Friday, August 19, 2011

Part II: Mrs. Astor and her Kind

Crossing the street at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Part II: Mrs. Astor and her Kind: The City Moves Uptown Leaving the Brownstone Lady Behind the Times

Mrs. Astor was not the only Mrs. Astor in town. She had a sister-in-law, Mrs. John Jacob Astor III, whose husband ran the family business which was called The Astor Estate. The JJ Astor III’s had a son, William Waldorf Astor. Although the two Mrs. Astors got on well, there was family contretemps over Lina Astor's insistence on being called THE Mrs. Astor. Young Waldorf, as he was known, made an issue of it. It annoyed him greatly that his wife — he, after all, being the number one heir to the fortune — could not call herself the Mrs. Astor.

Looking Northwest from 50th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Nevertheless, Auntie Lina won out. Eventually, the vexed Waldorf picked up and moved his young family to London, where in short time he one-upped them all forever by ingratiating himself financially and politically to the point where he was granted the title: Viscount Astor.

The "Knickerbocker" families made up most of Mrs. Astor's 400. The term "Knickerbocker," invented by Washington Irving, had a satirical meaning that infuriated the families, and was not used by them. They called themselves "Old New York." They were. Names like Beekman, Rhinelander, Stuyvesant, de Peyster, Van Rensselaer, Schuyler and Schermerhorn were all related to the early Dutch settlers. They were all non-Catholic and non-Jewish also. There were many other families amongst the List, but a very few of them were Roman Catholics, and none were knowingly Jewish.

The Knickerbockers were wealthy but careful, generally, with their money. The men often did not have "jobs" but managed their assets as a part of their lifestyle. They lived the life of a "gentleman." They involved themselves in civic, rather than political activity such as charities. They created and belonged to clubs, engaged in athletic pursuits. Many of them engaged in carnal pursuits also, although very discreetly. Discretion was accomplished by general agreement. Men shared their secrets and the women would be shielded from them. The time provided for discretion with a variety of whorehouses placed discreetly yet obviously within a short drive's distance (often in Murray Hill – JP Morgan hired Horace Trumbauer to design an elegant townhouse for his mistress just around the corner from his own house on Madison Avenue, on the Murray Hill side of Park Avenue).

The wives managed their houses and their families and engaged in planning social activities. They were the messengers of decorum, in the name of their husbands (wherever they might be).

This was not in any way a desirable world for any women by today's standards, even the very rich. All women were virtual prisoners of these social mores, pretending an image of the united and happy hearth, almost virgins except for their pregnancies. The men, bored with, or uninterested in their wives, were free and had the money to pursue carnal pleasure, and even romance, elsewhere.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
It was a world where young women were still not allowed to be alone with young men. This was a pretense imitating British aristocracy. When the Polka was introduced at a dance in the 1840s, it was considered shocking because the steps caused the skirts of the women to rise and expose ankle and even maybe a quick glimpse at calves.

This was a world where the word "leg" was never uttered. Or "ankle." They were limbs, and never seen by the opposite sex unless he were the husband or the doctor. This restriction did not hold true, among the men, for women of lesser station, however, such as the maids and the chambermaids. Or ladies of the night.

However, by the 1880s, New York was accelerating at a pace unimagined by the first John Jacob Astor. Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, New York was a boom town and quickly becoming the center city of the United States for finance.

This burgeoning economy was creating more and greater wealth in the city. When the first John J. Astor I died in 1848, he was the richest man in America leaving a fortune of about $20 million. Thirty years later when Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt died, he left an estate five times as great, $100,000,000. The bulk of the Vanderbilt assets was passed on to his son William H., who by his death eight years later, had doubled the family fortune.

