Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age - When the Astors Owned New York

By Justin Kaplan

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Readers` Reviews

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
mikey galai
love it
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
sofia flores
Very good,very fast - thank you
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
tabby crouch
A True Story of a Haunted Castle - and a Family Secret :: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark :: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt - Fortune's Children :: Harvester (Book 1, Harvester of Light Trilogy) :: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Very boring. Not much information about the Astors. And only a lttle about the time of the century. Waste of money.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
jennifer lehman
John Jacob Astor made his fortune trading furs with the Indians. When he went bust, he had enough to buy up a large percentage of land on Manhattan Island. At the time it was nothing more than a small city of 25,000 or so.

The Astors were plagued by the press as part of the original Astor's money came from tenements. They still owned them four generations later. William Waldorf and John Jacob IV saw nothing wrong with it.

These two cousins hated each other but they enhanced the Astor fortune by building luxury hotels, the most famous of which was the Waldorf-Astoria aimed at the rich. Eventually both would build more luxury hotels, including the Astor and the St. Regis. They never let personal animosity interfere with business. William built the Waldorf; John Jacob IV added on to the Astoria.

This book centers on William Waldorf and John Jacob IV of Titanic fame. William thought Americans were a bunch of louts, especially the press; he moved to England where he bought two castles and had his eye on becoming a baron. John Jacob IV coveted a military title, and he got one during the Spanish-American War when he sent an artillery regiment to fight alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. JJ IV witnessed the charge up San Juan Hill, and this got him the military title of Lt. Col. he so much desired. From then on he was known as Colonel. The press thought he was a jackass and that's what they called him.

Both of them proved the old adage, “Money will not make you happy.” JJ IV's wife, Ava, was a noted beauty and she knew it. They argued constantly until JJ IV's mother Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, queen of New York's exclusive “Four Hundred,” died and he was able to quietly divorce Ava, only to fall in love with a seventeen year old girl; he was 46; this was shortly before the Titanic sunk, and that's how JJ IV is remembered; he went down with the ship after making sure his wife was safe in a lifeboat. Thanks to his donations to WWI veterans and other charities, William eventually got his peerage. He donated one of his castles to his son, Waldorf, as a wedding present. Waldorf married American spitfire, Nancy Langhorne, the first woman to win in a seat in Parliament. She was a suffragette and staunchly liberal while William was more conservative than Rush Limbaugh. When he finally won his title, Waldorf disapproved as he had already won a seat in the Commons. If William were to accept the title, when he died, Waldorf would have to move to the ineffective House of Lords. They never spoke again, nor did he speak to his daughter Pauline who also disapproved. He died a pig-headed, lonely old man.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
sue mckeown
I have to say that I was disappointed with this book. I bought it in the Rosecliff Mansion museum book store while visiting Newport, RI. I vaguely remembered a review on the store saying the book had problems, but the cover looked good, Rosecliff Mansion and the Newport Preservation Society apparently endorsed it by carrying it in their book store, and I hadn't yet read anything about the Astors, though I knew they were important characters in the Gilded Age. Additionally, the author had won a Pulitzer Prize for a prior book on Mark Twain, and the book was short, so I gave it a try.

First of all, the book is written well. It just wasn't conceived in scope and purpose. The book gives an interesting but too short overview of how the founder John Jacob Astor started but not much else on the next two generations, until we meet JJA the 4 th and his cousin William Waldorf Astor. The book focuses on how these two cousins practically invented the era of ultra-luxury hotels in Manhattan. To be fair, Manhattan real estate and slum-lording is how the Astors made their fortune (much more than the fur trade, which is how things started out), but the author spends too much time talking about the hotels, almost as if he dusted off a report he had written on Gilded Age hotels in Manhattan, and his publisher told him to make it into a book on the Astors.

The author also barely gets into the minds of his characters. And by looking at his relatively skimpy bibliography I can understand why.

Then after spending half the book talking about JJA4 and his cousin WWA, he mentions that JJA4 died in the Titanic sinking at the end of a sentence without saying anything more. His new, 19-year old bride, less than half his age, was 5 months pregnant at the time and survived and eventually gives birth to JJA 6 th. COME ON ?!?!

Furthermore, he barely mentions anything about the family subsequently. Brooke Astor isn't even mentioned at all ?!?! ...After he died on the Titanic, JJA4's fortune went to his son Vincent Astor who married Brooke as his third wife for the last 7 years of his life, and when he died, Brooke got the whole fortune...and I'll have to read another book to find out more.

