The Education of an Astor, or A Name That Rings Like Bullion
The irony of Archie–man on the run, hiding his face as he crossed the familiar Manhattan precincts of his youth–was not lost on the Astor heir himself. He had been, and still considered himself, one of the princes of the city. In fact, much of the real estate he traversed during that hansom cab ride in 1900 was owned by his family.
The story of the Astor wealth was legend, and Archie could recite it chapter and verse. He had been schooled in the family history and in the expectations that it created. Archie understood only too well the burden involved. As the eldest son in his huge family (he had seven surviving brothers and sisters), he carried a particularly heavy load. All of the Chanler siblings prided themselves on their individuality, on their strong-willed and often eccentric ways. They all professed an indifference to money. Why not? They had plenty of it. Piles of it had been amassed by their forebears, and none of the current generation–least of all Archie–wanted to spend their lives the way their great-grandfather William Backhouse Astor had.
Nicknamed “Landlord of New York,”William Backhouse Astor was both reviled and envied in his lifetime. Hewas a “hard dreary looking old man and the richest in the world,” in the estimation of Lord Rosebery, the future prime minister of England. Six feet tall but stoopshouldered, William B. Astor spent his life hunched over his contracts and leases. He had inherited from his father, John Jacob Astor, vast stretches of Manhattan real estate, and as the population boomed in nineteenth-century New York, the value of the land rose exponentially. By 1860 tenement slums with a population density of 290,000 per square mile became William B. Astor’s specialty. The arithmetic was simple: one block filled with tenements could generate at least twice the revenue of a similar block with more-spacious middle-class housing. As immigrants poured into the city, the Astor name became synonymous with misery. When one newcomer proudly announced to a Board of Health inspector that his house was owned by Astor, the official shot back, “More’s the pity.”
William B. was the caretaker for the vast empire his father had acquired; he had little interest in building or transforming the landscape. He would just as soon let others erect housing for the poor on his land; he would merely collect the rents. Being a pious man, he could then blame others for–or claim ignorance of–the inhumane conditions that prevailed on his property. But of course his ignorance of conditions only went so far. Eager to maintain the status quo and keep his coffers full, he did his best to defy all attempts at tenement reform and for years succeeded in delaying the construction of subways that would allow immigrants to live in more distant parts of the city. Besides, in his view, it was laziness that kept a man in a miserable tenement with no ventilation, plumbing, or light. It was not William B.’s problem. One had only to look at his father’s example to see the opportunity available to any man willing to work hard–a belief commonly held by William B. and other plutocrats who had inherited vast fortunes without lifting a finger.
Archie knew as well of the more colorful saga of his great-greatgrandfather, who had amassed the original fortune. The family patriarch’s saga was indeed impressive. As legend has it, John Jacob Astor, twenty-year-old son of a poor butcher in Waldorf, Germany, arrived in Baltimore in 1784 with seven flutes and about five pounds sterling, and parlayed it into a fortune conservatively estimated at $20 million, a sum that staggered the imagination of his contemporaries. In 1848, the year Astor died, the richest man in Boston left behind only $2 million. John Jacob’s winter passage to America was in steerage, and he subsisted on salt beef, biscuits, and dreams of what lay ahead. Just short of Baltimore the ship became trapped in ice, and there it remained stranded for two months–enough time for Astor to hatch a plan. One of his fellow German passengers was in the fur trade, and he passed the time by telling stories of the fortunes that could be made by buying American furs for next to nothing and selling them in England for exorbitant prices.
Astor’s course was set. Arriving in New York, he went to work for a furrier, and spent the following summer beating pelts to keep moths out of them. Astor became a keen student of the fur business, and within several years had set up his own shop. Shouldering a backpack stuffed with at least sixty pounds of trade items, he tramped hundreds of miles through the wilderness, struck tough bargains with the trappers, and then brought the pelts to London, where he sold them at great profit. One beaver pelt in London might bring the equivalent of three dollars–the same price as a musket, which Astor could then trade with an Indian for ten more beaver skins.
While in London, Astor cemented a deal with the firm of Astor and Broadwood (his older brother was a partner in the company), manufacturers of musical instruments. He served as New York agent for their pianos, flutes, and violins–valued and scarce commodities in New York–and, in the process, helped finance his burgeoning fur business. He opened a small shop in Manhattan that bore the unusual sign furs and pianos. One of John Jacob’s original pianos remains at Rokeby, a reminder of the Astor patriarch’s early strivings in commerce.