William Vanderbilt and his wife Maria Kissam had nine children, eight of whom survived to majority. When the penurious commodore was alive, William and his tribe lived comfortably but far from luxuriously or palatially. Finally liberated by the Grim Reaper, William immediately (the following year) built the family a double mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, occupying the entire block between 51st and 52nd Street, just across from the newly completed Saint Patrick's Cathedral and -- on the other corner -- Madame Restell, the town's top abortionist). The 50s along Fifth Avenue was a new and fast developing part of town for the new rich, the area having been enhanced by the recent development of Central Park. Soon it would become known as Vanderbilt Row.
The William H. Vanderbilt double mansion which occupied the entire block of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street. Vanderbilt built this house after his father the commodore died, leaving him the bulk of his $100 million fortune. The limestone mansion, styled as a Loire Valley chateau, was built a few years later by Vanderbilt's son and daughter-in-law Willie K. and Alva Vanderbilt.
Two years later, William H.'s daughter-in-law, Alva (Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt), built a streetfront Loire Valley chateau across the way from her in-laws, on the northwest corner of 52nd and Fifth (where 666 Fifth Avenue stands today). Soon after, the eldest son of William, Cornelius II, with his wife Alice Gwynne, began abuilding their pile on the northwest corner of 57th Street (and eventually occupying the entire block to 58th Street), where Van Cleef and Bergdorf Goodman sit today.

Six Vanderbilt houses were built between 51st and 58th and Fifth, between the late 1878 and early 1882. Some were palaces but all were huge. They all have been long ago demolished, with the exception of the Frederick Vanderbilt house, which now houses the Versace store next to Cartier's.

With the exception of the Frederick Vanderbilt house (which now houses the Versace store), all the Vanderbilt houses between 51st and 58th and Fifth have been demolished.
The Vanderbilt presence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century would have a devastating effect on Lina Astor and her 400. Their houses were symbols of many things, not the least being the naturally changing times: the beginning of what history records as the Women's Movement, and the explosion of wealth caused by the Industrial Revolution. Alva Vanderbilt in particular, turned the Knickerbocker society on its ear.

She was born Alva Smith in Mobile, Alabama. She arrived in New York via Paris as a refugee of the Civil War and the antebellum South. She was every inch a Scarlet O'Hara archetype. Forced by her circumstances and armed with a powerful personality, she made a place for herself in New York (and, of course, the world).

In today's terms, Lina Astor was passive-aggressive and Alva Vanderbilt was aggressive-aggressive. Lina Astor's snub of Alva Vanderbilt was and is well-known. Alva, twenty years younger than Lina, was the new generation — the future. The big new Vanderbilt house — much bigger and much fancier than the drear Astor brownstone eighteen behind-the-times blocks south on the avenue — was the talk of the town.

The invitation to its house-warming was the talk of society and coveted. Hundreds were invited. However, Mrs. Astor's daughter Carrie was among the uninvited. Because Mrs. Astor had never "called upon" Mrs. Vanderbilt (for good reason: Mrs. Astor considered Mrs. Vanderbilt one of the "shoddies"), Mrs. V couldn’t possibly invite someone she “didn’t know.” Poor Carrie would just have to suffer her mother’s indiscretion. Realizing that she was depriving her beloved daughter from shining in the social swim, Lina Astor broke precedent (i.e., broke down), and left her calling card with Mrs. Vanderbilt's butler. That was all it took.

Ten years would pass before it was evident, but it was the beginning of the end for Lina Astor, and forever altering importance of the 400.
The Fifth Avenue mansion of Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The 123 room house occupied the entire block between 57th and 58th Street. Her husband dead for decades, her children grown (and two sons having died), in 1927, the house was sold and demolished to make way for Bergdorf Goodman and Van Cleef.
At the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, death made the transitions in her life. In 1890, her husband's older (and richer) brother, John Jacob III, died, leaving his only child, William Waldorf, the richest of the Astors.

Lina's nephew was, in today's parlance, a brat. Self-centered, arrogant and deluded by his wealth. These were/are not uncommon traits amongst inheritors of wealth. But Waldorf's traits were especially fertile. He felt entitled to his aunt's social position, presuming that his greater wealth gave him a kind of divine right. She irked him. After his father died, Waldorf decided to give up his house on 33rd and Fifth, right next door to his aunt's. He did not sell the house, however. He tore it down and put up a hotel which he named after himself: the Waldorf. He then moved to England where queens sat on real thrones and had real crowns.

