Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Part II: Vincent, the Astor Who Gave Away the Money

Standing, l. to r.: Henry Cushing, his wife, Minnie and Vincent Astor, William and Babe Paley, Jock and Betsey Whitney. Front row: Sarah Roosevelt Whitney, Tony Mortimer, Kate Cushing, Amanda Mortimer and Kate Roosevelt Whitney. July 1947, the marriage of William and Babe Paley at Greentree, the Manhasset, Long Island estate of the Whitneys. Henry was the surviving brother of the sisters. The Roosevelt Whitney sisters were the children of Betsey and James Roosevelt's marriage who later took the name of their stepfather. The Mortimer children were Babe's by her previous marriage to Stanley Mortimer.
In April 1912, with the loss of his father on the sinking of the Titanic, Vincent Astor, age 20 ½ became the richest young man in America. His mother who never had any time for him anyway, had moved to London after she divorced his father. His loving grandmother the Mrs. Astor had died four years before, and now he was left living alone in the great double Astor mansion on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue with 20 in staff. Because his half-brother John Jacob Astor VI – son of the father and his second wife, Madeleine Astor who was two years younger than Vincent – had not yet been born, Vincent inherited an estimated $100 million (or several billion in today’s currency). Unprepared, he nevertheless stepped up to the plate and made some radical changes in the way Astor money was invested. These changes would reverberate right down to this day.

Col. Jack was finally “returning” to America
after his self-imposed exile that he had taken because of “that woman” and it killed him. The boy would never get over that juxtaposition of fate and how he was victimized by it. He blamed it entirely on his stepmother and then her child, Vincent’s half-brother who was born four months after his father’s death. So blind was his hatred of Madeleine Force Astor that Vincent came to believe that her child, JJVI wasn’t even his father’s. He took this absurdity with him through his entire life, and he even foisted the notion by rumor into the next generation that followed. His last wife, Brooke Astor also continued it at times that suited her condemnation of her husband’s half-brother, especially after he contested Vincent’s will.

Except for bequests totalling $10 million to his stepmother (who also received a couple million on marrying), to his sister, and his yet unborn half-brother (who would be named John Jacob VI, Vincent inherited the entire American Astor Family Estate. (ed’s note: There was an English Astor Family Estate also, that we belonged to Col. Jack’s uncle, JJIII, who had been head of the family; and whose son William Waldorf – known as Waldorf – Astor moved to England ostensibly to get away from his relatives.)

Helen and Vincent Astor, circa 1930. The marriage was already an old one and the couple spent a good deal of the time away from each other.
At age twenty and a half, Vincent Astor now owned whole blocks of business property in the Wall Street area, in the Broadway area, on 14th, 15th, 26, 33rd, 34th, 42nd, 43rd, 44th Streets and all the way up Broadway to 150th Street, the land on which the Empire State would be built), four hotels, including the St. Regis, entire blocks of apartment houses (including the Apthorp at 79th and Broadway – still standing), hundreds of tenements and warehouses, as well as dozens of raw acreage on the Upper East and West Side of Manhattan and in the Bronx. He was also proprietor of the 3000 acre estate in Rhinebeck, the oceanfront cottage, Beechwood, in Newport, and two yachts, the Noma and the Nourmahal.

The estimated value of these holdings were $150 million (or approximately $17 billion in today’s currency – although Forbes estimates Col. Jack’s net worth at the time of his death was about $37 billion in today’s currency).

The boy immediately quit Harvard and went to work in the family office.
His wealth attracted constant attention from the press, the kind accorded today to movie stars and British royalty. The day he turned 21, the New York Times reported at length that a crowd gathered outside his offices just to see him become officially the richest young man in America.

The richest young man was appalled when he learned he owned slums, and a lot of them. He had been brought up so removed from reality that he hadn’t even known slums existed. His trustees were appalled that he was appalled. They encouraged him to build bigger yachts, take longer trips rather than worry. He would do this, but he would also soon begin divesting himself of these properties.

