When the Astors Owned New York

When the Astors Owned New York ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

When John Jacob Astor IV, age forty-seven, died in the Titanic disaster in April 1912, he was the wealthiest man (or one of the wealthiest) in the United States and in the world. His fortune was estimated at $100 million dollars (1912 dollars) that he inherited from his family. He was survived by his second wife, a nineteen-year-old debutante, and his unborn son, who would go on to become John Jacob Astor VI. (The reason his son wasn’t John Jacob Astor V was because that name was already taken.)

The name of Astor was known all over the world. J. J. “Jack” Astor wasn’t just a rich man, a playboy and a sportsman; he was also an “innkeeper,” a hotelier, a builder of fabulous and sumptuous skyscraper hotels in New York City, the likes of which the world had never seen. These hotels offered guests the latest conveniences and technological innovations, such as elevators, telephones and bathrooms in every room, running hot water and thermostats for controlling temperature. Anybody who was anybody (anybody with enough dough) “stopped” at the Waldorf-Astoria or another of the Astor hotels when visiting New York City. My dear, it was the place to be seen!

John Jacob Astor IV and his older cousin, William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), were bitter rivals. They were different in temperament and style and they detested each other. William Waldorf Astor was also a builder of fabulous hotels. The two cousins together built six lavish hotels in New York City and had their imprint on many other hotels and businesses.

The Waldorf hotel and the Astoria hotel started off as two separate hotels, side by side, and later became the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria. William Waldorf Astor was responsible for the “Waldorf” part of the Waldorf-Astoria and John Jacob Astor IV was responsible for the “Astoria” part. It stood on the site where the Empire State Building now stands.

William Waldorf Astor was perhaps the most eccentric member of the Astor family. He was ashamed of the humble origins of his family, going back several generations, and concocted a distinguished lineage for himself. He gave up his American citizenship and became a British citizen. He became an English “gentleman” in almost every respect, refurbished an English estate to his own specifications, and bought his way into the British peerage. He died at age seventy-one, a lonely and reclusive multi-millionaire, estranged from most of his family.

The story of the Astors is not complete without mention of the “founder” of the Astor dynasty. The first John Jacob Astor was born in Baden, in Germany, in 1763, the poor son of a butcher and sausage maker. At age seventeen, he emigrated to the United States, to New York. He started out in a modest way as a trader of furs with the Indians. He eventually began buying up New York City real estate, and that became the source of his great wealth. At one time he owned five hundred properties in New York City, including tenements and slums, earning him the title of “slum lord,” which he unwittingly passed on to his heirs.

When the Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan is a fascinating nonfiction account of the life and amazing times of an American family of great wealth and fame. The Astors probably weren’t much different from any other American family, except that they were obscenely rich and were able to indulge their eccentricities in ways that most of us can only imagine. They were criticized in the press, of course, for owning slum and tenements and for their “inherited” (rather than earned) wealth. For wealth to be truly respectable, it seems, it has to be earned. Most of us would willingly take it any way we could get it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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