The book did provide a little bit of a background so that I could Google to get the information I thought I should have gotten when I purchased this book yesterday.


Add: After more closely inspecting the front and back covers, it appears that the subtitle mentions "Grand Hotels", but the subtext is in small letters and the cover photo is of JJA4 and his 19 yr old bride, who had nothing to do with buildings. It's clear now that the cover was was decepetive, fooling you into believing the book was about the Astor's. There should have been photos of the Hotels...but then maybe not as many people would have bought it. After searhcing through the store, I couldn't find a good book on the Astor's. Any suggestions??
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
This could have been a fascinating glimpse into Gilded Age America as represented by one of its preeminent families. Instead, it mainly drones on about the real estate investments of its two unhappy protagonists. That unhappiness is explored, but in a depressing rather than insightful way. The central conflict between the two cousins, the Waldorf and Astor of their namesake hotel, is never satisfyingly elucidated. What could have been so estranging that when John Jacob Astor’s body was recovered from the Titanic, his cousin and business partner did not attend the funeral? The most interesting of the bunch, the founding father of the dynasty who went from Pacific fur trapper to Manhattan tycoon, is passed over here as mere backstory.
I would have preferred details more juicy than reciting the menus of their grand hotels. Gore Vidal did much better with the same material.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
maria caracci
This book is enjoyable, interesting and full of great info for use in trivia games. Also, it is confusing. This is not really the author's fault; it's the fault of the Astors who had no desire to come up with original names for their sons. Also, the genealogy chart shows only the males. A genealogy chart that included the names of the females would have made it much easier to keep track of all of these people, with their same or similar names.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
pramod p
When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan is a bit of a disappointment. From the title and description, I was looking for a biography of the Astor family along with a taste of history about the times they lived in. While there is some brief biographical information in the book, much of it is focused on the hotels they (and others) built. Pages are allotted to the Palmer House in Chicago (which they didn't build), but far less to John Jacob Astor's death on the Titanic. His scandalous divorce and marriage to a much younger woman are also glossed over. His uncle William Waldorf Astor's life is covered in far greater detail, but even he doesn't get full coverage. Gossipy bits and pieces of the times are dropped here and there. Kaplan goes overboard in quoting Henry James in his eloquence about the beauty of hotels. There are pages of quotes from James, often repeated. The book meanders and repeats itself as well. I suppose not much should be expected from such a slim volume, but I was hoping for more.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
My rating of 5 stars is well deserved.This book lays bare the privileged lives of the Astors and others in their social circle. They were all about themselves and had no real feelings for their fellow man,except to show them,that they were worlds above. I have read alot about the Gilded Age and this is one of the best.Author Justin Kaplan has out done himself.I will definitely read more of his works!
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
youssef manie
The author of this book, Justin Kaplan, is clearly more a writer than a historian. Personally I felt that this relatively short book (180 pages) was quite readable and got through it in one sitting. However, at the end, I was left scratching my head as to what was the purpose of the book. Essentially the author has read a number of Astor biographies and simply did a non-academic rewrite. I suppose its like a trashy Hollywood biography based on movie magazine articles but written by someone far more articulate. Unfortunately the book doesn't really have any focus. The principal figures in this book, the third generation cousins William and John Jacob Astor, led interesting and diverse lives. Unfortunately the book is not a biography, several of which exist and are sources, but is presented as centering on the hotel interests of the Astors. I doubt that even a quarter of the book, short as it is, has anything to do with the hotels. There are multiple chapters on William's immigration to England, the Bradley-Martin party (only connection being that it was held in an Astor hotel) etc. What is presented regarding the hotels is largely factual and is devoid of a historian' s analysis or intellectual curiosity. We are told little about the hotel industry in New York at that time, the economics of the industry or the impact on land development. One aspect that I was unaware of was that the Astors leased out the hotel buildings to operators who actually ran the hotels on a day to day basis. However the author has no interest on what those relations were, what the commercial terms were, which party was actually responsible for any innovations made at the Astor hotels etc. I guess this book illustrates the differences between writers and historians. While the book is quite readable I personally prefer the more rigorous approach of a historian.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
luke johnson
The Astors are an iconic American family, rising from immigrant roots to great wealth and aristocratic pretensions, undermined by their own social ambition and self-imposed isolation and finally, in later generations, fading from economic and social prominence. (104 year-old Brooke Astor, the widow of Vincent, is the last multi-millionaire Astor, and will leave no Astor heirs.) Yet this book purports to be, not about the Astors, but about the great hotels that they conceived and built, including such landmarks as the old Waldorf-Astoria, The Astor and the St. Regis. As such, the book lacks focus and is poorly integrated; it's not quite a bio of the Astors, since it's character portraits are superficial, but it's not really about the great hotels either, because it limits that story to the role played by the Astors. The result is disjointed and, occasionally, boring. This author knows alot about the Astors and would have done better to write a straightforward biography or family history.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
After the first Astor established a dynasty of immense wealth, his children and grandchildren established a dynasty of immense, elegant hotels that catered to and created a pampered, bloated American aristocracy. A fascinating topic (well, at least to me, who is entranced by the Gilded Age), but the book is short on details or interesting anecdotes (though, maybe the Astors are really just that boring and unlikeable), is clumsily written, not engaging (though the topic is), flat and disinterested. I'd love to see this topic in capable and interested hands. Grade: B
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
kim marques
I love reading about historic places and people ..and the sad story that usually unfolds later down the road is a good life lesson
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Terrible book. It is as dry as an Arizona desert. Boring! Don't believe these reviews. It stunk. I didn't finish reading it.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
fredrik k hler
When The Astors Owned New York is a wonderfully concise version of a period in American history. It is not meant to be a person-by-person account of the Astor family, virtually skipping the grand Mrs. Astor as she is only tangentially related to the plot, which is the change in America during the Gilded Age. By centering on great-grandsons of the dynasty's founder, Kaplan is able to connect their wealth and dreams to that very specific period. When John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic and William Waldorf Astor died in his stately imperious mansion seven years later, that part of history was already ending. The hotels that they designed, that captured the American imagination, were rapidly disappearing.