The Astors had never been philanthropic. The first John Jacob, who died the richest man in America in 1847, contributed to the library which took his name, but he had no interest in charity. Vincent, by his natural social conscience and evident sensitivity to the basic needs for survival, a member of the post-Industrial Revoluton generation (the boomers of their day).

Concerned especially about the children, h turned a million dollar piece of property in Harlem into a playground. He built a playground space in Central Park saying it was better to have dead grass in the park than sick children in the tenements. When told that some of his apartments on the West Side were being used as brothels, he unabashedly went round and knocked on every door (outraging scores of his tenants) looking for them because he could not bear to profit from vice. He also built an orphanage for “abandoned children” in Dutchess County, where he also donated his time, arranging summer boating excursions and picnics to get the slum children out of the steaming city.

120 East End Avenue at 85th Street, designed by Charles A. Platt, built by Vincent Astor in 1931, same year as the completion of the Empire State Building on his family's land, as well as the completion of the new Waldorf-Astoria at 51st and Park, and Rockefeller Center. Vincent built a 10-square foot penthouse for himself, later resided in by Minnie and later Brooke Astor.
Vincent’s great—great-grandfather, the first Astor, simply bought land, especially that which was located along or near Broadway which at the beginning of the 19th century was still mainly an old native Indian trail that ran up and across the island from the southern to the northern trip, none of which he ever sold but only rented.

Vincent changed that. He built a subdivision on 322 acres in Port Washington with private beach, casino, tennis courts and bridle paths. In the Bronx he built the first fireproof apartment house, converting an entire block into low rent units. He did the same in what was then the blighted area between 77th and 79th Street between York Avenue and the East River. He also built luxury apartment houses on Astor property surrounding Carl Schurz Park near Gracie Mansion and the East River, including 120 East End Avenue, a luxury apartment house where he created for himself a 10,000 square foot apartment on one floor, the largest in New York.

In 1914, at 23, Vincent Astor married Helen Huntington, a Dutchess County neighbor whom he’d known since childhood. Her father had been a kind of surrogate father to the young man and it was often said that he married her to further cement his relationship with the family.

In 1917 when the U.S. entered the War in Europe, Vincent donated his father’s yacht, the Nourmahal to the U.S. Navy. He also put millions into the Liberty Loan, turned Ferncliff over to the government for hospital use and joined up himself, while Helen Astor joined the ambulance corps in France.

Ava, Lady Ribblesdale, Vincent's mother, circa 1935.
Alice Astor, Vincent's younger sister in the mid-1920s. Brother and sister often fought and when they did "people cleared the room." When advised that she should be more forgiving of her brother, that blood was thicker than water, Alice retorted, "Vincent has cut off my water."
When the War was over, however, the couple who shared little in common besides their social backgrounds, began to lead separate lives. Vincent turned out to have remarkably mature business instincts, although he was very prudent as an investor (he once kept as much as $50 million in municipals in lots not larger than $25,000). He learned early to keep his own counsel and be responsible for himself. In other ways, that isolation would hurt him and those around him, for the boyhood that was denied him emerged after he was a grown man, and was never put to rest.

He was temperamental, impatient, dependent and naive about the needs of others around him. He fought constantly with his sister Alice. Also a victim of the same monstrous mother, Alice resented Vincent’s financial power and was not shy about it: people cleared the room when they argued. Once, a friend counseling Alice about her not speaking to her brother, reminded her that “blood is thicker than water,” to which she replied, “Well Vincent has cut off my water.”

Vincent also hated his half-brother who was growing up to be a handsome young man with all the Astor attributes and none of the physical flaws. Because of it he never really knew the boy who bore their father’s name – another issue of resentment on Vincent’s part. Jakey, as the sixth JJ Astor was called had also been deprived of a father as well as equal inheritance. His share of the estate amounted to 2% of his elder half-brother Vincent who, of course saw nothing inequitable about that and so did nothing to amend it. (ed.’s note: JJ Astor V was a cousin of JJ IV, the son of Waldorf and became Lord Astor of Hever).

