Thursday, August 18, 2011

The First Four Hundred

Along Fifth Avenue. 12:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, August 18, 2011. Sunny and very warm but not humid; a beautiful summer day in New York.

In our ongoing retrospective during the last two weeks of this summer month, today we are running a two parter on the history of the Astor family in New York.

I can’t recall what motivated me to write this piece at the time. The Astors were long a historical family in New York, and ten years ago when I wrote this, Brooke Astor, the last wife of the last American Astor son bearing the name, was still a very prominent member of the social and philanthropic scene. The business about her Will and the courtroom saga that grew out of it was still years away.

We were motivated to re-publish this history in this retrospective because this month Quest magazine is also running its 18th annual 400 List which was initially inspired by the famous 19th century List that was associated with Caroline (Mrs. William B.) Astor who ruled society in New York in the last quarter of the 19th century.

I had started this list in Quest in 1993 simply as an editorial amusement, fully a century after the original. Much to my surprise many people took it seriously. Our idea was that these people – we came up with four hundred current names – were the most active people in social New York, or they were members of “old” families.

Such an undertaking is of course impossibly inaccurate in New York which has a diversity of social groups, all of whom are important to those who belong. So this idea of mine was to amuse through anachronism. Nevertheless, it serves many other purposes, as it turns out, over which none of us have control. People are interested in people, and lists are people; that simple. The Quest 400 today defines, however broadly, that segment of the population today that is “society.”

Before the Age of the Glass Ceiling, there was the age in which women were chattel and the idea of equality with men was thought of by men as absurd or even as blasphemous. This was the popular consensus and “upstanding” women often seconded it.

Many women, however, at least the smart ones, knew none of this was true. However, in the age where only men voted and women therefore had no political power, women like Caroline Astor found other channels to obtain political power. She had great wealth behind her, it is true. She also had a natural fortitude that probably was enhanced by her husband’s lack of interest in her.

A woman like Caroline Astor today would be a dominant figure in either government or business on one level or another. She knew how to create and use power. When she was finally vanquished from her throne which she had retained for decades, it was by another woman, Alva Vanderbilt. A generation younger, Vanderbilt was naturally fresh and feisty and had a husband even richer than Astor’s. She later abandoned her role as social queen and went on to become a force in the Suffragette Movement. But that was long after she had broken Mrs. A’s rule and established her own as a social matron in New York.
Alva Vanderbilt. Caroline Astor.
The idea of Society is mainly regarded as amusement to entertain ourselves with records of frippery and luxury and the superficial. It is rarely taken “seriously” by anyone publicly. Until they feel the desire to belong. This usually happens quite naturally when a man – or as it is nowadays – or a woman acquires a great wealth and/or political power and wants to “be accepted,” or “belong.” Wanting to “belong” is common to most of us; an axiom of civilization, and a natural instinct. The ultimate way of belonging is to possess power over our peers. Power at that level may be benign in appearance, but it is never accidental, and it is rarely challenged.

The men in the Astor family made the money. The women, however, made the rules. That has applied down through two centuries. The money made the men powerful in their business and club worlds. By the third generation, the women made them wusses and showed them up.

The exception could be William Waldorf Astor, known as Waldorf, a nephew of Caroline Astor. Furious that his aunt Lina usurped the name, casting herself as the titular head of the family in society. It annoyed him so much he moved to England where he bought his way into society and eventually became a viscount, a newspaper owner, and a bigger deal than any American member of his family. He was also the father-in-law of Nancy Astor, another American woman who made the rules. Like it or not.
Ten years ago, Jerry Patterson, a former senior vice-president at Sotheby's, former managing editor of The Art Newsletter, and author of several books on New York City social history published The First Four Hundred; Mrs. Astor's New York in the Gilded Age (Rizzoli/New York). In it, Mr. Patterson traces the genesis of the term "The Four Hundred" which has been used for the past hundred years in the American vernacular in referring to rich and socially powerful (as well as pompous) people.

The First Four Hundred; Mrs. Astor's New York in the Gilded Age (Rizzoli/New York). Click cover to order.
Legend had it that Mrs. Astor's amanuensis, the epicene and epicurean Ward McAllister created the term, claiming the number to be the capacity of Mrs. Astor's private ballroom. The actual list that he released to the press in 1892, however, contained a few dozen less than four hundred. So it looks like it was just a good round number that the press fell for hook, line and sinker. 

To be fair, there were lists in New York at the time, and restaurant capacities, which numbered four hundred max. Delmonico's restaurant was one. The local Cotillion dances were another. But no one seemed to notice, including Mr. McAllister, when his list of Mrs. Astor's 400 contained only 319 names. Which is just as well, considering that it would have been a lot less catchy, and a lot more politically (and inappropriately) subversive sounding, had it been known as Mrs. Astor's 319. 