As his business grew, so did John Jacob’s ambition. He leaped into the China trade, eventually sending his own fleet of ships to Canton, where furs could be bartered for tea, silk, and porcelain. With a ruthlessness and cunning that would be admired–and copied–by later robber barons, Astor turned his American Fur Company into the country’s first great monopoly. Other successful merchants and financiers would hang paintings in their offices to display their refined taste; Astor preferred to hang a fine fur in his counting room, which he would stroke and boast of its worth in China.
As he piled up more and more money, John Jacob turned his eye toward investing it. All he had to do was look around and see the changes that had transformed Manhattan. When he had arrived in New York in 1784, the city’s 23,000 residents lived largely below Cortlandt Street, at the southern tip of the island. By 1800 the population had more than doubled, and buildings had sprouted nearly a mile farther north. Betting that the city would continue that constant move northward, Astor began buying up property just beyond the built-up sections of the city. It was the future he was buying. In around 1810, John Jacob sold a lot near Wall Street for $8,000. The purchaser was certain that he had just fleeced Astor. Gloating, the new owner said, “Why, Mr. Astor, in a few years this lot will be worth twelve thousand dollars.” “Very true,” Astor replied, “but now you shall see what I will do with this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars.” And he was right.
Astor’s real estate holdings made him as rich as Croesus, his very name conjuring up lucre. “John Jacob Astor,” the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” opined, “[is] a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion.” The newly minted millionaire was disdained for his peasant aura, his heavily accented and grammatically fractured English, and his alarming table manners. In 1815, James Gallatin noted in his diary that the fur peddler had dined at their home and “ate his ice-cream and peas with a knife”–reason enough for his father, the patrician Jeffersonian statesman, Albert Gallatin, to decline Astor’s offer of a partnership in the American Fur Company. Five years later, John Jacob once more discomfited the Gallatins, by dining at their home and wiping his dirty fingers on their daughter’s white sleeve.
Like a character out of Dickens, the richer Astor grew, the more miserly he became. “I used to know him, when an ignoble dealer in Musk Rat skins,” James Kirke Paulding, novelist of old Knickerbocker society, wrote contemptuously, “but cut his acquaintance when he became a Millionaire, for found he grew mean faster than he grew rich, and that his avarice increased with his means of being generous. He lived miserably and died miserably.” Stories of his mean-spiritedness were legion. This “monarch of the counting-room” was tarnished by his greed, according to a scathing biographical sketch of the millionaire in the February 1865 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:
“The roll-book of his possessions was his Bible. He scanned it fondly and saw with quiet but deep delight the catalogue of his property lengthening from month to month. The love of accumulation grew with his years until it ruled him like a tyrant. If at fifty he possessed his millions, at sixty-five his millions possessed him.”
Though he was reputed to “now and then, bestow small sums in charity,” the magazine claimed that “we have failed to get trustworthy evidence of a single instance of his doing so.” In his final years, however, he was talked into leaving behind a gift to the city that had made him rich: a library open to the public. Though the nuances of the English language eluded him, Astor was particularly fascinated by literary men, and in his semi-retirement years he frequently entertained writers and poets in his home. He befriended Washington Irving and chose him as one of the executors of his estate; he also employed the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck as his personal secretary for sixteen years. (The poet once made the mistake of telling his employer in jest that he had no need of millions, that he could live happily on several hundred dollars a year–as a cruel joke, that is exactly what Astor left Halleck as an annuity.) The Astor Library, John Jacob hoped, would serve as a permanent monument to him and to his fortune–and perhaps counter his infamous reputation as a tightwad. Not everyone was convinced. The press, led by the irascible James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the mass-circulation New York Herald,
howled. Calling John Jacob “a self-invented money-making machine,” he declared that by rights Astor should bestow half his fortune on the people of New York–after all, it was they who had created his wealth. In fact, Astor left about two and a half percent of his estate, a little over half a million dollars, for benevolent purposes.
The largest chunk, $400,000, was allotted to fund the library, the rest given to a small assortment of charities: the German Society of New York, the German Reformed Congregation, the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, the Institution for the Blind, the Society for the Relief of Half Orphans and Destitute Children, and the New York Lying-In Asylum. Astor had a perfect horror of beggars, but obviously made an exception when it came to the poor in his native village of Waldorf, to whose care he pledged $50,000. The rest of his $20 million went to his family.
