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When the Astors Owned New York


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About the Author

Justin Kaplan was an editor, biographer, and author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain and Walt Whitman- A Life, among other books. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died in 2014.


This frothy look at several generations of Astors by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain is custom-made for the Waldorf gift shop. The tightwad founder of the Astor dynasty was a butcher's son from the German backwater of Waldorf. By the time John Jacob Astor died in 1848 at the age of 84, the richest man in America had turned a fur trade monopoly into a Manhattan real estate empire. Astor House, his "astonishing" luxury hotel adjacent to City Hall, cosseted the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Britain's future King Edward VII in its 80-year history. John Jacob's "phlegmatic and cautious" son, William, increased the family fortune, married a blueblood and sired sons who couldn't abide one another. "Imperious and somber" John Jacob III and playboy William, who was married to society queen Caroline Schermerhorn, passed on the family feud to their sons who managed to combine forces in 1897 to build the Waldorf-Astoria. Prickly and snobbish William Waldorf Astor failed in New York State politics, became a novelist and an art collector, and died a British viscount. John Jacob IV's military service and his death on the Titanic helped temper his reputation as a spoiled fool. B&w photos. (June 5) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

From humble origins in Waldorf, Germany, where he was born in 1763, John Jacob Astor became the wealthiest man in America. Through a fortune founded mainly on the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, he left heirs who have influenced the social life of New York City almost to this day. Kaplan (Walt Whitman: A Life) eloquently tells a part of the family story in his highly literate book, focusing on two of John Jacob's great-grandsons, cousins William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, who developed separate-but ultimately conjoined-hotels, the Waldorf (opened in 1893) and the Astoria (opened in 1897). In discussing these men's lives and projects, Kaplan writes charmingly about an era in all its cultural prominence and extravagance. John Jacob Astor IV's life ended as a first-class passenger on the Titanic; William Waldorf Astor became an English aristocrat who hired genealogists to search for a possible noble ancestry. He died in his adopted country after achieving his long-sought British peerage. This book will be a welcome addition to all libraries.-Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

A gem of a book . . . No one since [Henry] James has written with such ease and grace about the era of excess as Kaplan. (Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters)

Mr. Kaplan, a dazzling stylist, is perfectly suited to his subject: what Henry James lovingly called aehotel civilizationae . . . [A] splendid book about a bygone age that has not quite gone away. (The New York Sun)

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