Except for the Memory

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Trinity Churchyard at Wall Street and Broadway. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023. Another very warm day in New York with a couple of heavy rainstorms that came about when the blue skies turned suddenly grey and poured cats and dogs for about 45 minutes to an hour and then the Sun came back again with everything looking nice and fresh.

Last night in New York was the annual 4th of July Fireworks show in the East River, which was sensational – following a dinner that Susan Gutfreund hosted at her apartment overlooking the River and the site of fireworks.

As a kid, I lived near a large cemetery. It was a popular spot aside from its popularity for the community, because all those stone monuments and hills and dales and no adults around to warn us to watch out for this and that made it a different and fun atmosphere for playing cowboys and Indians, hide-and-seek, and just generally running around free. Ironically, the gravesites purpose, of course, had nothing to do with this kid’s playtime fun, which was not even thought of or considered.

Thinking about those times reminded me of the grown-up days when JH and I were inspired to visit the old Trinity Church and its Churchyard down on Broadway.

There is a lot of history in the Trinity Churchyard. It is the resting place of John Jacob Astor I (1763-1848) as well as Robert Fulton — inventor of the steamboat. The first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton are also buried there, along with 19th century New York diarist George Templeton Strong and John Peter Zenger, the newspaper publisher whose libel trial helped establish the right to a free press.

We wanted to dig a little deeper, so to speak, so JH suggested we visit the Trinity Church’s Cemetery uptown on 155th Street and Broadway. This site of 23 acres was created in 1842 (when the city was moving farther uptown from the Wall Street/downtown where open land was growing scarce). The land abuts land that was the estate of John James Audubon, and in 1776 (before Audubon was born) it was the spot of some of the fiercest fighting of the Revolutionary War by General George Washington and his troops against British in the Battle of Washington Heights.

John James Audubon.  John Syme courtesy of White House Historical Association

Audubon is among the city’s eminent past citizens now buried there (he died in 1851), as are Alfred Tennyson Dickens, son of Charles, and several Astors descending from, or married to descendants of, the first John Jacob.

With that in mind, we made the trip to the uptown burial ground to have a look-see. It was easy to find. Just drive about four and a half miles north up Broadway and there it is, occupying land on both sides of the thoroughfare and the blocks between 153rd and 155th Streets.

L. to r.: The burial site of John James Audubon whose property in the first half of 19th century bordered the land where this cemetery is now; The cenotaph (Astor Vault) of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor stands alone and taller than any other Astor monuments in the burial place. Simple and to the point.

That part of Manhattan is on a much higher elevation. The apartment houses are generally four and six stories, along with lower buildings, so there is a lot more light and a feeling of open space. It’s a really beautiful part of Manhattan, virtually unknown and/or unvisited by most of us downtown cave-dwellers.

The rainclouds had taken a break by the time we reached our destination and the sun had come out. From the western part of the cemetery, the views are thickly verdant stretching down to the Hudson and across the river to the Jersey embankment.

The first John Jacob Astor who came to America from Waldorf, Germany and made a fortune acquiring fur from the native American trappers et al and selling in, often as hats to the Chinese, all over the world. With his earnings in the fur trade Astor started buying property — mainly farmlands running up along the main stem (Broadway) which was the only exception to the early grid. By the time of his death he was the largest landowner in Manhattan. Asked if he had any regrets, he said, “Yes, that I didn’t buy more land.”

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the great-granddaughter-in-law of the first JJ Astor, and the social queen of New York at the end of the 19th century. Her dominance would have been significant to the family founder who wanted social prominence for his name.

Her son, John Jacob Astor IV.

The funeral of John Jacob Astor IV (From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street).

Naturally we immediately started searching for some familiar names. Very soon we saw more than one mausoleum with the name “ASTOR” on it. This site marked three generations of the family, not including the founder who is buried down on Broadway and Pine beside the Trinity Church.

By the fourth generation, the family had grown larger and although there are many Astor relatives (with other names like Ward and Chanler) who are laid to rest here, many of the fourth generation had moved away from New York and in some cases from America.