The reformer Horace Mann denounced Astor’s parsimony as nothing short of “insanity,” depicting him as “hoarding wealth for the base love of wealth, hugging to his breast, in his dying hour, the memory of his gold and not of his Redeemer; gripping his riches till the scythe of death cut off his hands and he was changed, in the twinkling of an eye, from being one of the richest men that ever lived in this world to being one of the poorest souls who ever went out of it.” In Astor’s defense, public philanthropy–with some notable exceptions– was not commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century; but the immense scale of his wealth in an era before the personal income tax, combined with the fact that he himself had come from poverty, made his gifts–with the exception of the library–appear paltry and, in fact, reinforced the stereotype of him as a mean-spirited old miser. Archie was well aware of the contempt the populist press had for his forebear, and was determined that his life would be different. As heir to a fortune, Archie felt a keen sense of responsibility toward others; it was part of his patrician notion of noblesse oblige. Nonetheless, the sheer drama of John Jacob’s life–from poor immigrant to fur peddler traipsing through the wilderness to merchant prince whose empire stretched from China to the streets of Manhattan–had a swashbuckling style that Archie and his siblings couldn’t help but admire. John Jacob’s energy and dash, and even his touch of eccentricity (attributes that could also be ascribed to Archie and his siblings), somehow managed to elude entirely his son and principal heir, William Backhouse Astor. Even the patriarch’s uncouth manners lent him a comic edge–a humanity–that his somber son could never attain. At John Jacob’s funeral, James Gallatin–who had once sneered at the senior Astor’s boorish manners–was among his pallbearers. In a fitting touch, the family waiters marched with napkins pinned to their sleeves at the rear of the funeral procession.
Of course, by the time of John Jacob’s death in 1848, he had long since been accepted–however grudgingly–into the fabric of the old Knickerbocker society that ruled New York. Having enough money will do that in New York. Besides, in 1818 his son, William Backhouse, had made a most propitious marriage to Margaret Armstrong, a woman with impeccable social credentials who helped raise the standing of the Astors. Margaret Armstrong was the daughter of General John Armstrong Jr. and Alida Livingston, one of the heirs to the vast Livingston lands–nearly a million acres–in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. The Livingstons were among the great landed aristocratic families in New York dating back to the seventeenth century, and they ruled the Hudson Valley like lords of a feudal empire. After serving as minister to France, General Armstrong built a country house on Livingston land overlooking the Hudson and christened it La Bergerie, “the sheep pen,” in reference to the merino sheep he imported at the suggestion of Napoleon.
The Astor name rose immeasurably in social importance, tied as it was to the Livingston-Armstrong blue bloods. John Jacob was delighted at his family’s enhanced status–but also crafty enough to dictate a marriage settlement that would ensure that the Astor fortune never passed out of family hands. To prevent that possibility, John Jacob paid the bride a lump sum (though large, it paled in comparison to the ever-growing Astor fortune); in return she gave up her dower rights. Thus a precedent was set for future Astor marriages. The marriage between William B. and Margaret Armstrong took place in the dining room at La Bergerie in 1818; the following year, Margaret gave birth to their first child in the Rosewood Room and named her Emily, after the heroine of a popular Gothic romance.
Over the years, seven more children were born to them (two died in infancy), and the growing brood wintered in Manhattan and summered along the Hudson. Eager to become part of the landed gentry and to have his own country seat–to say nothing of pleasing his wife–William B. Astor purchased La Bergerie from the general in 1836 for $50,000. Margaret renamed the estate Rokeby, as the landscape reminded her of the scenery evoked by Sir Walter Scott in his romantic poem of the same name. Though he might own the place, and even allow his wife to rename it, William B. still had not won absolute sovereignty over the estate. General Armstrong was not about to cede his primacy, and when he arrived at Rokeby every summer, he took his place at the head of the dining room table until his death in 1843. During his final summer in the house, General Armstrong, unable to negotiate the staircase, lived downstairs and set the tone of the household. He exhibited uncharacteristic kindness, dispensing small cakes that he kept in his wardrobe to the children at Rokeby, including Archie’s mother Maddie, William B.’s granddaughter, who was then not quite five years old.
