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William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor

William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor

American politician
William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American politician
A.K.A. 1st Viscount William Waldorf Astor, William Waldorf, 1st Viscount Asto...
Was Politician Diplomat Writer Lawyer
From United Kingdom United States of America
Type Law Literature Politics
Gender male
Birth 31 March 1848, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Death 18 October 1919, Brighton, Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, South East England (aged 71 years)
Politics Republican Party
Father: John Jacob Astor III
Children: Waldorf Astor2nd Viscount Astor
The details


William Waldorf "Willy" Astor, 1st Viscount Astor (March 31, 1848 – October 18, 1919) was a wealthy American-born attorney, politician, businessman, and newspaper publisher. He moved with his family to England in 1891, became a British subject in 1899, and was made a peer as Baron Astor in 1916 and Viscount Astor in 1917 for his contributions to war charities. He was a prominent member of the Astor family.

Early life and education

William Waldorf Astor was born in New York City. He was the only child of financier and philanthropist John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890) and Charlotte Augusta Gibbes (1825–1887). His childhood was spent in Germany and in Italy under the care of private tutors and a governess. He grew up in a cold and distant household.

In his early adult years, Astor returned to the United States and began studies at Columbia Law School. He was called to the United States Bar in 1875. He worked for a short time in law practice and in the management of his father's estate of financial and real estate holdings.

Marriage and children

Astor married Mary Dahlgren Paul (born 1858, died 22 December 1894) on 6 June 1878. She is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery. They had five children:

  • Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor (born 19 May 1879, died 30 September 1952)
  • Hon Pauline Astor (born 1880, died 5 May 1972), married soldier/politician Herbert Henry Spender-Clay (1875—1937) in 1904. They had three daughters.
  • John Rudolph Astor (born & died 1881), buried in Trinity Church Cemetery.
  • Lt Col John Jacob Astor, 1st Baron Astor of Hever (born 20 May 1886, died 19 July 1971)
  • Gwendolyn Enid Astor (born 1889, died 1902), no issue, buried in Trinity Church Cemetery.


After some time practising law, Astor thought he had found his true calling and an opportunity to make a name for himself outside of his family's fortune by entering the political realm. In 1877, with his eyes set on the United States Congress, Astor entered New York City politics as a Republican.

He was elected as a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 11th D.) in 1878; and of the New York State Senate (10th D.) in 1880 and 1881. Astor was likely supported by the boss of the New York State Republican machine, the notorious Roscoe Conkling, with whom his family was involved.

In 1881, Astor was defeated by Roswell P. Flower as a candidate for the United States Congress. A second attempt at the seat also resulted in defeat. He could not compete with his Democratic opponent, Flower, and his shy nature could not handle the political attacks on his character. This was the end of his political career. The press used his political failures as fodder for more harsh criticisms. The press had already publicized his vast inheritance.

The coverage of his political defeats weakened his desire to remain in the United States. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Astor Minister to Italy, a post he held until 1885. He told Astor, "Go and enjoy yourself, my dear boy." While living in Rome, Astor developed a lifelong passion for art and sculpture.

Upon the death of his father in February 1890, Astor inherited a personal fortune that made him the richest man in America. That year, he initiated construction of the luxurious Waldorf Hotel, being built on the site of his former residence. His cousin and rival Colonel John Jacob "Jack" Astor IV (1864—1912) built the adjoining Astoria Hotel in 1897, and the complex became the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Move to England

In 1891 he fell into a family feud with socialite Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn (1830—1908), wife of Willy's uncle businessman William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (1829—1892) and mother of rival cousin Jack, over who should be the "official Mrs. Astor". After Lina won the argument, Willy moved with his wife and children to England. He rented Lansdowne House in London until 1893. That year he purchased a country estate at Cliveden-on-Thames in Taplow, Buckinghamshire from the Duke of Westminster.

To disappear from public view, in the summer of 1892, Astor faked his own death by having his staff report to American reporters that he had died, apparently from pneumonia. However, the ruse was soon discovered, whereupon Astor was mocked in the press.

In 1895 he bought the gothic mansion on the Victoria Embankment at Two Temple Place overlooking the Thames River. He commissioned an extensive $1.5 million renovation of what was to become a "crenellated Tudor stronghold" for managing his holdings.

Astor made several business acquisitions while living in London. In 1892, he purchased the Pall Mall Gazette, and in 1893 established the Pall Mall Magazine. In 1911, he acquired The Observer. In 1912 he sold the Magazine, and in 1914 made a present of the Gazette and The Observer, with the building in Newton Street and its contents, to his son Waldorf Astor.

In 1903 he 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. 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. He also added the Italian Garden (including Fernery) to display his collection of statuary and ornaments.

In 1906 he gave his eldest son Waldorf Astor and his new daughter-in-law, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, the Cliveden estate as a wedding present.

In 1908, he opened The Waldorf Hilton, London in London's West End, to establish an American-style hotel in England.

Philanthropy and peerage

Having become a British subject in 1899, Astor became interested in gaining English social distinction. Among the charities benefited by his gifts were The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street (to which he gave $250,000 in 1903); University College, London (including a gift of £20,000 in 1902 for professorships); the Cancer Research Fund; Oxford University; Cambridge University; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; the British Red Cross Society; Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum; the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association; and the Women's Memorial to Queen Victoria. His gifts to the war charities included $125,000 to the Prince of Wales's National Relief Fund; a similar amount to Princess Louise's Officers' Families Fund; $200,000 to the British Red Cross Society; $25,000 to Queen Mary's Employment Committee; and a similar sum to the Lord Mayor's National Bands Fund. He gave $5,000 to King Edward's Hospital Fund annually starting with its founding in 1897.

Such gifts were often honored by the grant of a title of nobility to the benefactor. On January 1, 1916, he was offered and accepted a peerage of the United Kingdom under the title of Baron Astor of Hever Castle in the County of Kent. On June 3, 1917, he was elevated to the rank of Viscount. The elevation was controversial; many felt that a rich American had bought his way into the English aristocracy.


In the months before his death, Astor was criticized again in the press: his move to England, his support of peace during World War I, his being made a peer. Willy fell prey to the Press again. After going into self-imposed exile, he unexpectedly died of heart failure in the lavatory of his Brighton, Sussex home. His ashes were buried under the marble floor of the chapel (also called the Octagon Temple) at Cliveden.

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