Mr. McAllister, whom the papers dubbed "Mr. Make-a-Lister," was possibly the city and the country's first society flack (which is what they used to call public relations men and women), although unlike his modern counterpart, he seemed to have done it gratis — out of his love (platonic) for a woman (Mrs. Astor). 

His role in the life of Mrs. Astor and social New York remains a historically important one to this day. His closest exponent in modern times is the unassailable George Trescher, who is famous today in fund-raising and social circles for organizing public events from charity balls to even the occasional very special wedding (Caroline Kennedy) as well as funerals (Jacqueline Onassis). 

Mr. Trescher, however, is in business with a large and very competent staff and large quarters. Coincidentally, George Trescher, reflecting Ward McAllister, enjoys a very close and important professional relationship with today's Mrs. Astor (Brooke Astor, grand-daughter-in-law of the Mrs. Astor), whose well-publicized social ascension (and philanthropy) at the end of the 20th century, is said to have been masterminded, at least in part, by him. Mr. Trescher, however, begs to differ and claims that his relationship with Mrs. Astor is strictly social, although he has assisted her on putting together certain events for The New York Public Library, the New York Hospital and the Met. 

Peter Stuyvesant.
Peter Cooper.
However, all that aside, Mr. Patterson's book about Mrs. Astor and her kind is a fascinating and fact-filled story about New York then, which is, not so amazingly, quite like New York now. The people that is. Technology has changed much in a century but whither thou goest a pretty little head filled with clever ambitions, and men and women willing to take orders (i.e. people with the rent to meet), technology has eons to travel before it can match that. 

New York City, in its social history, beginning with the Dutch who came here to start a business and make some people rich back in Holland, right up to the moment of this writing (January 2001), has always paid attention to "who's on first." And it was always about the money. Always. In the 17th century, the nasty and detested Peter Stuyvesant, wielded the financial power as the agent for the East India Company (who snookered the natives out of Manhattan island). Stuyvesant's descendants enjoyed social and financial power for generations after that. 

John Jacob Astor the first, a butcher's son from Waldorf, Germany came to this country toward the end of the 18th century. He made his first fortune as a fur trader, most specifically of beaver pelts and in the opium trade. In those days a fur hat was not only a luxury but a necessity. Opium was the tranquillizer of its day. Queen Victoria always had her laudanum (an opiate) before bedtime. The first Mr. Astor's business vision also, incidentally, would impress even today's "masters of the universe," for he made a large part of his fortune selling beaver belts to the Chinese, hence the opium connection. 

With the money he made from beaver pelts, etc., he bought Manhattan real estate. Manhattan real estate in the early 19th century extended about from the southern tip of the island to as high as Houston Street today. The rest of the island was rocks and hills, with an occasional farm. The people who owned the land were often (what was then called) "land poor." A lot of land that nobody wanted. No one had even thought of Park Avenue then. 

When he died at 84 in 1848, he left the largest fortune in America: between $20 and $30 million today. Supposedly he was asked on his deathbed if he had any regrets and he responded: “Yes I should have bought more real estate.” Put in today's terms: you could have bought the entire upper East Side of Manhattan for a few thousand bucks. Even Mr. Astor wasn't that prescient however. He simply bought lots that hugged the Main Stem of the Big Apple — Broadway, about as high as what is 14th Street today. His son William B. Astor Sr. was a good son: he continued buying up as high as 46th Street.

By the second half of the 19th century, the name Peter Stuyvesant, long dead and no longer the loathesome and irascible martinet, was considered Very High Old New York. There were many of his ancestors, still rich from his efforts (and from subsequent family mergers), who still carried the name — although usually as a first name. The neighborhood in those days, was Washington Square. The town's most venerated tycoon, after JJ Astor, the commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, lived on Washington Square.
Washington Square residents John Jacob Astor III and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. John Jacob Astor III was the father of William Waldorf Astor, brother of William B. Jr. (Caroline's husband) and titular head of the family. He denied his own brother the opportunity to work in the family business and ironically his son and only child, William Waldorf, had no interest in it and eventually moved to England.
According to Jerry Patterson, "Peter Cooper was the most respected New Yorker of his time; in the long history of the city he may be its most universally esteemed citizen. When he died in 1883, the Cuban patriot José Martí, then an exile in the city, wrote that 'he lived the Sermon on the Mount,' and there were innumerable other commendations. However you wanted to improve New York, you could count on Peter Cooper: he gave money, he chaired innumerable civic betterment meetings, he was a leader in the campaigns for better fire and police protection for the city, for better sanitation, for public education, and improved conditions in prisons. In 1859 he established The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the only private full-scholarship college in the country. He had himself attended school only fifty-two days in his poverty-stricken youth."

