Astor explores the life of American nobleman John Jacob Astor through a historical fiction lens. It transports readers to late 18th century New York, revealing Astor’s ambitions and emergence as a legendary fur trader and real estate tycoon.
Cooper and Howe vividly describe Astor’s rise from immigrant to the richest man in America. Readers witness his bold entrepreneurship, keen business sense and cut-throat dealings in pioneering new industries. The book also introduces Astor’s family and mentions his descendent legacy.
Written as a novel, Astor brings history to life through imagined dialogue and rich period details. While some minor characters feel thinly developed, the main protagonists are compelling. The novel serves as an immersive tale of one man’s incredible rags-to-riches success story during transformative times.
In summary, Astor transports readers to colonial New York through the fictionalized life of John Jacob Astor. Call to action: Continue reading to follow Astor’s dramatic rise from immigrant to wealthy industrialist and real estate pioneer of early America.
Table of Contents
Money, Investments, History, Biography, Memoir, Historical fiction, Biography, Business, Entrepreneurship, Self-made success, New York, 19th century America, Wealth, Family saga, Adventure
Introduction: Discover an American saga of wealth and success – and its eventual decline.
Astor (2023) chronicles more than two centuries of family lineage, tracking the ambition that built America’s first great fortune, as well as the excess and missteps that led to its decline. An intimate portrait of intergenerational wealth, it is both an engrossing family saga, and a broader commentary on shifting class privilege in America.
At their height, the Astor family epitomized New York high society. They were ambitious, powerful, and wealthy. In fact, they were America’s first home-grown dynasty. But their dramatic rise to fame and fortune ended with a spectacular fall.
Starting from humble beginnings, immigrant John Jacob Astor built a multi-million dollar empire through cunning and vision. His descendants dominated Gilded Age real estate and the social scene. But over time, missteps and excess caused the Astor fortune to dwindle.
This summary traces the family’s trajectory from frontier fur trader to elite socialite to tabloid headline, illustrating broader themes in America’s evolving class structure during its first two hundred years. It’s also a cautionary tale of how, without proper stewardship, even the mightiest empires fall.
A founding father: John Jacob Astor
Born in 1763 in Walldorf, a village in the southwest of modern-day Germany, John Jacob Astor immigrated to America just before the Revolutionary War that broke out in 1775. He arrived with little money to his name. But through a combination of grit, ambition, and shrewd business instincts, Astor would go on to become America’s first multi-millionaire and establish one of the country’s greatest family dynasties.
Astor initially settled in New York and started selling musical instruments, but then quickly pivoted to the much more lucrative fur trade. At the time, European high fashion was all about beaver fur hats. Astor recognized the soaring demand and set his sights on establishing control of the market.
Astor embarked on risky trips, venturing deep into frontier territories to trade with Native American trappers. He traveled along the Great Lakes and farther west, using his linguistic skills to learn local languages and communicate in native tongues. While acquiring boatloads of valuable pelts to take back east, Astor developed strong relationships with native tribes across the frontier.
Astor’s fortunes grew further as his second son, William Backhouse Astor, was born in 1792. Around this time, the international scene was shifting in Astor’s favor, as London imposed tight restrictions on importing and exporting furs. In 1794, the US negotiated a treaty with Great Britain, allowing furs to be exported directly from Canada to New York.
By his early 40s, Astor had established fur trading posts across the American northwest. His monopoly on the fur trade allowed him to buy furs at low cost, then reap enormous profits selling them to the European fashion industry.
By 1798, Astor was worth $250,000 – an astronomical sum at the time. But he saw even greater opportunity ahead in real estate. As New York City expanded northward up Manhattan Island, he used his massive fur trade profits to acquire properties cheaply.
By the 1820s and 30s, Astor came into his own as a New York real estate mogul. He bought up tracts of land, developed neighborhoods, and leased properties commercially. Astor had an almost uncanny ability to anticipate where the value was going to appreciate most.
By the late 1830s, Astor’s net worth was estimated at over $20 million – a sum that made him richer than the US government at the time. Yet despite this staggering success, he carried himself without pretense, living modestly and focusing on preserving the family fortune for his heirs.
When he died in 1848 at age 84, he was the richest man in America, having built a multi-million dollar empire. More than just wealth, Astor created a legacy, establishing the family name as a pillar of New York high society and business for generations to come.
Real estate tycoons
William Backhouse Astor, John Jacob Astor’s second son, went on to expand the family’s real estate empire in New York City. After studying abroad in Göttigen and Heidelberg, William entered into partnership with his father, helping manage the fur trade business. But where the elder Astor had built his fortune on furs and early real estate investments, William would truly come into his own as a prominent New York City landlord and developer.
