Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune
by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
Read by Anderson Cooper
8 hours, 18 minutes
Published September 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
The story of the Astors is a quintessentially American story-of ambition, invention, destruction, and reinvention. 

From 1783, when German immigrant John Jacob Astor first arrived in the United States, until 2009, when Brooke Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of defrauding his elderly mother, the Astor name occupied a unique place in American society. 

The family fortune, first made by a beaver trapping business that grew into an empire, was then amplified by holdings in Manhattan real estate. Over the ensuing generations, Astors ruled Gilded Age New York society and inserted themselves into political and cultural life, but also suffered the most famous loss on the Titanic, one of many shocking and unexpected twists in the family's story. 

In this unconventional, page-turning historical biography, #1 New York Times bestselling authors Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe chronicle the lives of the Astors and explore what the Astor name has come to mean in America-offering a window onto the making of America itself.

My Thoughts: 
I've been meaning to read Cooper's Vanderbilt for some time. It arrived in my audiobook inbox once, but I still had too long left on the book I was listening to at the time. It arrived in my library as a hold for me recently, but I'd accidentally requested it on CD. One day I'll get to it. In the meantime, I was able to get Cooper's follow up, Astor, which was inspired by the research he'd done into his own family history. 

The Astor family name is one which I've been familiar with for a long time. I knew a little something about the first John Jacob Astor; I'd heard of John Jacob Astor IV, who sank with the Titanic; and the name Brook Astor was familiar to me, having a vague recollection of the battle over her money after she died. But, as you know, I always love a book that teaches me more about a subject I'm only passingly familiar with - especially when that book is well researched and well written. 

John Jacob Astor I, c. 1794
by Gilbert Sullivan
What I learned: 
  • John Jacob Astor started his fortune trapping and trading in beaver pelts.  He was not, as you might expect from someone who grew from modest means to immense wealth, not above playing dirty and taking advantage of people. Astor's greatest wealth came from his ability to understand how valuable land around New York City would become; he even bought up land from Aaron Burr. 
  • John Jacob Astor I wanted to create his own country, called Astoria, on the west coast. It never came to fruition; but the name Astoria became part of New York history when later family members used it, along with Waldorf (the town where JJA was born), to name hotels and a neighborhood in Queens. 
  • Most of John Astor I's fortune passed down to his son William Backhouse Astor. William bought up even more land. On these lands, slum dwellings grew, greatly increasing the Astor fortune. 
  • William's son, William Backhouse Jr, married Caroline Astor who became the arbiter of New York society for decades. I'm more familiar with William and Caroline than any other Astor due to having read books about the Vanderbilts, who had to overcome Carline to become accepted in NYC society. Junior was more interested in yachting and other women than in business. They were the parents of John "Jack" Jacob Astor IV. 
  • William's grandson, William Waldorf Astor established himself in England but, because of an division between William and his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, he built the Waldorf Hotel next to John's house in order to dwarf it. Jack Astor convinced his mother to tear down their home and build the Astoria Hotel next to the Waldorf Hotel. Eventually the cousins reached a truce and created corridors between the hotels, creating the Waldorf-Astoria. 
  • When Jack's son, William Vincent Astor, inherited his father's wealth, he set out to change the family's image, selling off their slum housing and becaming a great philanthropist (although not necessary a great person). When he died, he left all of his money to the Vincent Astor foundation and his third wife, Brooke. Brooke's son by her first marriage, Anthony, would eventually end up in jail for trying to cheat his mother out of her money in her later years, when she was battling Alzheimer's. Brooke lived to 105 and was the last of Astor to be prominent.  
Again and again throughout the book, Cooper finds ties to people and places in American history, which made the book all that much more interesting. There are several times when Cooper and Howe veer off to explore places or events, which, while interesting, were a distraction from the family history for me. And while Cooper does a fine job reading the book, I can't help but wonder if it would have been easier to keep track of who was who if I'd been physically reading the book (there are, after all, a lot of John Jacobs and William's in the book). Overall, through, I found it fascinating. The history of a family, the history of how a great fortune became so divided and so ill-used as to become inconsequential, the history of so much of the United States. And now I need to get my hands on Vanderbilt so I can see how that family managed to do much the same thing. 

1 comment:

  1. The history through which this family passed through is good reading.