Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor
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|The Right Honourable
The Viscountess Astor
|Lady Astor, by John Singer Sargent, 1909|
|Member of Parliament
for Plymouth Sutton
28 November 1919 – 5 July 1945
|Preceded by||Waldorf Astor|
|Succeeded by||Lucy Middleton|
19 May 1879|
Danville, Virginia, United States
|Died||2 May 1964
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England
|Political party||Coalition Conservative|
|Spouse(s)||Robert Gould Shaw II (1897–1903)
Waldorf Astor (1906–1952)
|Relations||Irene Langhorne, sister|
|Children||Robert Gould Shaw III
William Waldorf Astor II
Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor
Francis David Langhorne Astor
Michael Langhorne Astor
John Jacob Astor VII
|Residence||Cliveden and Grimsthorpe Castle|
Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor, CH (19 May 1879 – 2 May 1964) was the first woman to sit as a member of parliament (MP) in the British House of Commons.[Note 1] She was the wife of Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor.
Nancy was born Nancy Witcher Langhorne at the Langhorne House in Danville, Virginia, in the United States to Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. Chiswell's earlier business venture had depended at least in part upon slave labour, and the outcome of the American Civil War caused the family to live in near-poverty for several years before Nancy was born. After her birth her father began working to regain the family wealth, first with a job as an auctioneer and later with a job that he obtained with the railroad by using old contacts from his work as a contractor. By the time she was thirteen years old, the Langhornes were again a rich family with a sizeable home. Chiswell Langhorne later moved the family to their estate, known as Mirador, in Albemarle County, Virginia.
Nancy Langhorne had four sisters and three brothers. All of the sisters were known for their beauty; her sister Irene later married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and became a model for the Gibson girl. Nancy and Irene both went to a finishing school in New York City. There Nancy met her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II, a cousin of the Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They were married in New York City on 27 October 1897, when she was 18.
The marriage was a disaster. Shaw's friends accused Nancy of becoming puritanical and rigid after she married, while her friends claimed that Shaw was an alcoholic rapist. They were married for four years and had one son, Robert Gould Shaw III. Nancy left Shaw numerous times during their marriage, the first during their honeymoon. In 1903, Nancy's mother died and the now divorced Nancy moved back to Mirador to try to run the household, but was unsuccessful. She left on a tour of England and fell in love with the country. Since she had been so happy there, her father suggested that she move to England. Nancy was reluctant, so he told her the move had been her mother’s wish and would also be good for Nancy's younger sister, Phyllis. Nancy and Phyllis finally moved to England in 1905.
The earlier trip to England had launched Nancy's reputation there as an interesting and witty American. Her tendency to be witty and saucy in conversation, yet religiously devout and almost prudish in behaviour, confused many of the English men but pleased some of the older socialites. They liked conversing with the lively and exciting American who at the same time largely conformed to decency and restraint. Nancy also began at this time to show her skill at winning over critics. She was once asked by an English woman, "Have you come to get our husbands?" Her unexpected response, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine..." charmed her listeners and displayed the wit that later became famous.
Despite her denial, however, she indeed married an Englishman. Her second husband, Waldorf Astor, was born in the United States but his father had moved the family to England when Waldorf was twelve and raised his children as English aristocrats. The couple were well matched from the start. Not only were they both American expatriates with similar temperaments, but they were of the same age, being born on the same day, 19 May 1879. He shared some of Nancy's moral attitudes, and his heart condition may have encouraged him toward a restraint that she found comforting. The marriage's success, therefore, seemed assured.
After marrying Waldorf, Nancy moved into Cliveden, a lavish estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames that was a wedding gift from Astor's father, and began her life as a prominent hostess for the social elite. The Astors also owned a grand London house, No. 4 St. James's Square, which is now the premises of the Naval & Military Club. A blue plaque unveiled in 1987 commemorates Astor at St. James's Square. Through her many social connections, Lady Astor became involved in a kind of political circle called Milner's Kindergarten. Considered liberal in their age, the group advocated unity and equality among English-speaking people and a continuance or expansion of British imperialism.
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The political significance of Milner's Kindergarten was limited, but it yielded a much more significant result for Lady Astor personally. It was the source of her friendship with Philip Kerr, which was to be one of the most important relationships of her life. Indeed, it came at a critical juncture for both of them. The two met shortly after Kerr had suffered a spiritual crisis regarding his once devout Catholicism. The two of them were both searching for spiritual stability and their search led them toward Christian Science, to which they both eventually converted. Astor's beliefs and activities as a Christian Scientist would become one of the most consistent elements of her life.