Upon John Jacob Astor’s death in 1848, William inherited an estate worth over $20 million and the title of richest man in America. He sought to put this great wealth to use through strategic New York City real estate acquisitions. William invested heavily in Manhattan properties, buying up land as the city rapidly expanded northward, and constructing many profitable residential and commercial buildings.
One of William’s most famous real estate projects was the Astor Library, endowed as a free public library for the people of New York. He also donated land for the Astor Opera House, which opened in 1847 and became an architectural jewel of the city. The theater hosted celebrated performances, including the American debuts of European composers like Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss.
William continued to purchase and develop land even in his later years. He died in 1875, leaving behind a massive estate and 31 buildings in New York City bearing the Astor name.
His eldest son John Jacob Astor III, who was born in 1822, further expanded the family’s real estate holdings. He invested proceeds from the fur trade into new construction projects, including hotels like the Astor House and the original Waldorf Hotel. Astor also rebuilt old neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen, renaming it the West End.
By the 1890s, Astor III owned around one-tenth of all the real estate in Manhattan. His fortune was estimated at over $75 million by the time of his death in 1890.
Between John Jacob Astor and his son William, the Astors came to dominate New York real estate in the nineteenth century. By continuously acquiring and developing properties in strategic locations, they built an enormously profitable asset portfolio that produced rental income for generations to come. The Astor name became synonymous with elite New York City living and prime commercial spaces. Their real estate empire cemented the family’s status at the apex of America’s economic elite.
The Gilded Age: Mrs. Astor’s 400
If the early Astors defined elite New York real estate, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known as “the” Mrs. Astor, came to epitomize the city’s Gilded Age high society. Born into a wealthy Dutch family in 1830, Caroline married William Backhouse Astor, becoming the matriarch of the Astor clan by the late 1800s. From her opulent Fifth Avenue mansion, Mrs. Astor cultivated an aura of exclusivity and aristocratic sensibility modeled after European nobility.
Obsessively controlling her public persona, Mrs. Astor never allowed herself to be photographed unless in a studio and refused to grant interviews to the press. She wished New York journalists had the discretion of English ones, believing that her money represented the family’s character and intelligence. Though born into privilege, Mrs. Astor saw her wealth as earned through effort.
As social arbiter, Mrs. Astor’s guest list was limited to around 400 elites, scorned as “the 400” by outsiders but the pinnacle of status to those who were included. Everything in her mansions radiated aristocratic refinement, from servants wearing livery to the European artworks decorating the rooms. This opulent display masked the Astors’ modest day-to-day lifestyle, and close family ties.
Mrs. Astor believed young men should participate in sports, and that young women should be trained in domestic arts and charity. But her views didn’t reflect how rapidly New York society was evolving. Her children were often forced to conceal their modern attitudes, lest they disrupt decorous family appearances.
While Mrs. Astor’s marriage grew distant, she retained symbolic status as wife of the Astor heir. The clan’s enormous wealth financed her lavish entertaining, cementing the Astors as American royalty.
For better or worse, Mrs. Astor made Gilded Age New York the envy of elites across America and Europe. While detached from social realities, she understood the power that her carefully crafted image and aristocratic illusion held over public perceptions. Mrs. Astor crafted an aura of aristocracy that captivated the public, making her the undisputed queen of this glittering era.
A fashionable address
The opulent Waldorf-Astoria hotel came to represent the pinnacle of luxury and society in New York and around the world. Its origins trace back to a family feud of sorts between two Astor cousins, who demolished their fathers’ adjacent mansions to construct competing hotels.
William Waldorf Astor built the Waldorf Hotel in 1893 on the site of his father’s home, much to the annoyance of his aunt Caroline Astor, who lived next door. The large hotel proved immensely fashionable, welcoming unaccompanied women and hosting glittering society events. In 1897, its success motivated John Jacob Astor IV to build an adjoining hotel named the Astoria.
The two hotels were linked by a lavish corridor called Peacock Alley. With over 1,000 rooms, the Waldorf-Astoria complex was the largest and most modern hotel in the world upon its opening. The hyphenated name reflected the reconciliation of the Astor cousins after initial rancor.
Everything about the Waldorf-Astoria was designed for luxury, from imported European amenities to hand-painted ceilings. Its grand ballrooms hosted society’s elite for glamorous parties. Women could dine unchaperoned at its restaurants. And rooms even featured modern conveniences, like electricity.
The Waldorf-Astoria democratized high society, welcoming middle class guests to experience Astor-style service. Its doors were open to politicians, artists, journalists – anyone who could pay. Behind the scenes, management innovated, training staff in hospitality to achieve the finest possible atmosphere.
