EXCEPT FOR its progenitor, John Jacob I, the unlovable German immigrant fur trader and slum landlord who was as indifferent to the fate of the Indians he debauched by drink as to the tenants he profitably jammed into noisome tenements (Riis' photographs memorilaized their misery), the Astor family, the richest in 19th-century America, failed to produce male members who cut much ice -- though it is ture that John Jacob IV went down on the Titanic. Nor were the Astor men numerous. By the fourth generation there was only J. J. IV left in New York, where the male line petered out after his memorable death, and his cousin Willam Waldorf, a failed politician and author of a novel, who quit New York for England because, as he explained, America was not a fit place for a gentleman to live. Another reason was that his widowed aunt, the Mrs. Astor who ran Society, refused to hand over the fiefdom to his wife.

Astor women tended to make up in spirit and will for their lackluster men. William Waldorf's aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, ruled New York for a quarter century with justice untempered by mercy. The merely rich Rockefellers and Harrimans had to abandon all hope of entering her ballroom, whose capacity of 400 defined Society. Yet so far as money went, the unearned Astor millions went for little more worthwhile or durable than entertainment, yachts, fancy houses and hotels.

Until the fourth and fifth generations began putting the fortune to social uses, it was mostly -- with notable exception of the Astor Library, now the New York Pulic Library -- ploughed back into the family. The rents rolling in, inevitable as the tide, effortlessly swelled the founder's plundered $20 million to some $300 million by the time it was divided, tax-free, between the exile William Waldorf and his cousin Jack, the Titanic victim. This sullen family saga has been written about often enough, and the newest account by John D. Gates, The Astor Family, is by no means the best, though he devotes more space than anyone else had done to a female branch, the Chanlers. Virginia Cowles's recent The Astors is a better book. Both, however, have nothing but praise for the last of the great Astor ladies, Brooke, widow of the drowned Jack's son Vincent. He left her in charge of a foundation devoted to the "alleviation of human misery" with which she has imaginatively and generously enriched the city that once enriched the Astors.

But the most celebrated and controversial of Astor ladies is William Waldorf's daughter-in-law, who for 25 years served as the first woman member of parliament. Nancy Astor is the subject of two new biographies, bringing the total to five (not counting her maid's unsparing memoirs) -- more than the subject warrants. For though Nancy knocked about in the midst of great events like loose cargo, she was politically insignificant and her character unfocused and immature. She was a bully, callous and mean-spirited; "she failed to bomb only military targets," observed a schoolboy who had felt the bludgeon of her sarcasm. Yet she had charm, and, buried somewhere, heart, and her baffled yearning for spiritual meaning adds to her loud destructive life a flicker of puzzlement and pathos. Anthony Masters' Nancy Astor: A Biography is throughly capable and entertaining. John Grigg is the son of two close Astor friends and though his Nancy Astor: A Lady Unashamed is more cursory and he tries too hard to be nice, it offers some sadly ironic insights. c

Lady Astor was born plain Nannie Langhorne in a four-room house in Danville, Virginia, one of eight brothers and sisters, all beauties. Her hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing father -- a regular Squire Western, Grigg remarks, whom she resembled in teperament -- so improved the family fortune that at 18 she could make a fashionable, short-lived marriage that produced a son. Not only her husband's boozing but sex itself repelled her, her maid Rose later recalled her saying, "I can't even tolerate seein' two birds matin' without wantin' to separate them." After her divorce, she hunted foxes in England, where her looks, rough tongue, and rigid propriety bemused the worldly Edwardians. "I suppose you've come to get one of our husbands," a lady remarked. "You wouldn't say that if you knew the trouble I had gettin' rid of mine," replied Nancy, a tart sample of the repartee that gave her an unearned reputation for wit.

On an ocean liner she met Waldorf Astor, handsome elder son of the expatriate, whose attractive character combined with intelligence, modesty, method, and the aristocratic values of his adopted class and country. It was he who loved her. What she felt was a basic response to his basic goodness and generosity; for she had a creditable lifelong attraction to her intellectual and moral betters. Their wedding present was Cliveden, a magnificent property on the Thames. Like his father, who had tried politics and bought a newspaper, Waldorf bought the Observer -- as his brother J. J. V., later Lord Astor of Hever, was to buy The Times -- and was elected to parliament in 1910 as a left-wing Conservative from Plymouth. He would have rised to cabinet level had he not been stopped by the perverse chance that made Nancy famous.