Astor's conversion was gradual and was influenced by a number of factors. Her sister Phyllis (who never converted to Christian Science) had given her Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy because she thought Nancy might find it interesting. At first Lady Astor had only marginal interest, but after a period of illness and surgery she decided that those events had not been what God wanted. In the past, many of her illnesses had been psychosomatic, so the idea of physical illness being a mental construct rang true for her and she embraced the belief system wholeheartedly. At the same time, her former spiritual mentor and good friend, Archdeacon Frederick Neve, disapproved of her conversion and their relationship soured.
Philip Kerr's conversion came only after experimenting with Eastern religion, but he later became a spiritual advisor for Astor. In time, his bitter rejection of Catholicism also influenced Lady Astor, intensifying her own anti-Catholicism. She was also affected when her friendship with Hillaire Belloc, who was Catholic, began to grow cold because of his disdain for the rich and her efforts to convert his daughters to Christian Science. The loss of that relationship further alienated her against Roman Catholicism. Lady Astor's devotion to Christian Science was more intense than orthodox, and she sent some practitioners away for disagreeing with her. But she was deeply committed to her own interpretation of the faith and held to it almost fanatically. Many of her letters from that time on mentioned Christian Science, and letters from others to her joked about her efforts to convert peers to her beliefs. This vehemence of belief demonstrates that she was, by this time, considered "insane" by secular intellectuals; it is therefore by all accounts astonishing that she was taken even remotely seriously in later years by the English establishment.
During World War I Cliveden was a hospital for Canadian soldiers. Although Astor, as a Christian Scientist, did not believe in the use of medical practices, she got along well with the doctors, especially Colonel Mewburn, a surgeon. She justified her position there by helping those who needed non-medical assistance. Lady Astor became known as a friend to soldiers, and that proved useful when she ran for office. At the same time, the horrors of poison gas attacks and the deaths of friends turned her against war itself.
First campaign for Parliament
Several elements of Lady Astor's life to this point influenced her first campaign, but the main reason she became a candidate in the first place was her husband's situation. He had enjoyed a promising career for several years before World War I in the House of Commons, but then he succeeded to his father's peerage as the 2nd Viscount Astor. This meant that he automatically became a member of the House of Lords and forfeited his seat of Plymouth Sutton in the House of Commons; so Lady Astor decided to contest the vacant Parliamentary seat.
Astor had several disadvantages in her campaign. One of them was her lack of connection with the women's suffrage movement. The first woman elected to the British Parliament, Constance Markievicz, said Lady Astor was "of the upper classes, out of touch". (While Lady Astor was the first female member of the House of Commons who actually took up her seat, she was not the first woman to be elected to the House. Markievicz did not take up her seat because of her Irish Republican views.) Countess Markievicz had been in Holloway prison for Sinn Féin activities during her election, and other suffragettes had been imprisoned for arson; Astor had no such background. Even more damaging to Astor's campaign were her well-known hostility to alcohol consumption and her ignorance of current political issues. These points did not endear her to the people of Plymouth, the constituency from which she was elected. Perhaps worst of all, her tendency to say odd or outlandish things sometimes made her look rather unstable. She was sometimes just unfortunate. On one occasion, while canvassing in Plymouth, one door was opened by a young girl who answered in the negative to Astor's rather haughty question about the whereabouts of her mother. Being unfamiliar with the area, she had been given a naval officer as an escort. The child went on: "but she said if a lady comes with a sailor they're to use the upstairs room and leave ten bob". [50p]
However, Astor also had some positive attributes in her campaign, such as her earlier work with the Canadian soldiers, her other charitable work during the war, her vast financial resources for the campaign and, most of all, her ability to improvise. Her ability to turn the tables on the hecklers was particularly useful. Once a man asked her what the Astors had done for him and she responded with, "Why, Charlie, you know,"[Note 2] and later had a picture taken with him. This informal style baffled yet amused the British public. She rallied the supporters of the current government, was pragmatic enough to moderate her Prohibitionist views, and used women’s meetings to gain the support of female voters. A By-election was held on 28 November 1919, and she took up her seat in the House on 1 December as a Unionist (also known as "Tory") Member of Parliament. Lady Astor was not the first women elected to the Westminster Parliament. That was achieved by Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman MP elected to Westminster in 1918, but as she was an Irish Nationalist she did not take her seat. As a result Lady Astor is sometimes erroneously referred to as the first women elected to Parliament rather than the first women to take her seat in Parliament.
Early years in Parliament
Astor's Parliamentary career was the most public phase of her life, making her an object of both love and hatred. Her presence almost immediately gained attention, both as a woman and as someone who did not follow the rules. On her first day in the House of Commons, she was called to order for chatting with a fellow House member, not realising that she was the person who was causing the commotion. She did try in some ways to minimise disruption by dressing more sedately than usual and by avoiding the bars and smoking rooms frequented by the men.