John Jacob Astor IV.
3 East 64th Street, the residence of Carrie Astor and Orme Wilson, now the Indian embassy.
Living in a hotel, in those days, was popular among the rich, especially bachelors and widows, and a number of the best hotels catered mainly to long term residents. Living next to a hotel, however, was comparable to living next to a parking lot today. With the rich, it was "there goes the neighborhood." Lina probably wasn't happy about her nasty nephew.

Two years later, William Astor died suddenly of a heart attack. He was sixty-three. His son John Jacob IV was the main heir. Jack Astor, as he was called, was tall, not handsome, remote and almost oafish. He shambled when he walked and often had an ungainly presence in social situations. He was not popular for those reasons. He was, however, very bright, a born inventor, a writer, in many ways a thinker. The last child and the only boy, his mother and his sisters adored him.

At the time of his father's death, he had acquired a very pretty young wife Ava Willing from a good Philadelphia family, adding to the prestige of the family tree. Ava was the opposite of her husband in almost every way. Vain, self-indulged, and beautiful, the young Mrs. Astor was a silly but intriguing personality. It was not a good marriage. They had a child, William Vincent. And then a daughter Alice, who came with the still extant rumor that her real father was a man Ava Astor was having an affair with.

Jack Astor took the route of his father, and spent a good deal of time on his yacht, the Nourmahal. The couple waited for his mother to die so that they could divorce.

After Waldorf built the hotel on his 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue lot, it was Jack Astor's idea to take his mother's house and do exactly the same: tear it down and put up a hotel. Which he did, in 1895. He called it the Astoria. He then merged it with his cousin's and created the first Waldorf-Astoria where it remained until 1931 when they razed it and put up the Empire State Building, moving the Waldorf-Astoria to its present location on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets.

After the turn of the century, Jack Astor continued his hotel building with the Knickerbocker on Broadway and 42nd Street, and the St. Regis, both still standing, at 55th and Fifth. Hotel building on Fifth Avenue in the 50s brought the winds of change that eventually drove the Vanderbilts from their houses which now, like Mrs. Astor's house on 34th Street, were experiencing "change of neighborhood."

The development of the 34th Street property required the Astors to build a new house — uptown. Jack's sister Carrie, who had married Orme Wilson, son of a "new" millionaire (Richard Wilson — said to have been the model for Margaret Mitchell's character of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind), was given a house just off Fifth on 64th, as a wedding gift (now the Indian Embassy

Jack Astor chose a site for the new family house around the corner from his sister, on 65th and Fifth (where Temple Emanu-El stands today). Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of a double house — one half for Lina and the other for Jack and Ava, with a large common ballroom linking them.
The Astor house on 65th and Fifth Avenue.
Mrs. Astor's drawing room at 65th and Fifth Avenue.
Vincent Astor recalled many years later being taken, as a four year old by his father to look at the enormous hole in the ground and being told he was going to be living there. Taking the words literally, the little Vincent feared for the next few months that he would soon be living in a hole, and alone. As it happened, living in the vast house at 850 Fifth, mostly empty of humanity except for his grandmother and the servants, was, for the young boy, another kind of great dark hole to be banished to.

Ward McAllister died on January 31, 1895, two days after Mrs. Astor left her house at 350 Fifth for the last time, and sailed to France for her annual sojourn. When she returned, it would be to a new house with a new and larger ballroom that would ironically never see as many or as grand fetes and galas that her old house had seen.
The funeral of Ward McAllister on the morning of January 31, 1895 at Grace Protestant Episcopal Church on Broadway and 10th Street. Pall bearers represented McAllister's "society" including a former governor, John Lee Carroll, Chauncey Depew, lawyer for Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York & Harlem Railroad; DeLancey Astor Kane, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Bradley Martin, James A. Burden. His "Mystic Rose," Lina Astor did not attend although her son and daughter-in-law were there as well as many members of the 400 list including Livingstons, Jays, Stewarts, Cuttings, Winthrops, Rhinelanders, Fishes, Gallatins, Hitchcocks, Dyers and Stokeses.
The character of Sillerton Jackson in Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence was modeled after a New York lawyer named Egerton Winthrop. According to Jerry Patterson in “The First Four Hundred,” Winthrop was "a type of educated New Yorker who participated in the cultural life of the city, but didn't inconvenience themselves in the cause."

