Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Astor Legacy fit for celebrating Chelsea Clinton's wedding

Carl Schurz Park. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Heat in New York. This past Monday night (actually in the wee hours after we’d put the Diary up online), I came down with one of those violent attacks that had all the classic symptoms of food poisoning and remained up for the rest of the night. And miserable for the next 24 hours. The air outside was heated and oppressive which only heightened the drama.

Yesterday noontime (almost recovered) when I took the dogs out for their quickie after eating, there was a stiff but heated breeze coming off the river. I use “heated” because it felt like you’d just opened the door of a hot oven; intense. Nevertheless I took it as a reminder that everything changes, especially the weather. By nightfall, the humidity and the temperature had dropped noticeably. The Promenade by the River was busy with joggers, cyclists, strollers, dogs and all. Whew.

Wedding Bells and marital history. The word is Chelsea Clinton will marry her fiancé Mark Mezvinsky, on the 31st of this month in Rhinebeck, New York at what is called the Astor Courts on the old Astor estate Ferncliff Farm (later Ferncliff).
The original main residence on the Ferncliff estate in Rhinebeck, New York, built in the late 1850s by William B. Astor Jr., grandfather of Vincent Astor.
History lesson. The property, in Rhinebeck, overlooking the Hudson, was purchased in the middle of the 19th century by young William Backhouse Astor Jr. Mr. Astor, newly married to Caroline Webster Schermerhorn was drawn to the area for its beauty as well as its ancestral heritage.

William Astor’s grandfather, John Jacob the First, came to America in the 1790s from Waldorf, Germany. America was his land of opportunity: he soon became a trader in furs and opium (he made a fortune in China on both counts), and established export businesses on both coasts when the western part of the continent was still inhabited mainly by Native Americans, and largely unexplored by all but the most entrepreneurial – that being a sleek word for a hardscrabble and dangerous existence.

With his great profits, the first Astor became interested in buying Manhattan real estate. It was not called real estate. It was land, lots, farms, acreage. This was not considered an especially enterprising idea because the city of 65,000 in 1805 was centered around what is now the southernmost downtown and the tip of the island. A horse and carriage ride up to what is 59th Street and Fifth Avenue today was four hours along a rocky, hilly terrain, and it would be decades before the rails or the automobile.. He was buying along the road to the middle of nowhere! Nevertheless, Astor had made his fortune exporting. No doubt he understood the city’s harbor, one of the best in the world, could only grow and grow.
A view of the entrance to Astor Courts, designed by Stanford White and built in 1903. It was here fifty years later, where Brooke Marshall came to spend the weekend with Vincent and Minnie Astor, and Vincent took her out for a ride around the estate and asked her to marry him.
A closer view of the front exterior of the Stanford White design.
The restored main reception room of the playhouse, now known as Astor Courts, where Chelsea Clinton's wedding will take place.
When Astor first started buying, most of the island was uninhabited. He bought farms and plots that ran up Broadway which was long a path created by the Native Americans who had been there for eons. West 30th Street was exurban. In time he built houses on the land and held the leases. At his death (at age 84) in 1848, he was the largest landowner in the city, and one of the world’s richest men, collecting rents all the way up Broadway to what is now Times Square and beyond. On his deathbed when asked if he had any regrets, he allegedly said, “yes, that I didn’t buy more of Manhattan.” His estate proved him the richest man in America – his fortune estimated at more than $100 billion in today’s dollars.

He had two sons and three daughters. The first born son John Jacob II is remembered as “feeble-minded.” He never worked for his father. The second, William Backhouse Astor, was sent back to Germany for his education and then joined his father in what was still the family store (the China trade).

Young Astor served his father as a glorified accountant, if that. However, he did follow his father and increased family real estate holdings. When he married the daughter of a Revolutionary War General and of Robert Livingston of Clermont Manor, he was moving up socially, a matter of great interest to the father. Society in New York in those early days (and they did consider themselves “society”) was made up of ancestors of the Dutch and British. Not the Germans.
Views of the restored interior.
Corridor looking toward the entrance gallery.
The young Wiliam B. Astors had six children – three girls and three boys. The last child, Henry, would be largely disowned and mainly disinherited by his father for marrying the gardener’s daughter. (Henry later built an estate-farm in Columbia County and lived, it would seem, compared to many of his Astor relatives, happily -- and very grandly -- ever after).

The other two sons – John Jacob III and William B. Jr. -- were their father’s principal heirs. (In those days, female children were not regarded as worthy of, or needing as much as, their brothers, just as it often still is in England and elsewhere).

This practice of primogeniture had its effects on William B. Jr. John Jacob III, the eldest, was his father’s “glorified accountant,” running the business (the business was by then – 1850s – known as the Astor Estate). William had very little to do or say (JJIII also inherited the largest share).
A view of the house's porch and its view of the Hudson and the Catskills across the river.
When William was 25, he married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, descendent of the city’s Dutch settlers and related to many other Patroon families, as well as some English. This was another good marriage in the eyes of the now dead patriarch. This was third generation money now, with roots in the proper thing to do sense.