With the means to indulge his boyhood fantasies, indulge he did.
He loved cars and trains and planes. At one time he kept more than 30 cars in his garages at Rhinebeck. He installed a miniature train equipped to carry up to 20 passengers over three quarters of a mile of track also in Rhinebeck at Ferncliff. He later duplicated the train and rails at his house in Bermuda. He had an elaborate system of electric toy trains in his Manhattan apartment with which he often played after dinner. He bought his first plane, an amphibian in 1915 when he was 24, and for the rest of his life, he commuted up the Hudson and elsewhere with his own pilots.

The six-year-old John Jacob Astor VI, born four months after his father perished on the Titanic. The boy was not specifically provided for in the will which had yet to be amended. Tradition in the family had it that he would have inherited a substantial share of his father's estate as a (second) son.

Instead, he received a perfunctory 2% of his elder half-brother Vincent's inheritance. Many years after Vincent died, Jakey Astor sued Vincent's estate which annoyed the widow Brooke, who spouted the same intolerant judgments about the man that Vincent did. She settled with him before it went to court to avoid the potentially enormous legal fees, and he received $250,000.
His greatest boyhood romantic love was the sea. In the mid-1920s, partly with profits from his investment of the original MGM film of Ben Hur (circa 1925, the most expensive silent film ever made – between $4 and $6 million), in which he had been a backer, he commissioned a new Nourmahal -- 264 feet, with eleven staterooms, a library, a dining room for 18 a special operating room in case of emergencies, and cabins for all the officers of the 42 man crew. With a cruising range of 20,000 miles, Vincent and guests, besides the many Atlantic crossings, traveled the world, often for months at a time.

Sometimes he would take along marine biologists to collect rare specimens for aquariums in New York or in Bermuda. Sometimes he would play host to the man he most admired in the world Franklin Roosevelt whose half-brother James Roosevelt Jr. was married to Vincent’s aunt Helen Schermerhorn Astor, making them (half)cousins. After FDR was elected President, Vincent put the Normahal at his disposal.

In the early 1920s, with the coming of Prohibition, Vincent sold his hotels. In 1926, he also sold the double mansion at 840 Fifth to Temple Emanu-el, and built a smaller townhouse at 130 East 80th Street (now home of the New York Junior League) in which he recreated his father’s bedroom complete with bathroom and fireplace.

He acquired houses (the sprawling seaside Astor Hall in St. George’s Bermuda), on Long island and later in Arizona. In the mid-1930s, he bought the name of a defunct magazine called Newsweek and hired FDR’s adviser Raymond Moley to start up a news magazine to compete with Henry Luce’s Time.

By his early 40s, Vincent’s days took on the dilemma of mid-life crisis. One could set calendar or clock by him. He rose early, went to his office at Newweek and conducted his business in the morning. Never wanting for male companionship, he lunched daily at his clubs (he belonged to 38) or, more often, at the St. Regis with childhood friends such as William Rhinelander Stewart, Grafton Pyne, George Baker and Milton “Doc” Holden.
The Nourmahal, one of the largest private yachts in the world, contructed in the late 1920s. 264 feet with a crew of 42 and a special operating room in case of emergencies. After the election of Vincent's "cousin" Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, Vincent made the yacht available to the President who loved the sea as much as he did. Below is a picture of Vincent welcoming the President aboard for a cruise.
He napped every afternoon and listened religiously to “Amos and Andy” on the radio, taking his dinner five minutes after it was over at exactly 7:20 pm. Except for his sea voyages his time was divided meticulously by month, day and hour, either in New York, Rhinebeck, Bermuda and Long Island, (he hated Newport – where his father had married “that woman” in the family house – that he gave it to Helen). He was attended in all by a personal staff of more than 100 people. (He was so dependent on his valet Jepson that once on Jepson’s day off, Vincent showed up at the breakfast table completely dressed except for his shoes because he didn’t know how to remove the shoe trees.)