L. to r.: The final resting place of Mary Paul Astor, the 36-year-old wife of William Waldorf Astor; The gravestones of William Waldorf Astor’s parents, John Jacob Astor III and Charlotte Augusta Astor.
Details of the graves of John Jacob Astor III and Charlotte Augusta Astor.

John Jacob Astor IV, who went down on the Titanic, is buried here but his son Vincent was, at his request, buried up in Westchester. His first wife, Vincent’s mother, Ava Willing Astor Ribblesdale is not buried here but her successor, Madeleine Talmadge Force Astor Dick (who survived the Titanic) is buried here as is her son, John Jacob Astor VI, the half-brother Vincent Astor loathed and rejected.

John Jacob Astor III, 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.

The mausoleums, now more than a century old, are decrepit with age and show lack of family interest and upkeep. It seems ironic that these expressions of mortal grandeur eventually become humbled and erased of their pomp like all of the humbler memorials around them. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

There is more than one large mausoleum with the name Astor. Most curious to me, however, was the somewhat simple markers in the plot of John Jacob Astor III, grandson of the First — born June 10, 1822, died February 22, 1890 — and his wife, 0Charlotte Augusta — born February 27, 1825, died December 12, 1887.

These two stones, as you can see, are marble and well preserved, but just a few feet away are two that were also placed at approximately the same time and they are worn with age. One is marked “Mary Paul Astor wife of William Waldorf Astor — born July 4, 1858, died December 22, 1894.” It seems oddly lonely without a male Astor accompanying it. There is a second stone, even smaller nearby her, “John Rudolph Astor 1881 -1891”; a small child, a shortened life.

William Waldorf Astor, the only child of John Jacob III and Charlotte (who was always known as Augusta), is nowhere near. His ashes are interred more than 3000 miles away under the marble floor of the chapel of his splendid Palladian stately home Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, England. He outlived his young wife by a quarter century and had very little to do (outside of collecting income) with America after that.

Cliveden, the Palladian Buckinghamshire estate of William Waldorf Astor, Viscount Astor. Image: National Trust

William, known as Willie, grew up in New York, in a brownstone that shared the western side of Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street with the brownstone of his aunt and uncle, Caroline and William Backhouse Astor, and their family of four daughters and one son, John Jacob Astor IV.

Willie’s father, John Jacob III, was richer than his brother William B., who was allowed very little to do with the family business, a matter which created problems for the two brothers. William B.’s wife Caroline, however, was the social queen of New York. She was the Astor who mattered in their world.

William Waldorf Astor, known as Willie to his family, grew up next door to his aunt and uncle, Lina and William Astor.

This little matter always annoyed her nephew William Waldorf, who believed that since the family practiced primogeniture, and since his father was the oldest, and the richest, Aunt Lina had a lot of nerve claiming the title of social queen for herself.

Willie was an indulged boy and uninterested in the family business. At an early age he pursued a political career in New York where he served two terms on the State Assembly and then lost in a bid for a seat in Congress. By that time he was an active supporter of his party (Democratic) and President Chester Alan Arthur who succeeded the assassinated James Garfield, appointed William his ambassador to Italy. “Enjoy yourself, dear boy,” the President is said to have advised the young Astor.

And he did. He loved the pomp and circumstance and also being treated like numero uno far away from the glories of his detested Aunt Lina. The Italians also liked him and his wife Mary. He became an avid art collector and a novelist, writing a book based on the life of Cesare Borgia, called Valentino. Even the retiring Mary came into her own as a hostess.

When his father died in 1890, Willie inherited the largest part of the Astor fortune — estimated anywhere between $50 and $80 million (or billions in today’s currency). At that point the Astor family was receiving about $9 million annually in rentals (about $300 million in today’s dollars). The muckraking journalist, Burton Hendrick, called the Astors “the world’s greatest monument to unearned increment,” or, “a first mortgage on Fate itself.”

The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel facing Fifth Avenue at 33rd and 34th Street after Caroline had vacated her brownstone and moved uptown and her son razed the place and built the Astoria section of the hotel. The house across the street on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was the residence of department store owner Alexander Stewart, then one of the richest men in the city. His enormous stone mansion was considered déclassé and garish to Caroline Astor, who lived directly across the street in a far more modest — although large — brownstone, and therefore would never invite Stewart into her home.