Young William, having little to do, indulged in luxurious pleasure, Victorian style. He bought up several farms in that part of Rhinebeck, New York known as the Ferncliff Forest. He built a house overlooking the Hudson, a big clapboard Victorian ark of a place, with tall stiff turrets and rambling porches, and a magnificent view of the river. He named it Ferncliff Farm after the area.

He and Caroline had five children – five girls and a boy, John Jacob IV. By the late 1870s, Lina, as she was called, had become de rigueur The Mrs. Astor in New York, ruling society with an iron hand (in a velvet glove). Husband, now middle-aging with little to do but amuse himself, had long ago abdicated as prince or consort, and spent a good deal of his time away at Ferncliff, or on his sea-going yachts in the company of cronies and attractive, amusing women.

Jack Astor, dressed for a costume party.
Lina, who gave birth to her last child, Jack, at Ferncliff (in 1864), had grown to loathe the place. She spent her springtimes in Paris while he went up to Ferncliff. In New York and Paris, her husband was present and accounted for only on the most important occasions. Otherwise, it was well known that he loathed society, including, perhaps, its queen.

William. B. Astor Jr. died in 1892 of a brain aneurism at the Hotel Liverpool in Paris. He was 63. It was a life of indulgence, pleasure and disappointment. His son John Jacob IV, then 28, inherited the majority of his father’s fortune. The financial worthiness of the female family members remaining inert, unlike his father, Jack Astor was number one in his family. Furthermore the Waldorf Astors had abandoned the territory; Jack was the man.

Young Jack Astor was an energetic and enterprising fellow in youth, although his wealth always preceded him and he was looked upon as a playboy or a Jack-ass or a bore. He was tall and rangy, with a strong mechanical aptitude and a mind for inventing. A man’s man. He busied himself with this, and with writing, as well as some real estate investments of his own.

After his cousin William Waldorf Astor tore down his Fifth Avenue brownstone and built the Waldorf hotel, much to the chagrin of nextdoor neighbor Aunt Lina. Jack Astor got the idea to tear down his mother’s matching brownstone on the other end of the block (34th Street), and built the Astoria in its place. Eventually they merged, occupying the entire block (where the Empire State Building stands today).

Waldorf Astor removed himself and family to England (where he eventually became a peer in the way that peers often do), leaving Jack as the so-called head of the Astor family in America. Jack went on to build the Hotel Knickerbocker (just down Broadway from Waldorf Astor’s Hotel Astor) and the St. Regis – both still standing today.
Jack Astor. Ava Willing Astor.
When he was 28, Jack Astor married a young woman from Philadelphia named Ava Willing. Again, this was considered another suitable marriage; Philadelphians were regarded, especially by themselves, along with Bostonians, to be the real crème de la crème of American Society. Many who were not, including New Yorkers -- who were considered nouveaux riches, concurred. Furthermore , Ava Lowle Willing was irresistibly beautiful and vain.

It wasn’t long into the marriage that the couple were bored with each other. By the time their firstborn, William Vincent (always known as Vincent) was a little boy, the marriage was essentially a public image. Oil and water, and ultimately as poisonous.
Like his father, Jack Astor escaped to ocean-going yachts, amusing women and wife-less time at Ferncliff. In 1903 he hired Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White to build not far from the main house, a private athletic facility with an indoor tennis court, squash quarts, a bowling alley, a barbershop and arguably the first private indoor swimming pool in America; really like a private men’s club where women were allowed. It was known as a casino-playhouse

The building’s design, inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles, could also be used for big entertainments and as a guest house, primarily bachelor quarters.
The inspiration for the Astor Courts, the Grand Trianon at Versailles.
The indoor tennis court, perfect for a wedding dinner dance for several hundred guests.
The men's bathroom. The barbershop.
The first private indoor swimming pool in America with details.
More than ten years into the marriage, Ava Astor, like her mother-in-law Lina had developed a definite lack of fondness for Ferncliff and for Jack Astor, as well. The year before building of the playhouse began, in 1902, she gave birth to a daughter Alice.

From the outset, the world of society seemed to know that Jack Astor was not the girl’s father. More than one man has been thought to be the father, but not Astor. Thereafter the marriage continued through what appeared to be amicable strangement until 1909, when they divorced.

According to family stories passed down, Ava was what would today be called an abusive mother. Her boy child was emotionally abandoned, or largely ignored. The child resented her, and was afraid of her. It would remain thus throughout his life (she died, at 99, only a year before he died).

Jack Astor remarried two years after his divorce from Ava, to Madeleine Force who was 29 years his junior (he was 47). Two years later on his way back to the United States on the RMS Titanic he bid his young wife with child (to be named John Jacob Astor VI) goodbye when it hit the iceberg in the North Atlantic. 21-year-old Vincent inherited his father’s fortune estimated between $50 and $100 million or tens of billions in today’s currency, and became known as the Richest Boy in the World.

Helen and Vincent Astor in their thirties, and the prime of their lives.
Vincent Astor loved Ferncliff. He refused to share it or any of his inheritance with his new half-brother whose legitimacy and paternity he openly questioned all his life. Besides Ferncliff was his greatest connection to his adored father. He sailed his yachts up to Rhinebeck as well as flying his seaplanes.

