William Waldorf Astor, 1848-1919
‘In himself and in the lonely life he led amid the environments he had acquired or created – surroundings partly noble and magnificent, partly fantastic and baroque – Lord Astor was an extraordinary and singular personality.’ From ‘A Personal Impression of William Waldorf Astor, by a Friend’, The Times, 1919.
William Waldorf Astor was born in New York City in 1848 as the only child of John Jacob Astor III. Only two generations earlier, his great grandfather, John Jacob Astor I, had left the village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg in South West Germany, to find a future for himself across the Atlantic. And what a future he found: after amassing massive profits through fur trading and a vast shipping empire, he ploughed his money into property on Manhattan Island, earning the title the ‘Landlord of New York’.
Only three generations of property development later, the William Waldorf Astor of Two Temple Place was part of one of the richest ever dynasties in US history, inheriting a vast fortune in 1890. Interviewing Astor at Two Temple Place for his 1906 book, The Future in America, H.G. Wells wrote:
“…[William Waldorf Astor] draws gold from New York as effectually as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit.”
But Astor’s relationship with America was unhappy, and one of mutual aversion to the press. In 1892, perhaps to disappear from public view, he sent a report of his own death to the US papers, and was rewarded by unkind obituaries; his time in the States was well and truly over.
Emigrating to England in 1890, he had soon bought Cliveden, the remarkable 17th century country house in Buckinghamshire, as well as Anne Boleyn’s family home Hever Castle in Kent, a home in Brighton (where the locals referred to him as “Waldorf by name and walled-off by nature”), and an astonishing seafront villa in Sorrento. But it is in his commission for the construction of this lavish office in central London that we get an insight into Astor’s own interests and aspirations. He handed his architect, the acclaimed John Loughborough Pearson, an unlimited budget for Two Temple Place and the result reads like a short biography of Astor, created for him by some of greatest craftsmen of the time.
By all accounts Astor cut an uncongenial figure. History attests to a shy and austere man with a secretive nature and prickly personality, and this is reflected in the building’s imposing façade, formidable gargoyles and strongroom – a state-of-the-art secure vault with a granite floor and custom-made Chubb steel door which has since been removed. Meanwhile, an opulent interior with wood panelling and intricate carving is a vivid reflection of his deeper passions and interests, featuring a fantasia of romantic and historic figures from classical literature, mythology, and the past. The building is rich with narrative and counter-narrative and rewards the nosiest visitors best!
“A cross between a London club, an English country house, and an Oxbridge college…”
In London, in addition to his work administrating the family estate in New York, Astor bought a number of newspapers, most notably to us today The Observer in 1911, which thereafter remained in the family for over 70 years. Astor made considerable philanthropic gifts in the UK, and it is presumably not unrelated that he was made a British citizen in 1899, and in January 1916 accepted a peerage of the UK under the title of Hever Castle.
Astor’s own marriage is reputed to have been joyless, though he and Mamie had four surviving children to carry on the dynasty. Of the Astor family in America in the 18th and 19th centuries it was repeatedly said that ‘the wives made them’, and securing ‘good marriages’ for their children and pushing their husbands’ social mobility by manufacturing ‘society’ is a running theme in our received narrative of some of the key 19th century Astor women. Other notable Astors include, later, the incendiary Nancy Astor who appears on the scene in 1906 and was the first woman in Parliament, as well as John Jacob Astor IV, a cousin of Two Temple Place’s Astor, who died on the Titanic, honeymooning with his second wife, thirty years his junior.
We’ll be introducing new tours of Two Temple Place in 2021 with more information about the life and times of Astor and his family’s wealth in the post-frontier America of 1790 onwards – sign up to our mailing list to be the first to know.