At Rokeby, William B. also had to contend with his bachelor brother-in-law Kosciusko Armstrong (so named by his father in honor of the Polish hero of the American Revolution), who refused to move out of the house altogether. He was deeply attached to the place and was outraged over its sale. “Uncle Koosey,” as he was called by the children, kept his original room, and spurned any attempt to improve it. Not for him the fancy new marble mantelpieces being installed throughout the house by the Astors. The wallpaper in his room and the original wooden fireplace remained unchanged as symbols of his obstinacy. During the cold months, when the unheated Rokeby was closed up, he lived at the Union Club in Manhattan, but he would make the occasional winter foray to Rokeby. If he forgot the key to his room, he would use a ladder and crawl through his second-floor window. He dressed as he pleased, offending the sensibilities of the new Astor regime. Uncle Koosey once came down to breakfast decked out in bright green. “He should never be allowed to dress himself,” gasped one straight-backed relative. Uncle Koosey’s unconventional ways were a welcome bit of comic relief from the dour William B., and that eccentric tone would permeate Rokeby and continue to flourish from one generation to the next.
Until his mid-fifties, William B. Astor remained under the thumb of two demanding tyrants: his father in Manhattan, and his father-in-law at his country estate (to say nothing of Uncle Koosey’s relentless presence). No wonder he became stoop-shouldered and grim. From the outset, William’s life was shaped by duty. He had to take on the onerous responsibilities of being the firstborn son of the richest man in the country, even though he was not in fact the eldest son. His brother John Jacob II was a year older than he; but as the heir apparent grew older, it became clear that there was something wrong with him. He suffered from wild mood swings, ranging from violent episodes to catatonic spells. Try as he might, the senior John Jacob could find no cure for his son. Time spent in an asylum did not seem to help; so, resigned to his son’s condition, the elder John Jacob built a comfortable home for him that he staffed with a doctor and servants. John Jacob II–referred to as an “imbecile” by the newspapers of the day–spent the rest of his days in seclusion, lost in his illness, though he had brief periods of lucidity when he would write poetry. (This strain of madness and poetry would also run through the generations.)
The paterfamilias turned his attention to young William; like a proper rich German, he sent his son abroad to study at the universities in Heidelberg and Göttingen. A serious student, William immersed himself in the study of ancient civilizations. Among his classmates at Göttingen was the moody philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. A life of scholarship and travel appealed to William; but while in Europe in 1816, planning an elaborate tour of the Near East with his tutor, he was summoned home by his father. At twenty-three years old, the time had come for him to begin his apprenticeship in the family business. “He was practically taught the art of making money,” the New York Herald
noted in an article about William B., adding poignantly, “The youth studied his father’s methods and began to live his father’s life.”
The young Astor dutifully took on the world of leases and rents and made it his own; it was said that he could recite the rent rolls by heart–and there were thousands of buildings under his purview. And yet he was basically a glorified accountant for his father, “a very good and trusted one–but an underling, nevertheless,” a friend said of him. He was prudent and careful–and boring; by comparison, his father seemed almost lighthearted and gay. John Jacob loved theater and music and was particularly charmed to hear his granddaughter Emily sing old German songs in her clear soprano voice; her gloomy father preferred that she stick to hymns.
After William’s death in 1875, Harper’s Weekly
described this colorless man as follows: “Of the late William B. Astor it is said that he used no tobacco and little wine. . . . He seldom was out late, did not attend theatres, did not get excited, nor indulge in profane adjectives, sported not with dogs and guns . . . never kept a fast horse, never gambled. His whole life was simple and orderly.” And then, as a final indictment: “He minded his own business.” His attention to detail paid off. By the end of William B.’s life, he had doubled or even tripled the value of the family fortune, leaving behind at least $40 or $50 million. Some estimates were even higher. Fluctuations in the real estate market in New York made it hard to pinpoint the exact worth of William B. Astor’s estate. The New York Times
estimated that his estate equaled “one hundred millions of dollars, even at present reduced value of real property on this island.” A contemporary, industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper, put the figure closer to $200 million.
Whatever the final tally, William B. Astor’s wealth was staggering. But it seemed to bring him little pleasure. His household, both in the city and the country, was somber and exuded an air of eighteenthcentury formality. Strict rules dictated his children’s behavior: they could neither wear bright clothing nor laugh out loud. After bidding their parents good night, the children were not permitted to turn their backs to them; they had to step backward out of the room.
Silence prevailed at the dinner table as no conversation was allowed. William B. himself was a man of few words. His friend Philip Hone, the mid-nineteenth-century diarist who chronicled New York society, wrote that Astor “thinks twice before he speaks once.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Archie and Amelie by Donna M. Lucey. Copyright © 2006 by Donna M. Lucey. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.