Early in her first term, a fellow Member of Parliament named Horatio Bottomley, who felt Astor was an obstacle in his desire to dominate the "soldier’s friend" issue, sought to ruin her political career. He did this by capitalising on the first substantial controversies in which she participated, namely her opposition to divorce reform and her efforts to maintain wartime alcohol restrictions. He depicted her as a hypocrite in his newspaper, saying that the Divorce Reform Bill she opposed allowed women to have the kind of divorce she had had in America. However, a budget crisis and his bitter tone caused this effort to backfire. Bottomley eventually went to prison for fraud, a fact that Astor used to her advantage in later campaigns.
Among Astor's early political friends were the first female candidates to follow her to Parliament, including members of the other parties. The first of these friendships began when Margaret Wintringham was elected after Astor had been in office for two years, but the most surprising might have been her friendship with "Red Ellen" Wilkinson, a former Communist representative in the Labour Party. Astor later proposed creating a "Women’s Party", but the female Labour MPs thought it was a ridiculous idea because at that time their party had power and promised them positions. Astor conceded this, but her closeness with other female MPs dissipated with time and by 1931 she became hostile to female Labour members such as Susan Lawrence.
Lady Astor's accomplishments in the House of Commons were relatively minor. She never held a position with much influence. Indeed, the Duchess of Atholl (elected to Parliament in 1923, four years after Lady Astor) rose to higher levels in the Tory Party before Astor did, and this was largely as Astor wished. She felt that if she had a position in the party, she would be less free to criticise her party’s government. One of her few significant achievements in the House was the passage of a bill she sponsored to increase the legal drinking age to eighteen unless the minor has parental approval.
During this period Lady Astor did some significant work outside the political sphere. The most famous was her support for nursery schools. Her involvement with this cause was somewhat surprising because she was introduced to it by a socialist named Margaret McMillan who believed that her dead sister still had a role in guiding her. Lady Astor was initially sceptical, but later the two women became close and Astor used her wealth to aid their social efforts.
Although she was active in charitable efforts, Astor also became noted for a streak of cruelty and callousness. On hearing of the death of a political enemy, she openly expressed her pleasure. When people complained about this, she did not apologise but instead said, "I’m a Virginian; we shoot to kill". A friend from Virginia, Angus McDonnell, had angered her when he married without consulting her after having agreed to seek her permission first. She later told him, regarding his maiden speech, that he "really must do better than that". During the course of her adult life, Astor alienated many others with her sharp words as well.
The 1920s were the most positive period in Parliament for Astor as she made several effective speeches and successfully introduced the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Bill (nicknamed 'Lady Astor’s Bill') raising the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house from 14 to 18. Her wealth and persona also brought attention to women who were serving in government. Furthermore, she worked to bring more women into the civil service, the police force, education reform, and the House of Lords. She remained popular in her district and well liked in the United States during the 1920s, but this period of success is generally believed to have declined in the following decades.
The 1930s were a decade of personal and professional difficulty for Lady Astor. An early sign of future problems came in 1928 when she won only a narrow victory over the Labour candidate. In 1931 her problems became more acute when Bobbie, her son from her first marriage, was arrested for homosexuality. Because Bobbie had previously shown tendencies toward alcoholism and instability, Astor's friend Philip Kerr, now Marquess of Lothian, told her that the arrest might be positive for him. This prediction would turn out to be incorrect. Astor also made a disastrous speech stating that alcohol use was the reason England's national cricket team was defeated by the Australian national cricket team. Both the English and Australian teams objected to this statement. Astor remained oblivious to her growing unpopularity almost to the end of her career.
A mixed element in these difficult years was Astor's friendship with George Bernard Shaw. He helped her through some of her problems, but also made some things worse. They held opposing political views and had very different temperaments, but he liked her as a fellow non-conformist, and she had a fondness for writers in general. Nevertheless, his tendency to make controversial statements or put her into awkward situations proved to be a drawback for her.
After Nancy's son Bobbie was arrested, Gertrude Ely, a Pennsylvania Railroad heiress from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania offered to provide a guided tour to Moscow with Lady Astor and Shaw. Although it was helpful in some ways, this trip turned out to be bad overall for Lady Astor's political career. During the trip Shaw made many flattering statements about Stalinist Russia, while Nancy often disparaged it because she did not approve of Communism. She even asked Joseph Stalin directly why he had slaughtered so many Russians, but many of her criticisms were translated into innocuous statements instead, leading many of her conservative supporters to fear she had "gone soft" on Communism. (Her question to Stalin may have been translated correctly only because he insisted that he be told what she had actually said.) According to Miss Ely's diary, she was disappointed as only Shaw was able to meet Stalin. Furthermore, Shaw's praise of the USSR made the trip seem like a coup for Soviet propaganda and made her presence there disturbing for the Tories.