Kaplan does very well in sticking to his central themes, and when he wanders, it's always for a short bit of fun that makes for grand reading. You can't write a history of any Astor without some gossip, but Kaplan puts those nuggets in their place and stays with his storyline as intended. If you want a quick read about some Astor family members, perhaps as a launching pad into some of the meatier biographies, definitely start here, but if you are interested in the period and what some Astors did with their money, Kaplan's is so far the latest word.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
allison rockwell
Unlike other reviewers, I didn't read this book with the expectation that I'd get insights into the emotional biographies of each of the Astors. Good thing, too, because it isn't here. The relationships between the family members -- and these people could clearly put on a good snit with one another -- is told at arm's length, as if much of the research done was from the newspapers of the time. We don't know what John Jacob Astor thought as much as what he did. Which is okay, too.

The Astors _were_ slightly bizarre (such as working very hard to find a geneaology more uplifting than a successful furrier who was the son of a Baden butcher), and they were definitely influential; I grew up in 1960s New York, and I still felt their influence through my grandparents' attitudes. Among other things, the Astors owned a huge percentage of the real estate of Manhattan island, including the tenements in which many of our ancestors lived.

Where Kaplan's book succeeds is in its ability to capture the gilded era in which these super-rich people lived: a time in which being rich meant being the _idle_ rich, with little to keep themselves occupied other than social engagements or getting involved in the "mine is bigger and more elegant than yours" competitions -- the objects involved being luxury hotels, in this case.

Today, our celebrities are movie stars and musicians. In this era, Kaplan explains, the attention of the media was on the famous rich, the parties they threw, the hissy fits that occassionally happened in public. "According to Mark Twain," he writes, "the appetite for news of the moneyed classes and their doings could be satisfied even by a page-one headline, RICH WOMAN FALLS DOWN STAIRS, NOT HURT."

The Astors are the excuse for the book, but you'll enjoy the book more by focusing on the part after the colon: blue bloods and grand hotels in a gilded age. We learn quite a bit of detail about each of the hotels built -- primarily the original Waldorf-Astoria, a collaboration of convenience through clenched teeth. That sounds awfully dull, but these hotels were so innovative for their time, and so over-the-top in what they offered and to whom, that the book kept my interest without flagging. Writes the author, "The Waldorf-Astoria made dining and lunching in public fashionable, brought society out into the open, and inspired an age of lavish entertainments, parties, balls, and dinners -- grand occasions previously confined to public houses."

