William Waldorf Astor
William Astor was born in New York City, the only child of John Jacob Astor III (1822-1890) and Charlotte Augusta Gibbes (c.1825 -1887). He was educated in Germany and in Italy before studying at Columbia Law School. He worked shortly in law practice and in the management of his father’s estate. In 1878 he married Mary Dahlgren Paul (1858-1894) and went into politics, serving as a New York state assemblyman and senator. He was twice defeated in his bids for a seat in the United States Congress. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Astor Minister to Italy, a post he held until 1885. (“Go and enjoy yourself, my dear boy,” the president told Astor.) While living in Rome, Astor developed a life-long passion for art and sculpture.
Upon the death of his father in early 1890, William Waldorf Astor inherited a personal fortune that made him the richest man in America. On November 7, 1890, plans were filed with the New York City Building Department to construct a new hotel on the site of William Astor’s residence. In 1891, after a family feud with his aunt Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor over matters of social seniority, Astor and his family moved to England, a decision that was published throughout all the major newspapers. Although the owner of the Waldorf Hotel built where his home had stood, William Astor visited it only once in his lifetime. In 1897, his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912) built the Astoria Hotel adjoining the Waldorf, and the complex then became known as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Arriving in England, at first Astor rented Lansdowne House in London until 1893 when he purchased a country estate at Cliveden-on-Thames in Taplow, Buckinghamshire from Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster. In 1899 Astor became a British subject and in 1903 acquired Hever Castle near Edenbridge, Kent about 30 miles south of London. The huge estate, built in 1270 was where Anne Boleyn lived as a child. William Waldorf Astor invested a great deal of time and money to restore the castle, building what is known as the “Tudor Village” and creating a lake and lavish gardens. In 1905 he gave his son William Waldorf Astor II and his new daughter-in-law, the former Nancy Langhorne, the Cliveden estate as a wedding present.
With ambitions to be part of the literary world, Astor wrote two novels, became the owner of the Pall Mall Gazette and Pall Mall Magazine, and in 1911 purchased the London Sunday Observer. In 1915 Astor relinquished his holdings, giving them to his son Waldorf Astor who sold them soon thereafter. An avid lover of thoroughbred horse racing, he acquired a large stable of horses that won a number of important British races.
Astor’s move to England was influenced by his distrust of the American press. Newspapers famously quoted him as stating “America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live.” Astor resented their branding him as a traitor and continued to be concerned about his reputation in the American press. In 1892 he even circulated false reports of his own death in order to see how the press would memorialize him. Unfortunately, his ploy was soon uncovered, and only damaged his reputation further.
As a British citizen, William Waldorf Astor used his great wealth for numerous public causes, especially during World War I for which King George V rewarded him with a barony, as Baron Astor in 1916 and a year later was raised to a viscountcy.