Money, Power, And Scandal — The Awesome Story Of How The Astors Became An American Dynasty

John Jacob Astor HouseJohn Jacob Astor’s Estate

Astoria, Queens; Astor Place; The Waldorf-Astoria… even if you’re not a New Yorker, you’ve heard of these iconic places. You also probably know that they’re named for one very powerful family — The Astors.To this day their money is making waves in society. Brooke Astor’s estate was finally settled last week after a five year legal battle that lead to nasty revelations about her son, Anthony Marshall. He was eventually convicted of fraud.

So how do you build a dynasty like this one? One whose money lasts for generations? Take a look at how the Astors made their cash and you might have clue.



The Astors came from nothing.

Johann Jacob Astor, Sr. worked as a butcher in Walldorf, southeastern Germany. His ancestors are said to have been French Huguenots who'd fled to Germany after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted protection to Protestants.

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

Johann Jacob Astor Jr. was born in 1763.

As a youngster, Astor worked for his father as a dairy salesman. He had three brothers, the eldest of whom, George, left home to work for an uncle in London who made musical instruments. Astor met up with him there after his 16th birthday.

(Note: The Astors are low on name originality, so for clarity we will refer to the 'founding' John Jacob Astor as John Jacob.)

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

But John Jacob had always planned to sail to America.

He got his chance after 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed. He immigrated to New York and after several months took a job with a fur trader. By 1800, he'd built up his own business and was said to be worth $250,000 -- or about $8.9 million in 2012 dollars.

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

In 1785, he married Sarah Todd.

They had three children: Magdalena, John Jacob II and William. It would be William who, thanks to his seven children, created the Astor dynasty.

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

Despite his German background, John Jacob was a patriot.

He helped finance American armaments in the War of 1812 by becoming the government's largest warbond holder. This, despite some of his fur trading operations becoming disrupted by fighting.

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

John Jacob's final act of wealth creation was to get out of fur and into real estate.

He bought and sold acres upon acres of land in and around New York City, including what is now Times Square. At the end of his life his fortune was estimated between $20 and $30 million, making him the richest man in America upon his death in 1848.

Source: The life and ventures of the original John Jacob Astor

William Backhouse Astor's principal achievement in life was inheriting his father's fortune.

He continued to invest in real estate, mostly around Central Park.

Source: Wikipedia

Even if he failed to distinguish himself as a businessman, William continued his father's philanthropy.

He bequeathed thousands of dollars to St. Luke's Hospital on the Upper West Side and the Astor library, which today is a theatre in the East Village.

Source: Wikipedia

But during William's sons' generation, the Astor family starts to become slightly unhinged.

Henry Astor, William's youngest son, married a woman who was allegedly the daughter of the man who ran the family's Red Hook, NY farm. According to Wikipedia, 'his reputed disinheritance for falling in love with a poor woman became a celebrated scandal in New York society.'

Source: Wikipedia

Two of William Sr.'s three sons lived in side-by-side mansions on the future site of the Empire State Building.

But they didn't accomplish terribly much. William Jr. had some success as a developer in Florida. John III, along with his wife Charlotte Gibbs, was a major philanthropist; the couple founded the Children's Aid Society.

Source: Wikipedia

Eventually a full-on fissure appeared between John III and William Jr.'s lineages.

William Waldorf Astor, John III's son, built a 13-story hotel next door to the home of his aunt, Caroline (William Jr.'s wife), as part of a family dispute. Caroline would go on to call it a 'glorified tavern.'

Source: Wikipedia

John IV, Waldorf Astor's cousin, got his revenge by building his own hotel next door, four stories higher, a few years later.

Eventually the two hotels were joined, resulting in the first Waldorf=Astoria. (the hotel was and still is officially styled with an equals sign or double-hyphen instead of a single hyphen) It became the most famous hotel in the world. It too stood on the future site of the Empire State Building.

Source: Wikipedia

John IV would perish in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912...

...But not before leaving his wife of 18 years, with whom he'd had two sons, for an 18-year-old debutante.

Source: Wikipedia

William Waldorf Astor moved to London in 1891, allegedly as a result of the ongoing feud.

He proved something of an eccentric: He allegedly faked his own death so that he could read positive news about himself in the American press. He spent the rest of his life hungering for British peerage, which he eventually received, obtaining the rank of Viscount.

Source: Wikipedia

Back in the U.S., things looked a bit more normal.

Sons of Margaret Astor Ward, the great-granddaughter of JJ Astor, achieved success in New York politics, with one becoming a Congressman and another lieutenant governor. Another Astor cousin owned Newsweek for a while.

Source: Wikipedia

Still, average number of marriages among Astors held steady at north of two.

John Jacob 'Jakey' Astor VI, son of the Astor killed on the Titanic, married four times, as did his sister Ava Alice. A cousin, William Waldorf 'Bill' Astor, 3rd Viscount Astor, married three times.

Source: Wikipedia

Even David Astor, long-running editor of the UK's Observer newspaper, married twice.

He led the paper for 27 years. Now owned by The Guardian, it had been purchased by David's father, Viscount Waldorf Astor (the eccentric), in 1911.

Source: Wikipedia

But the Astors remained a force. In 1931, the modern Waldorf Astoria opened on Park Avenue. It became legendary for its service.

The old one had lost its luster during Prohibition and was torn down.

Source: Waldorf of New York

Another notable Astor achievement was seating the first woman in the House of Commons in the chamber's history.

That distinction belongs to Nancy, Viscountess Astor, the wife of Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor.

She served for many years.

Source: Wikipedia

Today, the Astors are still very much with us.

William Astor, 4th Viscount of Astor, is step-father of Samantha Cameron, the British first lady. Her cousin, John Jacob Astor, 3rd Baron Astor of Hever, serves in her husband's parliament as under-secretary of state for defence. (The baron's been married twice).

Source: Wikipedia

Just last week, a settlement was reached over dividing the estate of Brooke Astor, in many ways the matriarch of the American Astors.

Astor was the great-great granddaughter, by marriage, of John Jacob. Her inheritance was said to be worth $100 million. Her son Anthony Marshall, 87, saw his share cut in half, to $14.5 million. Three years ago, he was convicted of stealing from her.

Brooke Astor died in 2007 at age 105, and was the subject of a four-page obituary in the Times.

Marshall's been married three times.

Source: New York Times

John Jacob gets credit for providing the original financing for the New York Public Library.

Even though it ended up in a different location.

Source: Wikipedia

Messenger had one wife, that we know of...

Source: Wikipedia

The family burial plot stands at Trinity Church Cemetery on the Upper West Side.

At least nine Astors are buried there. John Jacob was buried at the Trinity plot near Wall Street.

Source: Wikipedia

Something about growing up in New York can drive one a bit mad...

...As we saw in another recent tale we told, the history of JP Morgan Chase. If you want to know how the bank ended up killing Alexander Hamilton, click here.

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