In Justin Kaplan’s book on the Astor family, When The Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, he argues that the Astor Family, particularly William Waldorf and John Jacob IV, were New York’s first family at a time when that city was coming of age and embodied what it was to be rich in America’s imperial city. Kaplan provides a thorough re-understanding of well-known facts about why William and John spent a great deal of their lives competing to have the grandest hotels and mansions of New York City. Kaplan writes how the two cousins dominated not only the society of New York City, but also its architecture, building hotel after hotel, each one more elaborate than the last. In fact, they even collaborated on investing in one of the hotels, the old Waldorf-Astoria, which closed its doors when the Great Depression struck in 1929. Kaplan describes in detail the facilities hotels like The Knickerbocker, the Astor, the New Netherland, all of which are now gone. The St. Regis, built by John Jacob IV still stands, having undergone a $100 million remodeling in the recent past. Kaplan shows us throughout this book how the Astor family went from humble beginnings in the German village of Waldorf through its sudden rise to the heights of American wealth and prestige and looks at how its heirs battled (each other, mostly) to create their legendary hotels in Manhattan.
John Jacob Astor made his original fortune from trading furs and might have become, in his own estimation, the richest man that ever lived, not merely the richest man in the United States, had his commercial empire in the Pacific Northwest not been ‘frustrated by blundering subordinates, Indian treachery, the War of 1812, bad weather, and just plain bad luck’. Instead, he had to fall back on his shrewd investments in Manhattan real estate. Before he died, Old Man Astor owned about 500 properties in the city, whose population had grown twenty times since his arrival there in 1780. He also built the grandest and most luxurious hotel in the world. A six-story, Greek Revival, granite structure on Broadway, ‘Astor House was to be the mecca and transmission center for a growing cult of celebrity’ for almost 50 years after its opening in 1836. His son, William Backhouse Astor, married up and produced three sons, one of whom became estranged from the family. The other two, John Jacob III and William Backhouse Jr, were permanently at odds, despite owning adjacent brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets, and sharing offices. The rift between them was to be perpetuated in the next generation between their sons, the two Astor cousins William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob IV. John Jacob III was the serious, hard-working brother, while William Backhouse Jr was the dissolute hedonist, one Kaplan described William as a ‘one-man temperance society… dedicated to destroying all spirituous liquor even if he had to drink it all himself’. This divide between the two Astor sons would create the rift that would engulf their two sons, William Waldorf and John Jacob IV.
While the Astor family real-estate interests kept generating vast revenues, the male Astor cousins of the next generation were each distracted by other interests. William Waldorf was seduced by the charms of Italy, fell in love with an Italian ‘princess’, dabbled in politics as a Republican, wrote a couple of romantic historical novels, attempted to prove that his family was descended from a Spanish crusader, and decamped to England, declaring America ‘not a fit place for a gentleman to live’. Dubbed ‘William the Traitor’, it was perhaps surprising that when the New York Times mistakenly reported his death in 1892 its enormous obituary praised him as ‘an ideal American’. The truce didn’t last. Once in England, William Waldorf Astor founded his own monthly, the Pall Mall Magazine, and filled it with his own short stories and dotty articles, causing the New York Times correspondent in London to conclude, ‘The second syllable of his name is clearly superfluous.’ It was just as well, as Kaplan puts it briefly, that ‘he was unswayed by ridicule.’ John Jacob IV, known in the press as ‘Jack Ass’, devoted himself to laboratory experiments and coming up with minor inventions that never quite caught on, such as a plant to convert peat into fuel for machines and vehicles. The Astor cousins’ principal achievement, however, was in the area of hotel building and management. As owners of the Waldorf-Astoria, the Astor cousins became luxury innkeepers on a Renaissance scale. Henry James was in awe, calling the Waldorf-Astoria ‘a new thing under the sun’. What James also called the ‘hotel spirit’ meant that, for the first time, it became fashionable to eat out in public. ‘There was a constant buzz of money talk,’ explains Kaplan. ‘The Waldorf-Astoria’s barroom and men’s café had become an extension of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.’ It was followed by other Astor grand hotels, the Astor in Times Square, the Knickerbocker, and the St Regis.
The Waldorf-Astoria put the rich and famous on display for ordinary people to observe and “maybe learn from as part of their own education in polite customs” in preparation for a possible “climb up the ladder”. Like other Astor hotels it shaped popular conceptions of wealth and luxury, offering aristocratic splendor and modern conveniences such as telephones, elevators, and air conditioners. Not surprisingly, writers ranging from Horatio Algerm, Jr. and Theodore Dreiser to Edith Wharton and Willa Cather made Astor hotels settings for their stories of the well-to-do. Kaplan, too, has successfully made the hotel the setting for his masterfully written book. Like several business historians, he demonstrates that profit was not the only motive driving entrepreneurs. William Waldorf Astor fled the mockery of his fellow Americans, and finally achieved his ambition of a British peerage after a decade and a half of tireless charitable giving. John Jacob IV was praised for his patriotic service in raising a regiment to fight in Cuba and renamed ‘Colonel Astor’, but ostracized by his late mother’s precious ‘society’ for divorcing his wife and taking a new, teenage bride. He would go down with the Titanic in 1912, and William would die not too long later in 1919. When the two Astor cousins died, so did the prominence of the Astor family on New York Society.
This is a short but descriptive book that is well worth the read. The author comes at his subject from outside straight facts, and attacks it with remarkable credentials. Kaplan’s argument that the Astors dominated New York society and were responsible for ushering in a new hotel civilization is an element used and explained throughout the entire book. It is provocative, and ultimately instructive. Kaplan blasts certain points of historical consensus and bias through the skillful use of both evidence and speculation. He utilizes firsthand accounts of friends and associates, as well as rivals and enemies, to convey multidimensional impressions of William Waldorf and John Jacob Astor IV. There are no flat images here. Kaplan uncovers motivations that drove these men to do great and not-so-great things, how reputation played the greatest role in determining how history would view these men, and how each man used grand hotels as a weapon against each other. After decades of battle, William comes out as a treater to his home country and John comes out as a war hero who saved his wife bravely on the Titanic. The Astor family created New York high society, whose remnants remain through their few surviving hotels.