Thursday, August 2, 2007

When the Astors Were Asses

When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age (Penguin Group, 2006) 196 pp.

Bluebloods and luxury hotels? I had no idea how closely linked the Astors were with the creation of many of the luxury hotels in New York city: the New Netherland Hotel (1892), the Waldorf (1893), the Astoria Hotel (1897), the Waldorf-Astoria (1897), Hotel Astor (1904) and the St. Regis (1904) ... Interesting to note that so many of these hotels arose from a very unfriendly rivalry between two Astor first cousins John Jacob Astor IV (1864 - 1912) and William Waldorf Astor (1848 - 1919).

Hotels do hold a certain mystique for me. Oh hell, why not admit it? The most interesting sections of the book are the gossip.

I begin as Kaplan does ... John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic allegedly after handing his teenage bride into a lifeboat. Hitherto, John Jacob Astor IV had been unceremoniously and consistently referred to as Jack Ass for the multitude of idiotic mischief he was involved in. This seems a bit harsh in light of some of his life accomplishments: he was an avid inventor, financier of U.S. wars (perhaps a dubious achievement but certainly not seen as such at the time) and personally created some of the best luxury hotels in New York.

William Waldorf Astoria, his cousin and a notorious reactionary and Astor heir who renounced his American roots in his quest for a peerage (sound familiar Conrad Black?), was the lover of British writer and one time lover of Virgina Woolf Vita Sackville-West in his old age. She rejected him for an even older suitor much to his dismay. So did a great deal of the British upper crust for no matter how many millions he possessed, an American he was and he was someone who, they felt, spent his monies in a vulgar and ostentatious manner. Judge for yourself ...

His sumptuous estate, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, England, would eventually serve as the site of two important events in British history. It was the meeting place of the "Cliveden set", a pro-fascist group of wealthy Britons who supported Hitler during WWII. They were immortalized in Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel The Remains of the Day.

It is also the setting for the beginning of the Profumo Affair where the ever-up-for-it Christine Keeler danced naked by the pool entrancing both John Profumo, Harold MacMillan's Minister for War, and Captain Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet intelligence agent in the 1960s. Apparently, the British public was shocked, shocked, to learn that highly placed politicians had paid sex with call girls who had little interest in Cold War hostilities.

Caroline Astor (nee Schermerhorn) married the III in the line and was so socially dominant that she was acknowledged to be the "Queen of the Four Hundred" in the late 19th c. by Ward McAllister, a "bon vivant", who said that "there were only about 400 people in fashionable New York" and apparently Caroline knew them all.

John Jacob Astor (1763- 1848) the grand old patriarch, who came before they started adding numerals to their surnames, was an uncouth, avaricious son of a German butcher who had the foresight to purchase vast quantities of Manhattan real estate thereby ensuring the prosperity of his descendants for the next 200 years.

One need only read up on the current plight of Brooke Astor who was married to Vincent Astor (1891 -1959), son of the unfortunate JJA IV who died on the Titanic (but not mentioned in the book), to know that the highborn continue to indulge in avaricious tricks and perfidy when their wealth is threatened.

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