L. to r.: The combined Waldorf-Astoria looking at the 34th Street entrance; The Netherland on the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue also built by William Waldorf Astor and the only place he stayed in the three times he visited New York from England.

Willie now believed that since his father, number one, had died, he and his wife should now be the “leaders” of society in New York. Summering in Newport, the former Ambassador and his wife had begun to entertain Astor style.

Aunt Lina was not impressed. She had her calling cards changed from “Mrs. William B. Astor” to just plain “Mrs. Astor” just in case her nephew was wondering how she felt about him and his wife.

Willie’s political acumen had failed him again. He decided to move to England, first renting Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square and later acquiring Hever Castle (the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, mother of Queen Elizabeth I) and Cliveden, the large mansion in Buckinghamshire. He also built a very impressive limestone headquarters for his Astor Estate offices in London.

As a farewell gesture of revenge on lovely Lina Astor, Willie tore down his childhood home and built a large hotel on his part of the block — the Waldorf.

The gravesite of John Jacob Astor III and his wife Charlotte Augusta and his daughter-in-law Mary Paul Astor.

Aunt Lina was incensed that her nephew had turned the block into a commercial zone, but there was nothing she could do. Her only son built a double mansion (half for him and his young family and half for his mother, the social queen) on half a block at 65th and Fifth (where Temple Emanu-el stands today), tore down the family brownstone and erected another hotel right next to it — the Astoria. Eventually the two hotels were merged and were razed at the end of the 1920s to make way for the Empire State Building.

After moving fulltime to London in 1893, Willie Astor returned to New York only three times over the rest of his life. The first time was when his wife Mary died — at age 36 — in 1894. Her body was brought to Trinity Cemetery to be buried next to her in-laws and her little son John Rudolph. Willie’s appearance was something of a cause célèbre and newspapers reported that crowds trampled the grave sites all around the Astors’s site just to get a look at the expatriate in the flesh.

The lonely brownstone of Mrs. Astor, dwarfed by an architectural act of revenge by her annoying and often annoyed nephew William Waldorf Astor who left town after he built what became the first half of the Waldorf-Astoria. The Empire State Building occupies the plot today.

The triumphal, enormous and no longer “garish” double mansion of Caroline Astor and her son and daughter-in-law, John Jacob IV and Ava Astor, and their children, Vincent and Alice Astor, on the corner of 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. Vincent Astor later sold the house which occupied fully one quarter of the entire city block to Temple Emanu-el.

Willie, however, loved living in England and although he claimed he had no interest in politics, he bought two newspapers — the Pall Mall Gazette and the Observer — and oversaw their conservative editorial policies.

He made a concerted effort to integrate himself into the society of the aristocracy and the Marlborough House crowd of Edward VII. However, his temperament proved nettlesome even when not competing with Aunt Lina. Once an admiral named Sir Barclay Milne attended a reception at Willie’s house uninvited but in the company of people whom he had just dined with who were invited. Willie was incensed at what he regarded as rudeness and ordered the admiral to leave the house. When the king heard of his admiral (and friend) being insulted, he was furious at Astor.

The mausoleum of the first William B. Astor, who died 1875, leaving the largest share of his estate to his first born son, John Jacob Astor III.

The back of the mausoleum of William B. Astor.

Nevertheless, Willie, now William Waldorf Astor the Very Rich, prevailed. He became a British citizen — something that infuriated New Yorkers — and in 1916 he was made Baron Astor of Hever by King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly thereafter he was made Viscount Astor.

Although one of Willie’s sons, and his namesake, known as Waldorf, married an American, this branch of the family became thoroughly British. The American branch was permanently destroyed by the early death of Willie’s cousin, John Jacob IV, on the Titanic. His second son, John Jacob VI, was born after his death, so he never knew him and the estate was left almost entirely to the eldest son Vincent who died childless and ended the Astor legacy by bequeathing his fortune to charity and to his third wife Brooke Russell.

Willie, it seems, beat out Auntie Lina in the end, although he left his country behind in order to do it. Now up at Trinity, on a beautiful first day of summer, it’s all forgotten and irrelevant, except for The Memory.

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