Winthrop was descended from John Winthrop, the first colonial governor of the Massachusetts Colony. Edith Wharton, who was a generation younger, knew the wealthy aesthete who practiced law (and was Wharton's lawyer in her divorce in 1913), from the time she was a young woman. It was he, according to Patterson, who "introduced her to the ideas of Darwin and Huxley, as well as to the French Naturalist novelists." He also traveled with her to Italy.
L. to r.: John Singer Sargent's portrait (1901) of Egerton Winthrop, prominent New York lawyer, and the much admired "diliettantish" friend of Edith Wharton; Author Henry James, and Mrs. Wharton.
Winthrop lived in Paris and then, after his first wife died, returned to New York where he had a house on East 39th street. He was also completely caught up in the minutiae of Mrs. Astor's society, one of her kind, of which there were not a few. Wharton who loved him, wrote about him, after his death, to Henry James: "Never, I believe, have an intelligence so distinguished and a character so admirable been combined with interests for the most part so trivial ... he lived his life in dilettantish leisure."

Like the Astors, the Goelets (and the Rhinelanders, among others) were "old New York," whose fortunes were in Manhattan real estate and grew geometrically with the population. Robert Goelet's Nahma rivaled the Astors, the Vanderbilts and JP Morgan's. Sailed in European regattas, admired by Kaiser Wilhelm II, it was so big, it was sometimes mistaken for a warship.
Robert Goelet's Nahma.
Peter Gerard Stuyvesant was the last of the clan to carry the name by the late 19th century. Rich, but childless, he considered it is moral duty to find a way for the name to be carried on. To do it, he chose as his heir, his great-grandnephew, Stuyvesant Rutherfurd, who was five years old at the time, provided the child change his name around and become Rutherfurd Stuyvesant. Naturally, no one objected. The doing, however, required a special act of the New York state Legislature in 1847.

Another Stuyvesant beneficiary of rich, old Uncle Peter Gerard was Hamilton Fish. His daughter-in-law, Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant) Fish, later became a rival and social peer of Mrs. Astor. In the last quarter of the 19th century, she was famous for her parties at the Fish mansion in Gramercy Park (known at the end of this century as the mansion of Benjamin Sonnenberg, and more recently as the home of designer Richard Tyler). Keeping up with the fashion of the times, however, by the end of the century, the Stuyvesant Fishes moved uptown to a mansion designed for them by Stanford White at 78th and Madison, with the largest private ballroom in New York, and still standing today as the property of Mayor Michael Bloomberg destined to be the headquarters of his foundation.
Rutherford Stuyvesant and wife. Hamilton Fish, father-in-law of Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant) Fish.
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish's residence at 25 East 78th Street.
Mamie Fish, daughter of a criminal lawyer who died broke, could barely read or write. She had wit, however, and was regarded by some to be Mrs. Astor's successor. She too had a Ward McAllister type at her side, one Harry Lehr, described in the Patterson book as "a malicious and opportunistic homosexual from Baltimore who insinuated himself into New York Society at the end of the nineteenth century ...." He and Mamie were kindred souls, funny but bitter, quick with repartee, and quite unkind. Mamie did not mind putting down Harry himself: after his wedding she told him, "your favorite flower must be the marigold."

From Jerry Patterson, The First Four Hundred: (Mamie's) match with Stuyvesant Fish was based on true affection. He adored her. Just before she died in 1915, he wrote, ‘In looking back over the many bitter and sweet but ever pleasurable memories of long years of married life, I can recall no moment when I failed to be thankful for my action and above all for my choice.’" Mamie Fish died "without a murmur and in no pain, dying as she always said she wished to, without a day's illness.”
Stuyvesant Fish. Mamie Fish.
A favorite sport of the 400 was coaching. It required skill — handling four horses in tandem with a whip in one hand and the reins in the other. It was associated with the British aristocracy whose revival in the late 19th century was a kind of recidivist reaction to the emergence of railroad travel.

