The Astor Family and New York City

Angelique is a native New Yorker whose family entered Ellis Island at the turn of last century, towards the end of the Glided Age. She was raised with the stories of the Vanderbilts, Astors, Wilsons,and Roosevelts. While her parents saw the slow decay and eventual demolition of the gilded city mansions, they could visit the now open to the public, glossy mansions up the Hudson. From New York, she went to Washington DC for university, after which Angelique has permanently lived overseas; starting with the Peace Corps in North Yemen, passing years in Hong Kong and Japan, and finishing with the USO in South Korea, before moving permanently to the UK. She has worked in theatre, TV, radio and film, while having time to work on political campaigns and voter registration. But most of all she enjoys the history that surrounds her every day in London, volunteering as a conservation assistant at Ham House, giving lectures and tours, attending lectures and tours!

"One of the wonders of Two Temple Place is that fact that it had, for most of its life, managed to stay hidden in plain sight in the heart of London. In the shadow of the ancient Temple, this wonderful “Casket on the Thames” was the dream of William Waldorf Astor, a romantic at heart, who created a piece of art in which to work, and revel in, surrounded by romantic images both real and fictional. Because that was the world into which he was born; the Gilded Age of New York.

A view from the front of Two Temple Place © Two Temple Place

Astor was born into a city that eventually would become the centre of art, commerce, power, chaos, pretence,  notorious social climbing, and  prejudice. Though he was a second generation American, his family was considered upstarts, nouveau riche by the old families of New York, the former New Amsterdam; founded by the Dutch in the 17C, before becoming an English colony. The established families of 19C  NYC were the Anglo-Dutch who could trace their ancestry to pre-revolutionary days, or even better…..the Mayflower.  

William Waldorf Astor © Two Temple Place

Astor’s great-grandfather was a penniless immigrant with no respectable heritage to speak of, but who “made good”, becoming the first American multi-millionaire, and the creator of the first trust. Despite controlling the fur trade on the Great Lakes, establishing the first American settlement on the Pacific coast, financing an expedition which found the South Pass, through which hundreds of pioneers on the Oregon Trail passed, and building the Astor library which eventually became the famous New York Public library, he was still a parvenu.

It was his grandson, William Backhouse Astor, who truly crashed the gates of high society. But at a cost.

William Waldorf’s aunt-by-marriage, Caroline “Lina” Webster Schermerhorn, was descended from the Dutch patrons (Old Knickerbockers) and therefore was socially superior to the Astors, with less money, but more importantly, with inherited wealth.  Pedigree was essential during the Gilded Age, and Caroline became the great doyenne of the Upper Crust, the Gatekeeper, barring arrivistes with their “new money” like the Vanderbilts. Caroline thought “Backhouse” was vulgar, so William was forced to drop it. 

One story goes that only four hundred people could fit in Aunt Caroline’s famous ballroom and, therefore, that number represented Fashionable Society, making her the foremost authority on the “aristocracy” of New York.  None was permitted to attend these gatherings without an official calling card from her. The idea was a mix of “Nobs” and “Swells.” “Nobs” came from the Old Money and “Swells” were representatives of the New Money. William Waldorf was raised in this world of dazzling wealth, cotillions, social extravaganzas, all bound up in ridged rules and regulations Caroline created.

Mrs. William Astor (Caroline Webster Shermerhorn), Carolus-Duran, 1890, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The Forbes 400 richest list takes its number from Caroline’s fabled ballroom. And the term, “The 400” was still in use up to the 1970s to describe this strata of society. Alva Vanderbilt, an arriviste whose enormous wealth came from railroads (which Caroline found vulgar), had been barred from the highest echelons of society. In 1883, to combat this, she threw an opulent costume ball, inviting all the important young ladies, except Caroline’s daughter, because Mrs. Astor had not called on Mrs. Vanderbilt. Legend has it that Caroline rode  in her carriage to the Vanderbilts mansion, had her card delivered to the house, and drove off.  The Vanderbilts entered the sacred portals.

William Waldorf Astor and Family. Mary, Mrs William Waldorf Astor sits on the right © Two Temple Place

The greatest social battle was over the title of the “Mrs. Astor”, which had belonged to William Waldorf’s mother. When she died in 1887, William assumed his wife would become the Mrs. Astor, as he was now the head of the family. Caroline had other ideas and refused Waldorf request that her calling cards retain the name “Mrs. William Astor”. Tired of his aunt’s intransigence, William razed his 5th Avenue townhouse which was next to hers, (with the initial intention of building stables), and erected a 13 storey hotel called The Waldorf. Then he promptly moved to London. Caroline was now facing the horror of living in a commercialised neighbourhood, with noise, and crowds of riffraff. She levelled her townhouse and wasted no time in putting up her own hotel, three stories higher, called the Astoria. When peace in the family eventually prevailed, a corridor was built connecting the hotels – subsequently called the Waldorf-Astoria. Today it’s the site of the Empire State Building."

The Waldorf Hotel 


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