Nancy Astor and Nazism
The tarnishing of Lady Astor's image accelerated with the rise of Nazism. Although Astor had criticised the Nazis for devaluing the position of women, she was also adamantly opposed to the idea of another World War. Several of her friends and associates, especially Lord Lothian (Philip Kerr), became heavily involved in the German appeasement policy; this group became known as the "Cliveden set". The term was first used in The Week, a newspaper run by the radical journalist Claud Cockburn, but over time the allegations became more elaborate. The Cliveden set were a coterie of aristocrats who subscribed to their own brand of fascism whose members were seen variously as the prime mover for appeasement, or a society that secretly ran the nation, or even as a beachhead for Nazism in Britain. Astor maintained that Nazism would solve the problems associated with Communism and the Jews. She was viewed by some as Adolf Hitler's woman in Britain, and some went so far as to claim that she had hypnotic powers.
As fiercely anti-Communist as they were anti-Semitic, Kennedy and Astor looked upon Adolf Hitler as a welcome solution to both of these "world problems" (Nancy's phrase)..... Kennedy replied that he expected the "Jew media" in the United States to become a problem, that "Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles" were already making noises contrived to "set a match to the fuse of the world."
Lady Astor's actual connection to anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi policies is, however, debatable. Astor did occasionally meet with Nazi officials in keeping with Neville Chamberlain's policies, and it is true that she distrusted and disliked British Foreign Secretary (later Prime Minister) Anthony Eden, stating that the more she saw of him the "more certain" she was that he would "never be a Disraeli". She told one Nazi official, who later turned out to be working against Nazis from within, that she supported their re-armament, but she supported this policy because Germany was "surrounded by Catholics" in her opinion. She also told Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador who later became the Foreign Minister of Germany, that Hitler looked too much like Charlie Chaplin to be taken seriously. These statements are the only documented incidents of Nazi sympathy directed to actual Nazis.
Lady Astor did not seem to be bothered by the fact that so many of her public statements caused difficulties. She became increasingly harsh in her anti-Catholic and anti-Communist sentiments. After passage of the Munich Agreement, she said that if the Czech refugees fleeing Nazi oppression were Communists, they should seek asylum with the Soviets instead of the British. Even supporters of appeasement felt that this was out of line, but Lord Lothian encouraged her attitudes. He railed against the Pope for not supporting Hitler's annexation of Austria and his words influenced Lady Astor in many ways.
World War II
When war did come, Astor admitted that she had made mistakes, and even voted against Chamberlain, but hostility remained. She was taken far less seriously than before, with some calling her "The Member for Berlin". In addition, her abilities as an MP had declined with age. Her increasing fear of Catholics led her to make a speech regarding her belief that a Catholic conspiracy was subverting the foreign office. Her long-time hatred of Communists continued and she insulted Stalin's role as an ally during the war. Her speeches became rambling and incomprehensible, and even her enemies lamented that debating her had become "like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs". She had become more of a joke than an adversary to her enemies. Mixing with Great Britain's wartime Allies was no improvement. On one occasion she accosted a young American soldier outside the Houses of Parliament. "Would you like to go in?" she asked. The GI replied: "You are the sort of woman my mother told me to avoid".
The period from 1937 to the end of the war was traumatic on a personal level. In the period of 1937–38 Astor's sister Phyllis and only surviving brother died. In 1940 her close friend and spiritual advisor Lord Lothian died too. Although his influence had a definite negative aspect, he had been her closest Christian Scientist friend even after her husband converted. George Bernard Shaw’s wife also died about two years later. During the war, Astor got into a fight with her husband about chocolate and soon after he had a heart attack. After this, their marriage grew cold, probably due at least in part to the harsh effects of such a petty argument and her subsequent discomfort with his health problems. She ran a hospital for Canadian soldiers as she had before, but openly expressed a preference for the veterans of the previous World War.
It was generally believed that it was Lady Astor who, during a World War II speech, first referred to the men of the 8th Army who were fighting in the Italian campaign as the "D-Day Dodgers". Her implication was that they had it easy because they were avoiding the "real war" in France and the future invasion. The Allied soldiers in Italy were so incensed that Major Hamish Henderson of the 51st Highland Division composed a bitingly sarcastic song to the tune of the haunting German song "Lili Marleen" (popularised in English by Marlene Dietrich) called "The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers".