The sport, as practiced by the Americans, was one of style rather than speed. Much time and expense was taken for it. Every aspect was a focal point: the polishing of the buttons, the horns announcing the arrival, the artificial flowers attached to the horses' heads.

The annual parade of the Coaching Club was held each year on Fifth Avenue and drew big crowds who turned out to cheer the entrants. Women wore "Gainsborough hats" (covered with lace and long plumes) and very fancy dress, absurdly impractical for the time of year, which was warm, and the dust and wind the event created. The men, of course, just as absurdly impractical by today’s standards, dressed very formally in top hats and morning coats and gloves.

Mr. and Mrs. Goodhue Livingston and Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt at a Coaching Club event.
The Coaching Club.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr. at the tennis matches in Newport in his "automotive machine." Mr. Vanderbilt came to an untimely end in 1914 when the RMS Lusitania on which he was sailing was torpedoed by a German U-Boat U-20 on September 7, 1915, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.
By the end of the 19th century, the automobile, the horseless carriage, then called an automotive machine, or just "machine," had completely usurped the horse in the imagination of rich men (and some women). Instead of racing their coaches up Fifth Avenue, the men raced their machines up the avenue. Willie K. Vanderbilt had a road constructed just for such a sport near his estate in Long Island. It was called the Vanderbilt Motorway, and still exists in a far more modernized form, for highway use, today.

The photo shows his nephew Alfred Vanderbilt (grandfather of today's Wendy Vanderbilt), attending a lawn tennis match at Newport in his "machine."

The birth of the automotive age marked the end of the era known as that of Mrs. Astor and her 400. By the early 20th century, Lina Astor, now in her seventh decade, had begun to withdraw socially, and to fail mentally. There are stories that she spent her last years wandering the rooms of her house, alone, dressed for spectacle and talking to the ghosts from ballrooms past. Her children remained devoted to her, if distant because of their own peripatetic lives. Her two grandchildren by her son, Vincent and his younger sister Alice lived nearby in the same house often parent-less, and in some great way, comforted by their grandmother’s presence, despite her mental infirmity.

Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor died in 1908. She was 78 years old, by then a pitiable relic of an age that she had defined by sheer force of personality.

Her only son divorced his wife the year after his mother died, and married a woman two years younger than his son Vincent, Madeleine Talmage Force.

The relationship was scandalous in their society. They married in September of 1911 at Beechwood in Newport and shortly thereafter boarded a liner for Europe. The plan was to spend some time abroad while the gossip cooled down. A few months after the marriage, the new Mrs. Astor became pregnant. The couple decided to return to New York so that the child, due in late summer, would be born on American soil.

The newly married Astors were aboard the Titanic on its fatal maiden voyage. Mr. Astor was drowned and his wife, pregnant with their child, was saved. Vincent, who as the first son, at twenty-one, inherited the bulk of his father's estate. The child born after the sinking, John Jacob Astor VI, known to the world as the much-marrying, playboy Jackie Astor, had not been thoroughly provided for by his father's last will, written before the child's birth, and inherited a few million. The big house at 850 Fifth remained in Vincent's hands until the 1940s when it was sold and torn down to make way for Temple Emanu-El that occupies the site to this day.

Vincent Astor, typical of the Astors, felt no need to share his inheritance any more than was provided in his father's will. He maintained a lifelong resentment of his stepmother and his half-brother. He and later his wife Brooke perpetuated the story that JJ VI was not the son of Jack Astor but of some other man that Madeleine was having an affair with. The Astors were living in London when she became pregnant about five months after they married. The idea of Jack being cuckolded at that particular time in his marriage is not impossible, but definitely improbable.

Vincent’s later gifts to his brother and his sister were very small compared to the size of his fortune. When he died, he became the first Astor since the founding of the family fortune NOT to bequeath a part of the family fortune to other family members. He had no children and so he left his estate to a foundation named for himself and to his widow Brooke Astor who was also given the job of giving away the entire foundation’s assets.

Aside from his break in the family traditions of passing on the family fortune, Vincent did do something, that no Astor before or since achieved. Through his philanthropies before his death and through his last wife's direction, after his death, he gave away most of the family fortune to the benefit of his fellow New Yorkers.

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