By this time in his mid-life, Vincent Astor
had disposed of almost all the real estate holdings that his great-great-grandfather, his great-grandfather had acquired. The St. Regis, which had been sold in the 1920s to Benjamin Duke, uncle of Doris Duke, was reacquired in the early 30s and renovated.

By then his marriage to Helen Astor was in name only and he rarely saw her. It was widely known by then that Helen had a very strong Sapphic side, and although she re-married to Lytle Hull, a man several years her senior and also an old family friend, her intimate life was shared with other women.
The spiffed up Beechwood in Newport, used by Helen Astor although rarely visited by Vincent who was very uncomfortable with the social life of the resort.
Vincent was certainly no Lothario, no matter a woman’s interest. He resented Helen’s estrangement from him but there were always female companions in his life, and always from his social strata. A woman named Sheila Milbank had been a devoted friend for years. Another woman, Eleanor Berry was known to be his “mistress” during many of the years he was married to Helen. Yet Vincent remained the lone character he’d been since boyhood.

However, he was not introspective and the aloneness would bear down on him. He drank too much, sometimes starting as early as 10:30 in the morning. When advised in his 50s to curtail it, his idea of cutting back was to drink only five or six glasses of brandy after dinner.

The September 17, 1940 wedding of Stanley Mortimer and Barbara (Babe), the youngest of the three Cushing sisters, after their ceremony in East Hampton.
Ten days later, Minnie Cushing married Vincent Astor in the same spot as her younger sister, after which she and her new husband boarded the Nourmahal for a honeymoon cruise.
Jock and Betsey Whitney at the time of their marriage two years later in 1942. Both bride and groom had been married before -- Jock to Elizabeth Altemus, considered one of the greatest beauties of her age, and Betsey to FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's eldest son, James.
In the mid-1930s, a woman fifteen years his junior came into his life. Mary Benedict Cushing (known as Minnie) was the elder sister of Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, wife of FDR’s eldest son James.

Not quite 30, she was tall and willowy like Vincent. She had a long, school-marmish face, soft blue eyes, a substantial aquiline nose and a wide, bright smile with teeth almost bucked. Fond of the arts, although she herself was admittedly without talent or profession. The eldest daughter of Dr. Harvey Cushing, America’s premier brain surgeon, she was brought up by her mother to marry well, and her charm which was a kind of hanging-on-to-every-word attentiveness appealed to Vincent. He thought she was wonderful.

Like Helen Astor, Minnie Cushing had a powerful and highly respected father, which also appealed to Vincent. Still renowned today in medical history and textbooks, Dr. Cushing was then famous throughout the world and literally a household name in America. Unlike Helen, Minnie, much to Vincent’s delight, loved the months-long trips on the Nourmahal and even dutifully kept the logs for her “admiral” whom she called “Winsie.”

The affair continued quite publicly for several years (he was still legally married to Helen) and at a time when people went to great lengths to conceal such truths.
Finally in 1940, however, Vincent was persuaded – some say by Minnie’s mother, Kate Cushing – to divorce Helen and marry Minnie. Vincent who had been quite happy with the arrangement just as it was, agreed.

The couple were married on September 17, 1940 at a house Kate Cushing rented in East Hampton where her youngest daughter Barbara (known as Babe) had also married Stanley Grafton Mortimer (her first husband) only two weeks before. After the wedding, the couple slipped away, with her pet dachshunds in town, on the Nourmahal.

At first it was the same cozy relations. Minnie seemed to understand and care for her man. They had a pet poodle named Nora which Vincent adored. Each time the dog was shorn, Minnie would save its fur until there was enough to be spun into yarn with which she knitted Vincent a scarf.

As Mrs. Vincent Astor, Minnie immediately gained prestigious membership to the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. The marriage also gave greater cachet to her two sisters whose subsequent marriages – Betsey to Jock Whitney in 1942 and Babe to William Paley in 1947 – would make all of them a kind of legend in New York Society, although Vincent encouraged in his wife individual civic power that neither of her sisters would ever have with their husbands.

