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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

WHEN THE ASTORS OWNED NEW YORK

Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age

By Justin Kaplan

Viking. 196 pp. $24.95

John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor had a few things in common besides one of the most famous surnames in these United States. They were first cousins, direct descendants of the founding father, the celebrated and reviled fur trader John Jacob Astor. They were among the richest men in the world, each worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- billions, in today's money. They were, as is so often the case, poor little rich boys, each frustrated and unhappy in his own fashion. And -- most important for the story that Justin Kaplan tells in "When the Astors Owned New York" -- they roundly and richly detested each other.

William Waldorf Astor was born in 1848 and died in 1919. As a young man he "was an imposing figure, athletic, over six feet tall, with polished manners, an intense and unflinching gaze, and a worldly assurance that belied his essential shyness and melancholy. . . . All his life he was to be torn between warring natures: the one romantic, artistic, and solitary; the other obedient to the principle of order, discipline, piety, and control that was part of his heritage." John Jacob Astor IV, born 16 years later and drowned in 1912 aboard the Titanic, was "socially and physically graceless." He "had a reputation for making clumsy and urgent advances to the wives, sisters, and daughters of his social class and for getting himself into other sorts of scrapes." But he was fascinated by science and had a "free-ranging imagination [that] looked ahead to television, global warming, and genetic engineering."

Their fathers were brothers, grandsons of the original John Jacob Astor, and thoroughly alienated from each other for a variety of reasons, among them simple "genetic incompatibility." They passed this along to Willy and Jack, who "scarcely knew but disliked and resented each other all the same and rarely met." Indeed, compatibility and affection do not seem to have flourished within the Astor clan, the members of which dedicated themselves primarily, in their various ways, to papering over their modest German roots and claiming, instead, the distinctions and benefits of Anglo American royalty, with heavy emphasis on Anglo .

Thus, for example, Kaplan -- the distinguished biographer of Mark Twain and Lincoln Steffens -- tells, with obvious relish, that story of Caroline Astor, Jack's mother, who set herself up as doyenne of Manhattan society -- the "Four Hundred," as eventually it became known -- and commanded her territory with a ferocity worthy of the most experienced warrior. When Willy decided in the early 1890s that his wife, Mamie, "not the imperious Caroline, should be the publicly acknowledged head of the House of Astor," a battle ensued during which "Caroline made a preemptive strike . . . by changing the wording on her calling card from 'Mrs. William Astor' to 'Mrs. Astor.' She thereby relegated Willy's wife to second place and launched what amused observers on both sides of the Atlantic were soon calling 'the Battle of the Cards.' "

Yet, for all the bad blood between the cousins, they managed -- reluctantly, and scarcely in a loving spirit -- to rise above it in one regard: In unison, if not exactly together, they built what was for many years the greatest hotel in the world, the Waldorf-Astoria, and "in so doing they virtually invented the American luxury hotel."

Kaplan continues: "What motivated them was not mere hope of gain: the entire landscape of venture and acquisition capitalism had been open to them as heirs of the first John Jacob Astor. They could have made more money just by doing nothing but raking in rents, interest, and dividends from what they already owned. They had chosen hotels to be the stage for a family drama of pride, spite, rivalry, self-projection, and the love of grandeur and prominence. A visitor from abroad imagined these 'amazing Astors' strolling along Broadway and Fifth Avenue, stretching their arms to point, and exclaiming, 'Mine! Mine! All mine!' "

The hotel, construction of which began in 1890-91, was not the Waldorf-Astoria that now occupies an immense block at 301 Park Ave. It was at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, where the Empire State Building now stands, and it was not the first hotel erected by an Astor. That distinction belonged to the Astor House, constructed by the founding father in the 1830s on Broadway south of City Hall Park. "Six stories high, with a Greek Revival granite portico opening onto Broadway," the Astor House was "a self-contained, virtually perfected world of luxury and dream fulfillment, evidence of what money could accomplish when joined with vision, energy, mechanical ingenuity, running water, indoor plumbing, and Medician magnificence." It quickly became "the mecca and transmission center for a growing cult of celebrity."

But times and fashions changed. The center of Manhattan moved steadily north, and various improvements in domestic technology made the Astor House outdated. In other cities, the Astor House was eclipsed by new edifices: the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Palmer House in Chicago, the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach. It was time for New York to reassert its claim as the nation's first and dominant city, and it fell to the Astor cousins to do the job.

Originally, there was to be one hotel, the Waldorf, built by Willy. Jack, angered by his cousin's presumption in building this hotel next door to his mother Caroline's house, originally proposed to tear down her house and replace it with stables. Instead, "troops of lawyers and accountants on both sides" negotiated a truce in which Jack agreed to build his own hotel, the Astoria, next door. The two hotels had connecting corridors and were known, then and forever after, as the Waldorf-Astoria:

"This immense establishment comprised over a thousand guest rooms and half a hundred public rooms. Pleasure dome and social force, theater and theme park, the Astors' great hotel, the most expensive of its kind, was a place of artistic, mechanical, and sybaritic wonders. Its splendor legitimized the open existence of an American leisure class. In its unashamed pride and opulence the Waldorf-Astoria declared that New York was now a world capital with a place in history like Athens, Rome, and London."

Even the expatriate Henry James, no lover of most things American, was awed. He called the hotel "something new under the sun," "one of my few glimpses of perfect human felicity," "a gorgeous golden blur, a paradise peopled with unmistakable American shapes." Fifty years later, still under the hotel's spell, he celebrated "the hotel spirit," a "synonym for civilization," and proclaimed that in this, the United States was an example to the rest of the world.

The original Waldorf-Astoria is long gone, and so, too, is the hotel, the Astor, that Willy built on Times Square shortly after the turn of the century and which stood until 1967. So, for that matter, is the great age of American hotels, replaced by vast chain operations, some of which provide excellent accommodations and service but most of which are indistinguishable from each other. Probably this is no great loss, but Kaplan's evocative, witty and handsomely written little book reminds us that there were indeed giants in those days and that the Astors, for all their innumerable faults, were among them.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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