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When the Astors Owned New York

The founder of the American dynasty, John Jacob Astor,[1] came from Walldorf in the Rhine Valley near what is now the Rhein-Nekar district of Germany. Born into a middle-class family (his father was a butcher), he was the third son. Oldest brother George left for London when he was old enough and created a business selling musical instruments. Henry was more adventuresome; he went to New York where he followed the family trade as a butcher. John Jacob stayed home until life became intolerable and then he, too, left for the west. The family fortunes fluctuated and only his mother’s fortitude and frugality prevented family disaster. When she died and his feckless father remarried, he left, making his way to the Rhine and then slowly to London where he joined his brother George, learning his brother’s trade and, more important, English.

    John Jacob was on his way to be the richest man in the United States; no one knew it, of course, in November,1783 when he bought passage to the new country. Although he booked passage in crew’s quarters, he wasn’t poor, just frugal. Besides musical instruments he would sell, he carried cash, $25, a considerable amount. By the time the ship entered US waters in January, 1784, Astor had learned much about the fur trade and its possibilities. Vagaries such as the ship being frozen in ice became opportunities. He went to New York City , established a business, and married Sarah Todd who brought a $300 dowry and a knowledge of the fur trade. The couple earned money from his musical instrument and fur business, investing their sweat equity so John Jacob could make connections in the US and Canada.

    His acumen paid off. Exploiting his new knowledge, developing political connections, filling the gaps when Canadians excluded from the US by Jay’s Treaty in 1796, and then working with the Canadians, he established himself as the leading fur trader in the US. He was rich but he didn’t stop. He expanded across the continent, founding Astoria after making a deal with President Thomas Jefferson. Then he expanded to Asia, by this time trading in opium as well as furs. He persuaded Congress and the President to pass laws which would help his private business.

    His real money would be made in New York City real estate and he had vision enough to realize by the 1830s that the city would expand and expand in importance and territory until it dominated the world. He bought the remainder of Vice President Aaron Burr’s lease of land in the city  and then subleased it as lots to maximize his profits. The money rolled in so well that he got out of the fur business and focused on NY real estate. He bought and bought beyond the then city limits and then leased and leased. He was a ruthless landlord. His god was money and he was a very devout acolyte.

    As the city grew, so did his wealth. Society created his wealth through what some economic philosophers called unearned increment. Astor gave little back. He paid for the Astor Library which was the basis of the New York Library. He gave support to James Audubon and Edgar Allen Poe. He favored the politician Henry Clay. There were other charitable acts, including in his hometown, Walldorf. When he died in 1848, he was worth $20 million. He could have paid off the US national debt in 1840 with ease. He left the bulk of his estate to his younger son, William Backhouse Astor, who had joined the family business after returning from college in Germany.

    Under William Backhouse, the Astor fortune grew. Like his father, he was close with a dollar and managed his assets to maximize profits. Real estate values increased as New York became more important. The Civil War helped. He sued to have the income tax which was passed during the War to be unconstitutional, thus fending off the US government’s attack on his wealth. His uncle Henry, a wealthy butcher, left him half a million dollars. He, in turn, left almost all of his $50 million fortune to his sons, William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and John Jacob Astor III.

    They enjoyed the fruits of their grandfather’s hard work and their father’s devotion to money but the two were very different. William allowed John to manage his business affairs; he was unlike their father. He married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn from a prominent Dutch-American New York family. She would become “the Mrs. Astor,” the arbiter of New York and Newport society. William supported the abolition of slavery and paid to equip a US Army regiment during the Civil War but much of his efforts were spent on his palatial yacht, horse breeding and raising, and trying to develop an upper class resort on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida.[2] In other words, he was idle rich. His brother, John Jacob III, was not so idle. He went to Columbia College, Göttingen, and Harvard Law. During the Civil War, he was a volunteer aide to General George McClellan. He was brevetted as a brigadier general. His main business was New York real estate but he invested in the Illinois Central and the New York Central Railroads, selling his shares of the latter to Cornelius Vanderbilt. He invested in Western Union as well. His old holdings plus his management of his brother’s holding gave him enormous power and influence. The Astor brothers did not like each other but their sons openly feuded.

