William Vincent Astor
November 15, 1891
New York City, U.S.
|Died||February 3, 1959 (aged 67)|
New York City, U.S.
|Resting place||Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York, U.S.|
|Net worth||$1.5 billion (equivalent to $13.2 billion in 2019)|
(m. 1914; div. 1940)
(m. 1940; div. 1953)
|Parent(s)||John Jacob Astor IV|
Ava Lowle Willing
|Relatives||See Astor family|
Called Vincent, he was born in New York City on November 15, 1891. He was the elder son of John Jacob Astor IV, a wealthy businessman and inventor, and his first wife, Ava Lowle Willing, an heiress from Philadelphia.
Astor was interested in trains. In the early 1930s, he established an estate in Bermuda which included a private narrow-gauge railway and union station with the Bermuda Railway. The estate is now divided between several private owners, none of whom are part of the Astor family. As recently as 1992, the remains of some of his rolling stock were visible.
Vincent Astor was, according to family biographer Derek Wilson, "a hitherto unknown phenomenon in America: an Astor with a highly developed social conscience." He was 20 when his father died and, having inherited a massive fortune, he dropped out of Harvard University. He set out to change the family's image from that of miserly, aloof slum landlords who enjoyed the good life at the expense of others.
Over time, he sold off the family's New York City slum housing and reinvested in reputable enterprises, while spending a great deal of time and energy helping others. He was responsible for the construction of a large housing complex in the Bronx that included sufficient land for a big children's playground, and in Harlem, he transformed a valuable piece of real estate into another playground for children.
Astor appeared at No. 12 on the first list of America's richest people, compiled by Forbes magazine. His net worth at the time was estimated at $75 million. Among his holdings was Newsweek magazine, and he was its chairman. The magazine had for a time its headquarters in the former Knickerbocker Hotel, which had been built by his father.
He also inherited Ferncliff, the Astor family's 2,800-acre (11 km2) estate in Rhinebeck, New York, where his father had been born. However, Vincent Astor would be the last Astor family owner of the estate and occupant of the "Ferncliff Casino", a Stanford White-designed 1904 Beaux-Arts style 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) building, which was inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles.
On his death in 1959, Astor bequeathed a main house at Ferncliff to the Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, New York. His widow, Brooke, later donated the "Ferncliff Casino" to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and sold off many parcels of the estate. In 1963, Homer Staley, a retired businessman in the area, asked Brooke Astor to preserve the remaining natural acreage of woodlands from development. She donated the woodlands to the Rotary Club of Rhinebeck, and the land became the Ferncliff Forest Game Refuge and Forest Preserve.
Astor married Helen Dinsmore Huntington, on April 30, 1914. At the ceremony, he was stricken with the mumps, a disease that made him sterile; as for the bride, her friend Glenway Wescott, the novelist, admiringly described her in his unpublished diaries as "a grand, old-fashioned lesbian." The couple divorced in 1940. A year later, Helen became the second wife of Lytle Hull (1882–1958), a real-estate broker who was a friend and business associate of her former husband.
Shortly after his divorce, Astor married Mary Benedict Cushing, the eldest daughter of Dr. Harvey Williams Cushing and Katharine Stone Crowell. Mary's sisters were Betsey Maria Cushing and Barbara "Babe" Cushing. They divorced in September 1953, and the following month, Mary wed James Whitney Fosburgh, a painter who worked as an art lecturer at the Frick Museum.
On October 8, 1953, several weeks after divorcing his second wife, Astor married the once-divorced, once-widowed Roberta Brooke Russell. According to an often-told story in society circles, Astor agreed to divorce his second wife only after she had found him a replacement spouse. Her first suggestion was Janet Newbold Ryan Stewart Bush, the newly divorced wife of James Smith Bush II (brother of Prescott Bush), who turned Astor down with startling candor, saying, "I don't even like you." Astor proceeded to tell her that he was not well and, though only in his early 60s, he could not be expected to live for very long, whereupon she would inherit his millions. At that, Janet Bush reportedly replied, "What if you do live?" Mary Cushing then proposed Brooke. Together, Vincent and Brooke developed the Vincent Astor Foundation, a foundation that was designed to give back to New York City. Brooke died in 2007 at the age of 105.
World War I
Astor joined the Naval Reserve shortly after it was founded and was commissioned as an ensign on December 28, 1915. He was called to active duty as part of the New York Naval Militia in February 1917 by order of Governor Charles S. Whitman to help guard bridges and aqueducts against possible German sabotage. Astor was assigned to help guard the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.
Following the declaration of war against Germany, Astor took advice from his friend and future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and volunteered for active duty with the Navy on April 7, 1917. He went overseas on June 9 on the USS Noma (Astor's own yacht which had been acquired as a patrol ship by the Navy). He was later assigned to the armed yacht USS Aphrodite.
He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on January 1, 1918, and to lieutenant on July 1, 1918. He was joined in France by his wife, who did charity work with the YMCA at the naval base in Bordeaux, while he served as Port Officer at Royan.
His last assignment was as an officer on the captured German minelaying submarine U-117 during her voyage to the United States. Astor returned to the United States on the U-117 on April 25, 1919, and was discharged on May 24.
After the war, Astor became a companion of the Naval Order of the United States.