We learn everything from the invention of the Waldorf salad to the relationship between the Astors and the other powerful families of the time (such as the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and the Astor who was related by marriage to President Taft), to the political effect of Mrs Cornelia Astor's party during an economic recession, "half a million dollars gone up in frippery and flowers," at which Mrs Astor wore Marie Antoinette's crown jewels. All far, far more entertaining than the "news" in the latest issue of People magazine.

This isn't an important, scholarly book, but I definitely recommend it if you're interested in the ambiance of an earlier age, or curious about the history of New York. Or heck, for no reason whatsoever. It's interesting stuff.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
aditya sudhakar
This was rather dry reading. It didn't go into much of the character of the players or much indepth reporting that marks many such books. It was little more than one could find with a few online searches.

But for those unfamiliar with the Astors it would be a decent place to begin. Perhaps the fact that the Astors themselves were rather dull and didn't do a great deal made it hard to write about them. As a writer myself, I can appreciate this.

Unlike many wealthy people, the Astors were not really a productive lot but were, in fact, simply greedy and not too bright. About all they produced were some hotels and slum dwellings. And the famous "Mrs. Astor" gave lavish parties and determined who was on the four hundred. By today's standards they were not exciting or important players. They were simply old line snobs.

At least such people as Carnegie made for an interesting story.

Having read this book I doubt I'll read any more about these wretched people --- the Astors.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
mindy worley
Justin Kaplan, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain" has recently published a work of entertaining history. "When the Astors Owned New York" offers readers a voyeuristic look into the lives of New York City's high society during the Gilded Age, a society in which the Astor family remained at the pinnacle for many decades. It begins with an account of the life of the founding father of this American dynasty, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), and progresses through five generations of the Astor male line, with a lengthy interruption to elaborate on the life of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, wife of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., who successfully positioned herself as grande dame of New York society. The main focus of the book, however, is the rivalry between cousins William Waldorf and John Jacob Astor IV and their competition to build New York City's largest and grandest hotel.

The author acquaints the reader with America's Gilded Age aristocracy known as the New York Four Hundred, of which Caroline Astor (referred to as "the" Mrs. Astor) positioned herself as matriarch. It reveals the inner workings of this society, the snobbery between "old" and "new" money, and the requirements for being accepted into Mrs. Astor's inner circle.

The book's description of the rivalry between cousins William and John Jacob IV and their success in building several of the world's finest hotels gives the reader insight into how the grand hotels became the center of New York social life and provided both the media and the masses a means of getting close to and observing the lives of the elite. Because the elaborate parties of these socialites were now being held at the grand hotels rather than in the privacy of their homes, the public could live vicariously through what they witnessed firsthand or read in the newspapers about the elite. Kaplan suggests that the hotel "provided a means for the public to glimpse into the lives of the rich and maybe learn from them." What the public was to "learn" is unclear.

Kaplan's vivid depiction of the Astor's "castles of capitalism" not only offers an entertaining view of Gilded Age history, but also educates us as to how New York society and its grand hotels helped to shape this era of America's history. His inclusion of the Astor family tree was extremely helpful in keeping the book's characters straight, as the Astor family had a penchant for recycling family names again and again. Of interest also, was Kaplan's inclusion of facts about items in use today that have origins in the grand hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria. The chafing dish, the use of the velvet rope to allow/prevent entry, and the Waldorf salad are but a few that are mentioned in the book.

Kaplan does tend to overuse foreign terms with which the average reader is sure to be unfamiliar, and his writing sometimes emits an air of sarcasm in describing the elite. Overall, however, the book is a very enjoyable and entertaining read and is highly recommended to those interested in America's Gilded Age.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
nima hoss
This book, while initially giving the impression of being a recounting of the Astor family, actually turns into a history of hotels in New York City built by wealthy people. As a biography it was well done, but as a history of the hotels it is extremely interesting. There are some asides about the inter-family feuds of the Astors, and it mentions, in passing, the death of John Jacob IV on the Titanic (perhaps more should have been said about this). To those interested in the early history of New York, and its famous hotels, this is required reading!
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
laura rodr guez
I hesitate to give a less than desirable review, but for me, the book was nothing like I had hoped it would be. As another reviewer stated, it had more about the history of hotels than it did about the Astors. It also went off topics totally unrelated to hotels or the Astors, becoming a "hodge podge" of unrelated stories (i.e. the "Ball" story)

Although I am aware that Mr. Kaplan has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, I found this book to be quite difficult to read. I found that many of his descriptive adverbs and adjectives were words I had never heard!!! (I have two graduate degrees) The book was more like a textbook than a pleasurable reading book.