THE Mrs. Astor. She was born Caroline Webster Schermerhorn. The Webster was a tribute to her mother's best friend, the wife of Daniel Webster. Born in 1830, she was a seventh generation New Yorker. Her original New York ancestor Jan Jansen Schermerhorn came from Holland in 1643. Long before the first John Jacob Astor, he too was a trader in beaver skins. 
Caroline Astor, painted by Carolus Duran, always appeared before public in her black wig and diamonds, often described as being "lit up like a Christmas tree." She was the grandmother of Vincent Astor and his half-brother John Jacob Astor VI. William Backhouse Astor Jr., younger brother of John Jacob Astor III, had a large but smaller percentage of the Astor Estate and spent his time on his yacht or at his estate in Rhinebeck.
In 1848, Caroline, always known as Lina, married a childhood friend, William Backhouse Astor Jr. The second son, Mr. Astor, inherited only about a third of his father's estate — the larger share going to, as if by rules of primogeniture practiced by Europeans, the first born son, John Jacob III — although it was enough to make him (and his descendants) very rich.

His elder brother kept him out of the family business, and so although William was a bright man (graduated first in his class at Columbia University), with a sense of humor and some looks (compared to most of the Astors), his was to be a life of leisure. The young William B. Astors, originally lived in a house (an Astor property) on East 22nd Street. In ten years they had five children — four daughters, and finally a son, John Jacob IV. 
350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street where the Empire State stands today, was the residence of Mrs. Astor. Her mansion is dwarfed by her nephew Waldorf, whose father's house had occupied the plot on the 33rd Street corner. When Waldorf moved to London, he razed his family house and put up the Waldorf Hotel, a shrewdly progressive business decision and humiliating to his aunt Lina now living next to a commercial establishment.
By the mid-1860s, about the time of the birth of her only son, Lina Astor had her eye on a larger purpose: presiding over New York society. The Civil War and its economic boom in the city had brought a lot of new fortunes from commerce, manufacturing as well as wealthy Southern families who had fled their homeland in order to make, preserve or regenerate their fortunes.

These were the nouveau riche of their day. Flashy, gaudy, or just plain parvenu. 

A partial picture of the original ballroom in the 34th Street house.
In establishing herself as a power, which in those days meant, essentially high-matchmaking and restricted socializing, Lina took a few specific steps. The family moved from the 22nd Street house to a much larger brownstone on a property they owned at 350 Fifth Avenue — (where the Empire State Building stands today), with the now fabled ballroom that could only hold … 400.

Lina also dropped the "B" from her husband's name (with its odorous allusion to the outhouse – which most Americans used before the convenience of indoor plumbing). Eventually she even dropped the "William" and had her calling cards printed up: Mrs. Astor.

This moved really annoyed her brother-in-law, JJ Astor III, but Lina didn't care. Her husband also apparently couldn't have cared less. A sportsman now devoted to his horses and his yachts, he and his wife spent less and less time under the same roof. 

In short time, Lina, now established in New York the Mrs. Astor, became a key player in the winter social season of New York. That meant the cotillions, or dances where young men and women met their own kind, and where "the shoddies" (those new fortunes that had recently come on the scene) were kept out of "good society." 
The Astor double mansion at 65th and Fifth which occupied fully one quarter of the entire block between the avenues and 65th and 66th Street. The young Astors occupied the corner section and Mrs. Astor occupied the northern half. Sharing an entrance gallery and the grand ballroom, the two houses were otherwise entirely separate. It was demolished and replaced by Temple Emanu-El.
The Astor art gallery/ballroom in the new mansion on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, a double mansion for Mrs. Astor and her son and his wife and family. Vincent Astor grew up in this house.
Now a woman in her late thirties, she lived a life very independent of her husband. She took her the "duties" of her class very seriously: attending weddings, balls, dinners, private receptions and paying calls. Women who carried out these obligations well were admired for it. Alva Vanderbilt, later Lina Astor's social nemesis, said, "I know of no profession, art, or trade that women are working in today as taxing on mental resources as being a leader of Society."

Although they'd never admit it, there are women today in Alva Vanderbilt's position who feel the same way. 

Lina Astor had an especial fondness for diamonds. As she grew older, never a beauty, and no longer slender, the diamonds took over. She wore a jet-black wig at all times in public, (she was never seen publicly in the light of day — if she had to go out, she was veiled, and often at night too), and swathed in diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds.

Astor and his new young wife (he was 49) and his adored dog who traveled with them to London and was on the Titanic with them returning.
Patterson describes her: "She was not a regal figure. Although tall, she was stout, with heavy jowls. She was dark in an age when blondes were especially admired. Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair magazine …. described her as 'tall, a little on the heavy style, dark, with a slight, but not disfiguring, cast in her eyes ....' She was serene, a quality then especially admired in women. She had the stiff posture of Old New Yorkers and moved in the slow and stately manner cultivated by her Dutch ancestresses after they rose above doing their own housework.

