The Life in the House and the House in the Life of Mrs. Astor

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Looking north along Fifth Avenue, with Caroline Astor's double mansion in the foreground on 65th Street.

Friday, January 28, 2022. Cold, but not very in New York yesterday after the Sun came out in the late morning. The forecasts are all about the storm expected later today. The estimates I’ve been reading are 8 to 10 inches. I half believe it. The other half would like a huge storm covering up everything in a silky icy white for 24 hours. We won’t even think about what it will look like after that for the next few days or even weeks.

Monday’s Diary about Mrs. Merriweather Post’s boudoir and parlor was very popular. Mrs. Post (then Mrs. Hutton at the time – she was married several times) lived large. Her lifestyle fantasized in my head reminded me of when I was a kid in a house where we were barely getting by, and thinking how I’d live when I grew up. If I got to be rich). Mrs. Post’s life looked like perfection. Kinda royal too. Your own king. Or queen. (No laughing.)

As it happened I was never rich or even modestly, although it been a big improvement comparatively. And, I have lived around and/or amongst so many members of the rich all my life.

Mrs. Post’s boudoir.

Mrs. Post was actually second generation. She was still a young woman when she took up residence here (as well as elsewhere at the same time). She first lived in a beautiful mansion built by a member of the Burden family on 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue. She later sold it to developers who built for her the amazing triplex we ran on Monday.

The years after the Civil War were financially progressive and prosperous, and reflected it in the architecture. It was a new prosperity; there was fantastic growth on every level and especially among the wealthy. It was then that New York began to become a tall city. It was the age of the electric light, the automobile, the steam engine, the telephone and not long after the motion picture, the airplane and the radio. All never known or seen before, or even imagined by most. The world got bigger and smaller at the same time.

The Mrs. Astor’s mansion-size brownstone on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The main residential architecture in Manhattan had been the brownstone on all levels from the working people, the public, to the very rich. Caroline Astor, The Mrs. Astor had lived most of her adult life in a mansion-size brownstone on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue (where the Empire State Building resides today). The Astors owned the two lots that covered the block along the avenue. Mrs. Astor shared the block with William Waldorf Astor, the son of her husband’s brother John Jacob Astor II. It was at her dull looking large brown 5-story box where she for years hosted her annual ball in January for the so-called “Four Hundred” as the queen of New York Society.

THE Mrs. Astor in 1875.

Mrs. Astor was happily ensconced although as time progressed and the city’s population continued to grow, New Yorkers were moving farther up the avenue toward the new Central Park (which had opened — still rough and in development — in 1859). The island of Manhattan had been sparsely populated except for the land south of Canal Street. Much of the island was completely undeveloped as well as unpopulated except for the acreage along the riverside where the wealthier had houses by or near the water to avoid the intense summer heat. The Mayor’s house today on East End Avenue was built in the 18th century as one of those residences.

By the late 19th century, the 1880s, the situation in Mrs. Astor’s brownstone was aggravated by a new mansion being built directly across 34th Street from her. Its owner Alexander Stewart was one of the premier New York department store owners in this new age.

The Alexander Stewaret mansion was (or looked to be) larger than Mrs. Astor’s. And it stood out brightly. It was not a brownstone but instead marble and limestone, like a European chateau. Mr. Stewart was never invited to the Astor ball in January as he was also considered “not our kind.” He was in the retail business. The money didn’t matter; that would take another generation before it began to fit in.

Caroline Astor’s understated brownstone on 34th Street and her new shiny white marble clad neighbor’s mansion, Alexander Stewart, to the north.
The A. T. Stewart’s shiny mansion in full view.
The entrance hall to the Stewart mansion. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)

Then there was Waldorf Astor who found his aunt annoying if for no other reason than that her calling card was simply: Mrs. Astor.  Like she was the only one in town. And Waldorf had a wife. Eventually Waldorf was so fed up with his aunt and New York itself where he wasn’t enjoying the grandeur of the family name that he moved to England where he made a famous Astor Family of his own, not to be confused with the Americans.

When Waldorf Astor moved, he had his mansion torn down and on the land he built a 12 story hotel called The Waldorf which occupied his entire property abutting that of his aunt. So now Caroline Astor’s neighbor was a tall building occupied with hundreds of people she never saw or knew day and night. This was the last straw for Mrs. Astor but also for her only son Jack. His generation were all moving up the avenue toward the new Central Park.

Caroline Astor’s brownstone dwarfed by the Waldorf Hotel, built by her nephew Waldorf Astor after he razed his father’s grand mansion. Photo: Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Caroline Astor stuck it out at her comfortable brownstone and did over the Georgian drawing room turning into the then fashionable Rococo style. It was in this room the family had their signature family portrait done.

So Jack Astor persuaded his mother — who could now see her world was moving up the avenue that she should move too. This was a big move; she was in her sixties and widowed from a husband who spent most of their marriage off on his own. She decided to build a new mansion on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. A double mansion — one side for her son Jack and his wife Ava and his son Vincent — and the other side for Mother, Mrs. A.

When the new mansion was ready to move in, her brownstone on 34th Street was torn down, and son Jack built a hotel bordering that of his cousin on the property, and called it The Astoria. A few years went by before the two cousins came to an agreement and merged both into: The Waldorf–Astoria which became the most famous hotel in New York, and to the world.