    Justin Kaplan, When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels In A Gilded Age,[3] focuses on the fun part of the Astor saga—family feuds and grand hotels. The cousins, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, did not like each other and tried to outdo the other, principally by building hotels. John Jacob Astor had built Astor House in 1836, the finest New York hotel of its day. William Waldorf Astoria built the New Netherland Hotel (1892) at 5th Avenue and 59th Street, the Waldorf Hotel (1893) at 5th Avenue and 33rd Street on the site of his parents’ home and adjacent to Aunt Caroline’s and Cousin Jack’s home, creating such a mess during construction that they moved. Jack then built the larger, more luxuriant Astoria Hotel (1897) next to the Waldorf; so there! Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the cousins agreed to operate these properties as one hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria. Money trumped anger and hurt feelings. It was so profitable that William then built the Hotel Astor (1904) on Times Square. “Meet me at the Astor” became a byword for the elite. Jack, not to be outdone, built the St. Regis the same year on 5th Avenue and 55th Street and, in 1906, the Hotel Knickerbocker at Broadway and 42nd Street.

    Kaplan is particularly good at providing wonderful and often amusing details about these hotels. We learn about both architecture and décor. He helps us understand “style” and how the Astor hotels set the benchmarks for luxury hotels.

    Jack, as the IV was known, lived in his mother’s shadow but became his own man late in life. They lived next door, separated by a partition, so she could have easy control. Caroline, the Mrs. Astor, also dominated society in New York and Newport. It was she who coined the term “the Four Hundred,” the people who really counted. So Jack became a playboy. He and his wife lived separate lives, often on different continents. Respect came only in 1898 when he participated in the Cuban campaign of the Spanish American War. He was then seen as a national hero and carried the title Colonel for the rest of his life. After his mother Caroline died in 1908, Jack arranged for his wife Ava to divorce him. It was done in secret because they did not want the public to know how wealthy they were. Once free of his mother and his wife, Colonel Astor enjoyed himself. At age 46, fell in love with the 17-year-old Madeleine Force. In September, 1911, they married. With his pregnant wife, Jack sailed in the inaugural voyage of the Titanic. He proved his mettle once more. He got Madeleine into a lifeboat and, instead of using his wealth and power to save himself, yielded to others. His floating body was eventually found.[4]

    William Waldorf was very different; he was convinced that he and his branch of the family were the most important Astors and sought to prove it. He paid attention to the family fortune not just by building grand hotels. He commissioned a phony genealogy which tried to prove that the Astors had always been somebody. He chafed at comments that he descended from a German butcher. He was elected to the state assembly but twice failed in his bid for a Congressional seat. The electorate didn’t like him. President Chester Arthur assuaged his feelings and the public humiliation by appointing him as Ambassador to Italy in 1882-1885. He fell in love with things Italian and began collecting. William Waldorf moved his family to England in 1891 after a tiff with Aunt Caroline, as the story goes, but it was more than that. He thought he was better than Americans thought, so he went where he thought he would be honored.

    He became as much a British gentlemen as he could and finally received the recognition from the Crown that he so desperately sought. He renounced his US citizenship and became one of his majesty’s subjects in 1899. He bought and remodeled and built estates and residence. Italian pieces he owned were installed. No expense was spared. He wrote two unsuccessful novels and bought two influential periodicals with which he supported conservative politicians. He gave to charities. He helped finance British participation in the First World War. Finally, in 1916, the Crown made him Baron Astor of Hever Castle. In 1917, he was raised to a viscount.

    Jack won for his death was noble. William Waldorf died on his toilet after eating a huge, solitary meal.

    Kaplan has more juicy tidbits and carries the story beyond the cousins and their hotels. His book is short but enjoyable to read. The Astors provoke envy but not admiration. They provided entertainment to people because they were so rich, self-indulgent, and disdainful of their fellow humans. Kaplan explains why.

[1] Elbert Hubbard,John Jacob Astor is available for free in a text file. Hubbard lauded the subjects of his biographies so one should read James L. Stokesbury, "John Jacob Astor: Wealthy Merchant and Fur Trader.". 

[2] Henry B. Flagler, another multi-millionaire, developed the east coast of Florida, bypassing the Astor project. See World’s Finest Beach, “A Man and Three Hotels, and "Harcourt Bull's Atlantic Beach, Florida.”

[3] New York, Plume Books, 2007. 208 pages. $15.00. ISBN: 9780452288584. Kaplan won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. His Walt Whitman: A Life won the National Book Award.

[4] For more on the Titanic disaster, see Lawrence Beesley,The Loss of the S. S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons.

Donald J. Mabry