At age 25, he married Helen Dinsmore Huntington who grew up on a neighboring estate. Shortly before the wedding Vincent came down with a case of the mumps, and it rendered him sterile. Within a few years, the novelty of marriage wore off for one or both of them. It was known that Vincent had mistresses. It was not known, at least not publicly, that Helen had Sapphic connections.

In the mid-1930s Vincent struck up a relationship with Minnie (Mary Benedict) Cushing, daughter of Dr. Harvey Cushing, the premier neurosurgeon in America, and a folkloric hero of sorts. One of Minnie’s sisters, Betsey, was married at the time to James Roosevelt, eldest son of the President, who was also a cousin of Vincent. Vincent idolized men of achievement and he idolized FDR. The Cushing-Astor relationship took hold. In 1937 at the suggestion of Minnie’s mother, Mrs. Harvey Cushing, Vincent divorced Helen Huntington (who later married an old family friend, Lytle Hull).

The Cushing-Astors lived together for three years, and then in the autumn of 1940, they married in East Hampton, just a week after her baby sister Barbara (known as Babe) married Stanley Mortimer.

Ferncliff by then had changed with the times. Alice had married and her brother had gifted her with a stone mansion on the property, which she called Marienhuh, also overlooking the River. Vincent, a minature railroad aficionado had built a small railroad that could travel around the terrain (there were more than 3000 acres accumulated by father and grandfather).
Minnie, at the time of her wedding to Vincent Astor. Vincent and Minnie on their wedding day aboard his yacht.
Marienhuh, Vincent Astor's wedding gift to his sister Alice Astor on her marriage to her first husband, Prince Serge Obelensky in 1926. The house, like the main house, has a spectacular view of the Hudson.
Minnie, who was artistic and a supporter and aficionado of designers, interior decorators and artists, re-decorated with little obvious enthusiasm, and never came to like the old fire trap. In fact she came to loathe it, just as her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law had before her.

The focus of her distaste was the main house. Finally Vincent (whom she called “Winsie”) agreed to raze the century old house of his heritage, and allow Minnie to re-do the Casino-playhouse as a residence. Task completed, on weekends she filled the with guests from her part of the world – the literary, the arts, the theatre: Josh and Nedda Logan, the Sitwells, the film actress Annabella, Fred and Adele Astaire, Bea Lillie, Thelma Chrysler Foy, Bill and Dorothy Paley, Elsa Maxwell, Fulco Verdura, Moss and Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jerome Zerbe and the designer Valentina.

This was a big change for a man whose neighbors and cousins and distant relations were old Hudson Valley patricians and New York bluebloods. Theatre people were “pansies” to Vincent Astor, and he was not the kind of guy who liked “pansies,” and he showed it with noisy disdain and intolerance.

Vincent, on the cover of Time.
Furthermore their life together, at least after marriage, became a charade not unlike his mother and father had. Not unlike his marriage to Helen. Even with Vincent believing that Minnie had a Sapphic connection like Helen.

By the late 1940s, Vincent and Minnie had been together for more than 20 years. She had become a force on her own (as Mrs. Astor) in New York. Her sisters were married to Jock Whitney and William Paley. The world, the world of her choice, was at her feet. And nobody in her crowd liked Vincent.

In the early 50s Minnie told him she wanted a divorce. He was upset about being left alone. His mother again. He insisted that she find a wife for him first. He first proposed to a couple of women he knew most of his adult life. They turned him down. Finally Minnie came through for him, in an oft-told partially true story -- a young widow named Brooke Russell Marshall whose late husband had been previously married to Helen Huntington Astor’s sister.

That in itself was a welcome recommendation for Vincent.
Vincent and Minnie Astor divorced in October 1953, thirteen years and a week after they married. Before the month was out, Minnie married a much younger James Whitney Fosburgh (whose father and mother coincidentally married the same day that Vincent and Helen Astor married), and Vincent married Brooke Marshall, forever after known as Brooke Astor.

Ferncliff, the playhouse, remained. The new wife took to redecorating but this time with verve. If she didn’t like it, that wasn’t common knowledge. She made a valiant effort for the man who was really like an overgrown boy. Six years later, fortuitously for his wife whose patience had begun to wear thin like Minnie before her, Vincent Astor died in his 86th year.

Brooke Astor soon lost interest in Ferncliff. It was too far from the City and she wanted a life after being held almost a virtual prisoner by her demanding husband. She sold off most of the property, donating some of it to a nature conservancy, and some to a convent. The old house was gone, and so, finally, were the Astors and their ghosts.

Astor Courts was restored in the last few years by Sam White, the great-grandson of the original architect. The new owners, Kathleen Hammer and Arthur Seelbinder worked with the architect.

It would have pleased Vincent Astor that his father’s playhouse in the 21st Century become the venue for the wedding of the daughter of a President in the tradition of his beloved FDR, and of a Senator and Secretary of State. That would have been one party that would have interested him and his deep, abiding sense of patriotism.
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