I have a very difficult time giving up on a book which I have started, so I began just reading the topic sentences about one third of the way into the book. I could not recommend this book to anyone.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This book is an excellent introduction to the history of "the 400" (or "the Four Hundred") and the Astor family for the many people who seek such information. Many people ask me for more information about "the 400" because my novel, "Chasing the 400", deals with the African American community's social interpretation of "the 400" during the 1950's. At that time, "the 400" was a term that was used to characterize the Black Bourgeoisie, the same as the term was used to characterize the New York Gilded Age social elite.

I disagree with Kaplan that people largely seemed to not care about "the 400" after Carolyn Astor's death or disappearance from prominence in New York society. "The 400" as the social elite lived on long after Carolyn Astor's grand entertaining, and many groups of people patterned their social groups after Mrs. Astor's exclusivity. In my novel, I explain "the 400" in New York society and in 1950s Philadelphia's Black Bourgeoisie this way: "The women displayed as colored society were the ladies of 'the 400', an exclusive, informal collection of Philadelphia's black bourgeoise, the talented tenth, the doctors, lawyers and other successful colored businessmen and their wives. This exclusive group patterned themselves after "the Four Hundred", the phrase coined in the late 1800's by New York socialite Mrs. William Astor and her friends to symbolize upper crust society--the truly worthy 400 people who could fit into the ballroom of Mrs. Astor's New York home. Like Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred, Philadelphia's colored 400 attended a seemingly endless round of balls, lunches, fashion shows and cocktail soirees. Mrs. Donald Butcher, given name Harriet, ruled the colored 400 which, in reality, had only about 50 people who were truly worthy. Donald Butcher made a fortune operating the largest colored funeral home in Philadelphia, and Harriet made a life running colored society."

More information about groups that might be considered to be the modern day "Four Hundred" in the African American community, such as The Links, Jack & Jill and Sigma Pi Phi--the Boule, and "Chasing the 400" can be found on my the store page. Malcom X, in "The Autobiography of Malcom X", also talks about "the 400" in Boston's African American community.

Kaplan's discussion of how and why the Astor's concieved and built New York's grandest hotels is also fascinating. We take the grand hotel for granted today, but Kaplan explains how such hotels were truly revolutionary and transformed society at that time. Modern day real estate investors might find inspiration in Kaplan's detailed discussions of how the Astors used real estate to build their great wealth, working on one deal after another, not satisfied with more wealth than most of us could even imagine.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Kaplan uses some stilted sentence structures, but the book is readable. It was a fairly good introduction to the topic, but after reading it I don't feel that I learned a great deal about the Astors, the Waldorf-Astoria or New York culture during the time of the Astors - topics that I hoped I would have a sense of after reading the book. Be that as it may, it is a short book and it would have been difficult to sufficiently cover the topic in as many pages.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
donald schultz
This book was too short and not really about the subject on the title. The author could have written more about New York. Where are the pictures? A very lazy effort.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
rose linke
Enjoyable! It tells the backstory, still I wish it was longer. I wish we could go back and see the old buildings that were torn down.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
alexis rutz friedrich
I really enjoyed this book and appreciated the many imfomative anecdotes that the author obviously searched out...take it from me...after reading MANY accounts of the famous Bradley-Martin Ball, this author actually researched the fact that the U.S. Marine Band was sent up from Washington. In all the accounts of this famous evening that are available, all that is mentioned is "a band" played ...that's the sort of detail that makes this book so enjoyable.

Having my great-aunt on the cover also added to my selfish recommendation of this book. The only negative I have is that there was an appalling lack of footnotes and specific references. That is truly unfortunate. Otherwise, this book will provide light, entertaining and very enjoyable fare!
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Excellent value and prompt service.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
mark bondurant
Arrived in good time. Great value
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
bibby t
This is a very slim read that inspired me to read other books on the same and similar subjects. However the Astors are not as interesting as the Vanderbilts.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
matt cegielka
This bookseller is very good. I received my book promptly and in perfect condition as promised.. I would do business with them again.
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