She was not the bustling hostess of the 20th or 21st century, air-kissing arrivals, making introductions…. From Mrs. Astor you got a firm handshake, a cordial but reserved greeting …." In other words, not a lot of laughs. 

She was, however, good natured and when people did not meet with her approval, they knew it because they were excluded. Or rather, in the eyes of her contemporaries, banished. 

She loved clothes as well as jewels. And in Paris, where she kept a large apartment and spent five months every year — from the last week in February to the first week in July, when she returned to open the house in Newport. On her Paris trips, she bought her clothes from Worth, she spoke perfect French, and she entertained the best upper sets of Paris society. This was the great age of Marcel Proust, and no doubt his paths crossed, however, briefly, with Lina Astor.
Beechwood, Mrs. Astor's Newport house which her son inherited and where he married his second wife, the 18-year-old Madeleine Force in the fall of 1911. The house is still in use today.
Ferncliff, William Astor's estate on the Hudson in Rhinebeck. This was the family's guesthouse and gym (with the country's first indoor private swimming pool). Designed by Stanford White, after the main house (Victorian style) was razed in the 1940s at the request of Vincent's second wife Minnie Cushing Astor, the sports house was converted into a private residence and used by Vincent for the rest of his life. Brooke Astor sold it and it is now known as Astor Court and is available for private parties. Chelsea Clinton was married there in 2010.
In her life as the social queen of New York from 1860 to the end of the century, she spent only four months of the year in the city, five months abroad and three months at Newport. Her schedule was carved in marble —- with very few nicked chips (more on that later). And despite her great absence, she still ruled. When she was in the city, everything centered around her social schedule. Her appearance at the Academy of Music (which pre-dated the Met as the theatre of social consequence) was like that of royalty. Her Astor ball (again, the list) was the center of New York social life, and marked the beginning of the social season in New York. Even the hoi polloi and the great unwashed had some awareness of it because her entertainments and cotillions were always covered in details (who was there and what they wore and what they danced to) in all the papers. 

What is so phenomenal, in retrospect, is that Caroline Astor, who really cut a fearsome figure with her peers and contemporaries, was not a beauty, nor charming; not a personality, nor progressive. She just had a good dossier of ancestors and a rich husband who didn't care what she did as long as he didn't have to be a part of it. 
The Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street where the opera company performed and whose opening night was presided over (and ruled) by Caroline Astor. It was her refusal to bend to the wishes and requests of the newer group, including Alva Vanderbilt, that inspired the latter to built the Met to compete with the Academy of Music.
Ward McAllister, in true flack fashion, dubbed her "the Mystic Rose," a reference to the celestial figure in Dante's Paradise, around whom all other figures of Paradise revolve. Evidently, Lina Astor liked the reference and did not discourage it.

Despite his lesser share of the Astor fortune, William Astor had an annual income of about $5 million (or more than $100 million in today's purchasing power). He had zero interest in his wife's social life and notably little patience for it and the characters that fed off it. However, he didn't mind supporting his wife's choices. He devoted himself instead to Ferncliff, the family estate on the Hudson in Rhinebeck with its 500 acres and a driveway a mile long. He transformed an ugly farm into a beautiful forest land and built a mansion that stood until the second wife of his grandson Vincent Astor had it torn down because she thought it was ugly (she later left Vincent also, who then married Brooke Russell, today's Mrs. Astor).
John Jacob Astor IV with his son Vincent Astor.
L. to r.: Ava Willing Astor, the first wife of John J. IV, later Lady Ribblesdale; her daughter Alice Astor; and her son Vincent Astor.
Vincent Astor and his second wife Minnie Cushing on his yacht the Nourmahal, about to embark on a honeymoon cruise. Vincent Astor in his 50s. Although he was the only great Astor philanthropist and his generosity was often sensitive, thoughtful and munificent, on a social basis in mixed company he was often uncomfortable, ornery, difficult and even anti-social in his approach to people.
In 1884, he launched a huge yacht, the first of the great Astor yachts called the Nourmahal. With it, he and his friends sailed mainly up and down the Eastern coast of this continent with parties of attractive and non-attached women. Lina never joined him. She claimed that she got sea-sick being on a boat, although her sailing to and from France every year never was a problem. 

Mr. Astor was an early visitor to Florida when it was a mecca for rich men who couldn't wait to get away from their wives and relax down among the sheltering palms. He made his headquarters in Jacksonville, entertained his friends, watched over his investments and bought real estate.
The Nourmahal. Vincent Astor later turned it over to the U.S. Government for military use during the Second World War.
End part I.

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