The conjoined Waldorf–Astoria dwarfing the A. T. Stewart Mansion in 1899. Photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
The Waldorf-Astoria in full view.
The main entrance to the Waldorf.
The main entrance to the Astoria.

In February of 1896, Mrs. Astor became officially a resident on upper Fifth Avenue across from the Park. The house which was a double mansion and a main ballroom with a capacity of 1200 — four times the capacity of her ballroom on 34th Street. (The mansion today has long been replaced by Temple Emanu-El). New York was changing, growing with the times.

The city was growing. Those who could afford it wanted more space, fresh air, gardens. The Park was the inspiration. They were looking into the future. The year Central Park opened (1859), the land across the road (Fifth Ave) from it was still wild, mainly undeveloped, inhabited here and there by shanties on rocky and hilly land of swamps and cesspools. It was the equivalent of a bad neighborhood today. There was poverty, violence and farm animals, pigs and dogs running around freely.

Mrs. Astor’s double mansion on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The famed ballroom.

Part II.

This was New York and this was Fifth Avenue — an indication on a map, a kind of no man’s land.  Up until the last twenty years of the 19th century much of Manhattan, the island was half-uninhabited except by those who were detritus to the civilized, wealthy or working families. After the Civil War, however, within the next 20 years the building of family mansions as well as a rare apartment house created a new neighborhood.

By 1910, as Central Park had developed into a community destination for everyone, Fifth Avenue had become the residential avenue where the best of what once had been farmland was now occupied first by the rich, and then the working population as well as the immigrants who’d come to America for a better life.

Fifth Avenue looking south from 66th Street, 1900.

Caroline Astor died in her mansion 1908. She was 78. At the end of the life her mind began to leave her. She’d lived alone except for staff during those years, and the presence of her grandson Vincent when he was home from schools. Her son Jack’s marriage to Ava Willing was very unhappy, and the two couple were often estranged or at least separate frequently, and the big house was mainly empty save for the staff.

William Vincent’s apathetic mother Ava Willing, circa 1911.

Ava is remembered as loathing her husband as well as negligent if not entirely rejecting of her only son William Vincent. A story about her and her son has been passed down through generations as first recounted by the boy:

As a child, one day he was in his mother’s dressing room as she was getting ready to go out. His presence annoyed her so much that she locked him in a dress closet while she finished preparing. Having finished, she forgot about the boy in the closet. Either that, or she purposely left him locked away — the latter is as realistic as the former as it was known that she didn’t like her child.

Realizing that she had left him locked up, the child banged on the door and yelled and eventually screamed and cried for someone to free him. In the great mansion with all its servants, no one heard him and he was stranded, a prisoner until a staff member finally heard his pleas for freedom.

Vincent Astor as a young man.

The incident, along with other incidents of parental neglect or lack of affection, left a deep mark of rejection that from the looks of it, ruined his life. In fact, in his adulthood, all three of his wives soon tired of his needs as well as his dominance. Had he not died before, it is possible that his third and last wife, Brooke Astor, would have left him also. When he was married to his second wife, Minnie Cushing, the eldest sister of Babe Paley, eventually she told him she wanted a divorce. He insisted she first find him a new wife. He did not want to be alone.

At the time, he asked a couple of women he knew, to marry him, explaining that his wife was leaving him. The first request was turned down with the explanation that the woman was already engaged to marry. The second request was made to Janet Stewart, the wife and widow of his late friend William Rhinelander Stewart and famously known in her youthful maturing as the most beautiful woman in New York. “Marry you?!” Stewart replied, “I don’t even like you; why would I marry you?”

Vincent was said to have replied that he wasn’t in good health and he was getting older and that he wasn’t going to live very much longer, and then she’d have all that inheritance.

“But what if you didn’t die?” she was said to reply. “I already have enough money.”

The irony of the story was that Vincent Astor was very unpopular, especially with women. He was like the boy who never grew out of the deep sense of rejection that exaggerated his need for companionship. He died at 67, in 1958, the sixth year of his marriage to Brooke. Unlike those who came before him to the family fortune, Vincent instead gave his money away to many charitable situations, not the least of which were regarded for children with needs.

Vincent had been his father’s main heir when Jack Astor died on the Titanic. Divorced from his first wife Ava, in 1911 he married again — a young woman Vincent’s age, almost thirty years younger than her husband. Vincent hated her. She was pregnant with child when the Titanic occurred, and the son, John J. the Fifth was born. As a matter of thoroughness, Jack Astor’s will provided for the unborn child, a trust of $3 million. Vincent didn’t like him either and treated him thusly, frequently claiming in front of others that he was not the child of Vincent’s father.

Vincent sold that house on 65th and Fifth and built a house for himself and his first wife Helen Huntington on East 80th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. After their divorce (and he was about to marry Minnie, he had moved from that house to 10,000 square foot penthouse atop of an apartment building that he built on 120 East End Avenue, overlooking the East River and the bridges from the north to the south, on land that had been in the family since his great-great-great grandfather, the first John Jacob Astor who started the family fortune.

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