Edith Stuyvesant Dresser was born on January 17, 1873 in Newport, Rhode Island to George Warren Dresser (1837–1883) and Susan Fish Le Roy (1834–1883). She was the great-niece of Hamilton Fish (1808–1893), a U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and New York Governor. Through the Fish family, she was a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of Dutch colonial New York through Hamilton Fish's mother, Elizabeth Stuyvesant, Peter Stuyvesant's great-great-granddaughter. She was orphaned at the age of ten and was raised by her maternal grandmother.
Her elder brother was Daniel LeRoy Dresser (1862–1915), a shipbuilder. Her sisters and her, collectively known as the "Dresser girls," were: Suzanne Leroy Dresser (1864–1960), who married the French Vicomte, Romain D'Osmoy, Natalie Bayard Dresser (1869–1950), who married John Nicholas Brown, and Pauline Georgina Dresser (b. 1876), who married Rev. George D. Merrill,
Edith was a compassionate person; many said that one would not have known she was the mistress of the Biltmore Estate. She was very involved with the families who worked on the Biltmore Estate as well as the surrounding community. Edith and her husband, George Vanderbilt, were socially progressive thinkers who played pivotal roles in the betterment of the lives of many people in Western North Carolina.
Some of her initiatives included sponsoring literacy and educational programs, and promoting the learning of crafts through which women might support themselves. On the Estate, she took maternity baskets to women who just given birth to make sure they had everything they needed. Edith also took her daughter Cornelia's old clothing to families with girls who were about the same age.
After her husband's death in March 1914, she continued her work for the community. She became the first woman president of the State Agricultural Society. With this title Edith helped build a new hospital, among numerous other deeds. Later, she decided to honor George Vanderbilt, her husband, by selling 87,000 acres to create the Pisgah National Forest for the public to enjoy.
On June 1, 1898, she married George Washington Vanderbilt II (1862–1914), the owner of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Together, they had one daughter Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt (1900–1976), who married John Francis Amherst Cecil (1890–1954), son of Lord William Cecil and Mary Rothes Margaret Tyssen-Amherst, 2nd Baroness Amherst of Hackney.
After his death in 1914, she inherited his $50,000,000 estate and later sold the land around the Biltmore Estate to the United States Forest Service. This became part of the Pisgah National Forest.
On October 22, 1925 she married Peter Goelet Gerry (1879-1951), a United States Senator from Rhode Island, in London. Gerry had previously been married to Mathilde Scott Townsend (1885–1949), until their divorce in 1925, and was the son of Elbridge Thomas Gerry (1837–1927) and Louisa Matilda Livingston (1836–1920), and the great grandson of Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), the fifth Vice President of the United States.
She died on December 21, 1958 in Providence, Rhode Island.
Her grandchildren were George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil (b. 1925), the owner and operator of Biltmore Farms, and William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil (b. 1928), the operator of the Biltmore Estate through his company, The Biltmore Company.
Paul McCartney, in the band Wings, paid homage to her as well as Martha Washington in his 1973 hit "Mrs. Vanderbilt" on the Band on the Run album.