But that didn't happen until 1919. In the years between, Nancy produced five more children, in spite of her stated distaste for sharing anyone's bed and notional bouts of invalidism. Her sudden embrace of Christian Science cured hypocondria, but sealed her mind from intellectual development -- henceforth she read only the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy. "This oversimplified moralistic view of life, " a son wrote, "prevented her reaching any deep understanding of people."

In 1961, to Waldorf's dismay, his father accepted a peerage. (In those days one could not discard a title, as did John Grigg, once Lord Altrincham.) When the old man died in 1919 Waldorf, now Lord Astor, was turned out of the House of Commons, in which women, having gained the vote, had also won the right to sit, a coincidence that allowed Nancy to campaign for her husband's seat and win it. From then on Waldorf did the homework and wrote the speeches, while Nancy performed, zooming off from his careful arguments on flights of her own. "Her reflective power was not so strong as her instinct," a friend wrote. "Reason was not a weapon she cared to use much, if at all." The working classes, to which she claimed to belong (as opposed to "the shirking classes"), seemed to like her cheek and relish for tackling hecklers.

In the House, Nancy was beautifully dressed in black suits, white blouse, loops of pearls, and a tricorne hat, but her conduct was not so impeccable. "She is not a lady as you would understand a lday," her butler told her maid, nor can she have appeared to be one to the members whose speeches she interrupted with jeering commentary. Her presence in the House, Churchill said, made him feel as if a woman had invaded his bathroom where he had nothing to defend himself with but a sponge. Yet the fastidious Harold Nicolson wrote of her: "It was Lady Astor who, from the very day of her introduction, taught her contemporaries that the expansion of woman's liberty could be achieved, not by mute acquiescence, but by voluable pugnacity. . . . Her utter lack of class-consciousness, her merry mixing ways, proved a wonderful solvent of stiffness and embarrassment."

As an M.P. she championed state control of alcohol and the interests of women and children, though she compromised her own strident teetotalism by serving alcohol to guests, and did not resolve the incongrutiy between her belief that women should have better job opportunities and her conviction that they belonged at home looking after their children. Her own children saw more of their nanny than of her -- customary in the shirking classes -- but when she was with them she overexcited the little ones by her own childishness and wounded the adolescents with insensitive taunts. Her possesive attachment to her eldest son, Bobby Shaw, ruined his life and that of her eldest Astor son as well, whom she resented and derided because he, not Bobbie, would inherit the title and estates.

During her celebrated pilgrimage to the Soviet Union with her good friend Bernard Shaw she boldly asked Stalin why he had slaughtered so many people and was given a suavely evasive answer. Nancy did not endorse Shaw's statment that "Dictator Stalin is an honest and able man," nor was she so enthusiastic about Nazi Germeny as lurid rumors about "the Cliveden Set" and her indiscreet jawing with Ribbentrop suggested. According to the Marxist journalist Claude Clockburn, the British foreign policy of appeasement was being cooked up by the Astors and their friends on long country weekends. The Astors indeed fancied that compromise with Hitler would preserve peace; their clamorous support of Chamberlain's policy clouded that fact that they had not actually stage-managed it. Nancy vented her feelings by spitting at Cockburn.

The Astors redeemed themselves by spirited and courageous conduct once war had come, being bombed along with their Plymouth neighbors, while Nancy bucked up morale, dancing with soliders and sailors and doing somersaults to amuse bombed-out children. But after the war her career stopped, not by her choice but by one forced on her by Waldorf, who perceived that she was out of touch, and that her clownish running off at the mouth ("How do I know what I think," she protested, "until I've said it?") no longer sat well with her constituents and colleagues. Engaging with her in debate, Nicolson observed, was "like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs." She was offered no honors and lived on for 19 grumpy years. She never forgave Waldorf, and yet, as John Grigg points out, it was she who had destroyed Waldorf's career, not he hers. Even as a member of the House of Lords, he could, with his large ablities, have entered government on a ministerial level. Instead he devoted himself entirely to her; yet she never recognized or repaid his selflessness in doing the dirty work and leaving the high-jinks and glamour for her. No wonder. As her maid wrote, "she was unpredictable and always unappreciative."

Those she loved she kept on a string, resenting both their dependency and any sign of freedom. Bobbie Shaw, her eldest, never escaped -- an alcoholic homosexual who was not even allowed to control his own money. But nancy was on a string too. Grigg describes her swimming in the Channel with a rope tied around her waist while Waldorf sat on the beach holding the end. He could not trust her on her own in the treacherous sea -- "a perfect symbol of their relationship."

In the old days, after a visit to Cliveden, Henry James had described his hostess as being "full of possibilities and fine matieral -- though but a reclaimed barbarian, with all her bounty, spontaneity, and charm, too." The possibilities were never realized; the fine material wasted.