Vincent’s generosity also made it possible for Minnie to acquire an art collection somewhat comparable in quality to her future brothers-in-law and which she later bequeathed to the Met with her name on it. He also charged her with decorating the St. Regis. She also persuaded him to renovate some of his tenements and lease them out at very reasonable rents to artist friends of hers.

The re-enlisted Naval officer Vincent Astor who also put the Nourmahal at the disposal of the government for wartime use.
In the early 1940s when he rejoined the Navy and went off to serve, Minnie decided that she wanted to tear down the big house at Ferncliff. Her reason was that it had the imprint, the vibes, so to speak of her predecessor, Helen. Minnie and Vincent would live instead in the vast Stanford White-designed playhouse built in 1902 with its 80-foot living room, six bedrooms and indoor tennis courts and swimming pool.

The great old Hudson River house was close to his heart. His grandfather had built it and his beloved father had been born there. But he agreed anyway. However, when he returned from the War to find in its place a large octagonal teahouse designed by sister Alice’s fourth husband David Pleydell-Bouverie, he was broken-hearted to see that the steps of the old house still remained, like a marker at a gravesite.

With his name and his money, the second Mrs. Astor was also more able to cultivate the relationships she liked best – with the rich, the glamorous and the world famous, from artists and painters and best-selling authors to movie stars. She also had a taste for British society not unlike his mother. While all of this was very impressive to fashion magazine editors and society columnists, none of it impressed Vincent Astor.

It also became apparent to him that his wife was one of those women who liked, even at times seemed to prefer, the company of men who liked men and women who liked women. One of her closest friends, Fulco di Verdura, often referred to him within earshot as “The Dinosaur.” There was a ring of truth to the name but it only served to bring out the hurt, obstreperous child which only aggravated the marriage more.

The marriage in fact had really effectively ended the relationship that both parties liked.

By the late 1940s, Mr. and Mrs. Astor were deeply unhappy together. Having donated the second Nourmahal to the Navy during the Second World War, Vincent was now without his main source of escape. When he was out of his element, which socially was often, Vincent was sullenly menacing. And very old-fashioned. And to Minnie, who was still young and vital, it was intolerable. But she was stuck.
The athletic and guest house house designed by Stanford White and built for Ava Astor at Ferncliff in Rhinebeck in 1904. In the 1940s, Minnie Astor transformed it into the main residence (with indoor tennis court and swimming pool) after she had the big house demolished while Vincent was away in the service.
Two views of the tea house built on the location of the original Astor mansion, designed by Alice Astor's fourth husband, David Pleydell-Bouverie. The steps were the only remnants of the original house that stood on the location.
When she first told Vincent that she wanted a divorce, he was flabbergasted and crushed. And he refused.

By the early 1950s, Vincent had extracted the promise from Minnie that she would not leave until they had found replacement. Vincent did not want to be alone. He approached a couple of women about marrying him.

One woman, Janet Stewart, the widow of his lifelong friend William Rhinelander Stewart, refused his proposal with the succinct: “Marry you? I don’t even like you.” Vincent is said to have offered the consolation that he wasn’t in the best of health, that he might not have long to live (he was in his early sixties) and that she’d inherit his great fortune. Mrs. Stewart who was famously known in her prime as the most beautiful woman in New York (and on the Best Dressed List although she often bought and wore clothes that cost her less than ten bucks) responded that she was already comfortable financially and “what if you don’t die?” Another woman he proposed to told him she was going to marry another (and she did).

Tomorrow, the third and final part of the series. Vincent and Minnie Astor are divorced and he takes a new wife, Brooke Marshall who had been widowed less than a year from a long and happy marriage. Her new prince charming promised riches and plied her with pre-marital romance although once the new marriage was begun, she was in for many surprises, many of which were not pleasant and often even hard to bear.
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