World War II
In the quiet before the war, Astor sailed the Nourmahal in 1938 to Japan on a secret civilian mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to gather intelligence on the Japanese naval operations around the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. As he had done with the Noma in the First World War, he lent his yacht Nourmahal to the Coast Guard for service in the Second World War.
In World War II, Astor again served on active duty with the Navy. He was called to active duty with the rank of commander and given assignment as Area Controller for New York. In this position he coordinated merchant convoys leaving the city and provided informal intelligence work for President Roosevelt.
Perhaps Astor's longer lasting contributions were his weekly reports from the Chase Bank, where his inside access included USSR account balances. On December 13, 1940, Astor began reporting to the US Treasury the Soviet weekly balances in an unbroken sequence (made by occasional substitutes) up through at least 1945.
In June 1943, he was promoted to the rank of captain (with date of rank June 18, 1942).
For his service in the Navy, Captain Astor was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, Naval Reserve Medal with star, World War I Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
Vincent Astor died on February 3, 1959, of a heart attack in his apartment at 120 East End Avenue in Manhattan. He left all of his money to the Vincent Astor foundation, with Brooke surprising many. She continued his philanthropic work.
Astor was first interred at his "Ferncliff Casino" estate ("Astor Courts") along the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, New York. The home included an indoor tennis pavilion, two squash courts, and the country's first indoor heated pool. When his widow, Brooke Astor, later disposed of the property, he was reinterred in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Brooke is buried next to him.
His half-brother John Jacob Astor VI, known as "Jakey", felt cheated and resentfully stated that Vincent "had the legal, not the moral right to keep all the money". Jakey sued Brooke to inherit his money. He was certain that Vincent was "mentally incompetent" when signing his last will in June 1958 due to frequent smoking and alcoholism, although Brooke insisted otherwise. While Vincent was hospitalized, Brooke often brought him liquor. Jakey accused her of using the liquor to influence the will in her favor. Jakey ended up settling for $250,000. The rest of the money remained with the Vincent Astor foundation and Brooke.
A mountain in Antarctica bears Astor's name. Rising to a height of 3,710 m, Mount Astor is located in the Hays Mountains of the Queen Maud Range, and was named by Rear Admiral Richard Byrd on his November 1929 expedition flight to the South Pole. Astor had been a contributing philanthropist to the expedition.
- "Vincent Astor Dies In His Home at 67". New York Times. February 4, 1959. Retrieved 2010-03-21.
Vincent Astor, millionaire real estate owner and head of the American branch of the famous family, died yesterday in his apartment at 120 East End Avenue. Mr. Astor, who was 67 years old, succumbed to a heart attack at 1 A.M. A spokesman for the family said that Mr. Astor had been ailing recently, although the nature of the illness was not disclosed. He had intended to go to his winter home near Phoenix, Ariz., soon.
- Harvard's Military Record in the World War. pg. 46.
- "Vincent Astor and his Bermuda Estate".
- "Astor Courts". Astor Courts. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
- "The Real Estalker: Astor Courts, Historical Site of Chelsea Clinton's Hitching". Realestalker.blogspot.com. 2010-07-30. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
- "Hiking Ferncliff Forest Game Refuge and Forest Preserve". Nynjctbotany.org. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
- "Vincent Astor Weds Helen Huntington; Pallid from Illness, but Active in the Festivities After the Ceremony". The New York Times. May 1, 1914. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
- Glenway Wescott Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
- "Mary Fosburgh, 72. One of Cushing Sisters And a Leader in Arts. Raised Funds During War". New York Times. November 8, 1978. Retrieved 2010-03-21.
Mary Cushing Fosburgh, the eldest of the socially prominent Cushing sisters and widow of the painter James Whitney Fosburgh, died Saturday at her home in Manhattan after a long illness. She was 72 years old and lived at 32 East 64th Street.
- "Janet Newbold married (1) Allan A. Ryan Jr, (2) William Rhinelander Stewart, and (3) James Smith Bush II. Her third husband, to whom she was married from 1948 until 1952, was a brother of Senator Prescott Sheldon, an uncle of U.S. president George Herbert Walker Bush, and a great-uncle of U.S. president George Walker Bush". Newyorksocialdiary.com. Missing or empty
- "Armed Guards Patrol Bridges". New York Times. February 5, 1917.
- St. George's School in the War. 1920. pg. 75.
- Joseph E. Persico begins his book Roosevelt's Secret War with a description of the FDR-Vincent Astor friendship, including this secret civilian mission to Japan.
- NARA Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Central Administrative Correspondence, 1930-48, L10-5/EF61, Russian Gov't Funds, Box 398-399.
- New York Times. June 10, 1943.
- Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 3, 1959, page 1.
- "Astor Legacy". New York Social Diary. Retrieved 2010-07-27.
- Wilson, Andrew (2012). Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Simon and Schuster.
- Gordon, Meryl (2008). Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), Mount Astor, retrieved 2010.07.26.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vincent Astor.|
- Vincent Astor at Find a Grave
- Plans for Ferncliff at http://news.hrvh.org
- Ferncliff Forest Game Refuge and Forest Preserve
- New York Times: Ferncliff "Astor Courts" - slide show
- FBI file on Vincent Astor
- BBC Radio 4, MI6's Secret Slush Fund, broadcast November 20, 2017, contains references to Vincent Astor's life