The hotel became synonymous with New York society. Presidents, royalty, and Hollywood stars stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria. The Art Deco lobby and clock even became iconic symbols of the city.
Over time, the area around the Waldorf-Astoria changed. The Astor mansion district gave way to commercial development. But the hotel maintained its prestige long after the Astors faded from prominence. The Waldorf-Astoria adapted to changing tastes, while retaining its timeless air of old luxury.
More than a building, the Waldorf-Astoria represented a cultural shift. Its salons broke taboos about women dining publicly and signaled society’s acceptance of wealth’s showy display. It made luxury an experience open to anyone, not just elites. The Waldorf-Astoria hotel came to embody both New York society and the city’s distinctly modern, dynamic spirit.
A dynasty in decline
By the early 1900s, the formidable Astor dynasty was fraying at the edges despite its outward opulence. The family faced scandal, tragedy, and financial missteps that slowly eroded its supremacy in New York society.
The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 dealt a major blow, when John Jacob Astor IV died on board. One of the wealthiest Americans, his death was a cautionary tale about the family’s fading fortitude.
Worsening matters, his son Vincent’s divorce and hasty remarriage to a pregnant teenager became an embarrassing tabloid story. Family trustees restricted his inheritance, fearing public outrage.
The next generations struggled to maintain the Astor real estate empire amid changing times. High society retreated from the hotel district they had developed. With the Crash of 1929, many Astor heirs had to sell properties at a loss.
As the family’s wealth dwindled, their social status followed. By the postwar era, the Astors had mostly withdrawn from New York City life. Their mansions were razed or converted for other uses.
Younger Astors, like Brooke Astor, proved unable to stem the decline. Her philanthropic work burnished the name briefly but did little to restore its former glory. The same held true for later heirs like Anthony Marshall, who stirred scandal by plundering his mother’s estate. By the 1990s, the storied name of Astor was more likely to appear in tabloid headlines than in the society pages.
The once-mighty Astor fortune had dissipated through estate taxes, charitable giving, and generations of beneficiaries dividing the spoils. With only an estimated $30 million left by the 2000s, the dynasty was a hollow shell of its former self.
The dramatic fall of the Astor empire mirrored that of New York high society more broadly. By the late twentieth century, old money and pedigree mattered little in a diverse, fast-changing city. The Astors failed to adapt, rendering them relics.
For over two centuries, the Astor family shaped New York real estate and society. Its decline was equally pivotal in signaling a more democratic, egalitarian era where legacy counted for less. The age of dynastic control had finally come to a close.
The last Astor
The long-fading Astor dynasty finally breathed its last with the death of Anthony “Tony” Dryden Marshall in 2013. As the only surviving son of Vincent Astor, Marshall inherited a dwindling fortune which he then depleted entirely through family infighting.
Born in 1924, Marshall dropped out of college to join the Marines during World War II. After the war, he bounced between careers, dabbling in acting and journalism before settling into a role managing Vincent’s money.
Upon inheriting $5 million in 1959, Marshall promptly sold off valuable Astor assets, like Manhattan townhouses. His lavish spending left little wealth for the next generation. In his later years, Marshall notoriously exploited and isolated his elderly mother, Brooke Astor. He stole millions from her estate while allowing her beloved country home to deteriorate.
The resulting court battle portrayed Marshall as a greedy heir who squeezed every last penny from his inheritance. He was eventually convicted of fraud and elder abuse.
Marshall’s own son, Philip, cried in court while testifying about his father’s cruelty toward Brooke. The ugly family feud over Brooke Astor’s money cemented the Astors’ diminished status.
When Anthony Marshall finally passed away at age 90, few mourned the unscrupulous heir. With his death, the famed dynasty was reduced to a footnote in New York’s history.
The meteoric rise and ignominious fall of the Astor fortune makes for an American tale of ambition, opulence, and ultimate decay. This epic family saga embodied the spirit of old New York society for generations. But that world inevitably faded, leaving behind only memories of the Astors’ former grandeur.
Spanning more than two centuries, the dramatic saga of the Astor dynasty epitomizes both the dazzling wealth and eventual decline of New York’s old money elite. Through ambition and cunning, the German immigrant John Jacob Astor built America’s first great fortune and cemented his family’s status atop Gilded Age high society. But over generations of excess and mismanagement, the once-mighty Astors faded from prominence, their empire dwindling to a shadow of past glory. Though the aura of the storied name endures, the Astors ultimately proved incapable of preserving their dynasty in a changing world that left them behind.