Lady Astor did not feel that her final years were a period of personal decline. Instead, in her opinion, it was her party and her husband who caused her retirement in 1945. The Tories felt that she had become a liability in the final years of World War II, and her husband told her that if she ran for office again the family would not support her. She conceded, but with irritation and anger, according to contemporary reports.
Lady Astor's retirement years proved difficult, especially for her marriage. She publicly blamed her husband for forcing her to retire; for example, in a speech commemorating her 25 years in parliament she stated that her retirement was forced on her and that it should please the men of Britain. The couple began travelling separately and living apart soon after. Lord Astor also began moving toward left-wing politics in his last years, and that exacerbated their differences. However, the couple reconciled before his death on 30 September 1952.
This period also proved to be hard on Lady Astor's public image. Her racial views were increasingly out of touch with cultural changes, and she expressed a growing paranoia regarding ethnic minorities. In one instance she stated that the President of the United States had become too dependent on New York City. To her this city represented "Jewish and foreign" influences that she feared. During her US tour she told a group of African-American students that they should aspire to be like the black servants she remembered from her youth. On a later trip she told African-American church members that they should be grateful for slavery because it had allowed them to be introduced to Christianity. In Rhodesia she proudly told the white minority government leaders that she was the daughter of a slave owner.
After 1956 Lady Astor became increasingly isolated, although in 1959 she was honoured by receiving the Freedom of City of Plymouth. Her sisters had all died, colleague "Red Ellen" Wilkinson died in 1947, George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, and she did not take well to widowhood. Her son Bobbie became increasingly combative and after her death he committed suicide. Her son Jakie married a prominent Catholic woman, which hurt his relationship with his mother, and her other children became estranged from her. Ironically, these events mellowed her and she began to accept Catholics as friends. However, she stated that her final years were lonely. Lady Astor died in 1964 at her daughter's home at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire. She was cremated and her ashes interred at the Octagon Temple at Cliveden.
Lady Astor is nearly as famous for her scathing wit as she is for her political career. Many of the best-known quotations attributed to her are indicative of her personal and political views, such as feminism, temperance and conservatism; others are merely humorous. However, because she is known for her wit, statements are sometimes attributed to her without conclusive proof that she actually said them. Examples of statements that have been attributed to her include:
- I married beneath me. All women do.
- I refuse to admit that I am more than fifty-two, even if that does make my sons illegitimate.
- In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he laid the blame on a woman.
- My vigour, vitality, and cheek repel me. I am the kind of woman I would run from.
- One reason why I don't drink is because I wish to know when I am having a good time.
- Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely ones.
- Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer; into a selflessness which links us with all humanity.
- The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything... or nothing.
- The only thing I like about rich people is their money.
- The penalty for success is to be bored by the people who used to snub you.
- Women have got to make the world safe for men since men have made it so darned unsafe for women.
- We women talk too much, but even then we don't tell half what we know.
- Jakie, is it my birthday or am I dying? (Seeing all her children assembled at her bedside in her last illness.)
- What do those earthworms want now? (On hearing of the 1930s miners' strike)
My father, a Lancashire miner at that time, told me this – I have no reason to doubt him – it was completely unsolicited and not a quote that he would have made unless from direct knowledge However, by far the most famous quotations attributed to her are taken from alleged exchanges between her and Winston Churchill, though, like the statements above, these are not well documented and may be inaccurate. Examples include an instance in which Churchill is supposed to have told Lady Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, "You’re not handsome enough to have such fears." Lady Astor is also said to have responded to a question from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, "Why don't you come sober, Prime Minister?" Possibly the most famous of all such anecdotes reports that Lady Astor said to Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which he responded, "Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!" The retort is variously attributed, but is apparently actually due to Churchill's great friend F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead.
- Robert Gould Shaw III (1898–1970)
- William Waldorf Astor II (1907–1966)
- Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor (1909–1975)
- Francis David Langhorne Astor (1912–2001)
- Michael Langhorne Astor (1916–1980)
- John Jacob Astor VII (1918–2000)
- Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in December 1918 after running for the Sinn Féin party in 1918 General Election but, in line with Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy, she did not take her seat. Markievicz was also detained in Holloway Prison at the time.
- A mildly sexual innuendo
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- Edward J. Renehan, Jr. (29 April 2002). "Joseph Kennedy and the Jews". History News Network. George Mason University. Retrieved 29 April 2009.
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- Harold Nicolson in a letter to his sons, 18 March 1943
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- "Astor, Lady Nancy". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton