about Bill Cecil, the heir to the Biltmore Estate, in an old copy of Our State magazine. It says he narrowly escaped being shot down by a German forces in World War II. Is this a true story? Here's an excerpt:

"When he turned four, Cecil’s parents divorced. The estate eventually was put in a trust for Cecil and his brother, who crossed the Atlantic to attend school in England. After a few years in England, the boys traveled by train to Switzerland to attend school there.

The year was 1936. World War II was beginning to brew.

The war was boiling in 1943. Bill Cecil and his brother left Switzerland through France and Spain, eventually reaching Portugal. In Lisbon, they were to board a plane for London but were bumped for a VIP.

“The rumor was that it was Churchill,” Cecil says.

Later that night, German warships shot down the plane. It had not Churchill on board but "Gone with the Wind" actor Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes).

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"That was his end, which was unfortunate,” says Cecil, acutely aware of his own good fortune of having missed that plane.

The two boys boarded a seaplane destined for London. To avoid being targeted by German warships, their plane made a wide arc beyond the coast of Europe.

“It seems that we went nearly to the coast of America, well out of reach of the German(s), and ended up in England,” he says.

My answer: I gotta say, this makes my childhood adventures of jumping out of homes under construction into nearby sandpits and crashing friends' mopeds over curbs sound pretty tame.

Real answer: Well, first of all, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, who was the owner of the Biltmore Estate and grandson of the estate's famous builder, George Washington Vanderbilt, died in October 2017 at age 89.

So he's unavailable for comment.

But Biltmore Estate spokeswoman LeeAnn Donnelly was alive and well last week. She verified the story.

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"This is indeed true," Donnelly said. "And Mr. Cecil discussed it in the book, 'Lady on the Hill.'"

"Lady on the Hill: How Biltmore Estate Became an American Icon," was published in 2006 and is still available on Amazon. So, that seems pretty reputable.

And I'll also note that Our State Magazine, founded in 1933, has a rock solid journalistic history. So I don't think they would fudge this story.

The article originally came out in 2001 in a piece titled, "How William Cecil Made The Biltmore Estate Into Asheville’s Biggest Tourist Attraction."

You can also find lots of information online about Howard's untimely death.

An article on notes Howard died on June 1, 1943, "when the small airplane he was traveling on was shot down by the German Luftwaffe."

"The plane, Flight 777, named the Ibis, was flying over the Bay of Biscay and was lost in the sea," the article states. "The bodies of all those on board, including Leslie Howard’s, were never found. He was only fifty years old."

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The article also notes that, "Much speculation has followed since Flight 777 was lost."

The article says the plane was part of a small commercial service from Lisbon, Portugal to the United Kingdom. The Germans had agreed not to target the commercial flights in the area, although this plane, a Douglas DC-3, had had previous brushes with the Luftwaffe.

The article cites Ian Colvin’s book, "Flight 777: The Mystery of Leslie Howard," which explores reasons the plane may have been targeted.

"One theory brought forward was that the Germans had learned how the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was reported to be in the area, and was planning to travel back to England," the article reads. "The Luftwaffe therefore may have cast their net wide, with the intent on shooting down any aircraft the Prime Minister could have been on. Alfred Chenhalls, Leslie Howard’s manager who was traveling with him, looked a bit like Churchill, which added further to the theory."

So, that part of the story seems to hold water, too.

Going back to the "Our State" article, it notes that Cecil returned safely to England.

"In England, Cecil finished his schooling, and at age 17, he joined the British Navy as a signalman just a few days before World War ll’s end. He left England in 1949, coming back to America to matriculate at Harvard, graduating a year ahead of his class in 1952.

The young Harvard graduate joined Chase National Bank in New York, rising in the ranks to become an officer in the foreign department. When a vacancy opened at the bank’s Washington branch, Cecil moved his wife, whom he had married in 1957, and baby boy to the nation’s capital for the next three years.

'It was an interesting period of time, but not my cup of tea,' Cecil says in his English accent. 'There was too much partying and not enough banking. It was more of a diplomatic show-the-flag sort of thing.' He moved back to New York.

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As we reported in Cecil's news obituary, in 1957 he married Mary “Mimi” Ryan, a lawyer with a Wall Street firm. Three years later they moved from New York to Asheville, determined to preserve Biltmore by boosting tourism, not only to the estate but also to the Asheville region.

While William A.V. Cecil's parents had opened the Biltmore house to the public in 1930, it was not a money-maker. A 2016 Citizen-Times story noted the estate turned its first profit — just $17 — in 1969, a decade after Mimi and William Cecil returned to Asheville.

Cecil pushed hard for the estate to be self-sufficient and to remain privately held. The main feature of the 8,000-acre estate is the 250-room French-style chateau George Vanderbilt opened in 1895. But Cecil pushed for and added attractions such as the Antler Hill Village retail area and a winery.

While the estate struggled in the mid-20th century, Cecil transformed it into a profitable enterprise.

Bill Cecil Jr., William Cecil’s son, is now president & CEO of the Biltmore Company, which owns and operates Biltmore Estate.

This is the opinion of John Boyle. To submit a question, contact him at 232-5847 or

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Answer Man: Biltmore's Bill Cecil narrowly avoided shootdown by Nazis?