Do you like our self-referential title? Yeah, me too.
Greetings from the too-long-absent For Shame ladies. Guess what! We all graduated. We have alma maters now. That sounds sort of like a skin disease or an extra organ.
In a post-graduate effort to reclaim my literary experiences, one of my first acts of adulthood was to choose to read a history book. It is from the first chapter of this book that I got my inspiration and a lot of information for this post. So let’s give credit where credit is due: the first 24 pages of When the Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan are totally boss and you should go pick up a copy.
So, have you ever heard of a Waldorf Salad? How about the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel? Or the neighborhood Astoria, Queens? Probably you have because the Waldorf is like the second most famous salad in history. And that hotel is THE fanciest hotel in the world, and that neighborhood is like, you know, a neighborhood or whatever. I’m pretty sure the nanny was from there. No, no, she was from Flushing.
My point is: These salads and buildings and hoods sound familiar because they are named after members of the great American Dynasty, the Astor Family. ASTORia. Get it? And Waldorf is because the original John Jacob Astor (not to be confused with John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt) was from Waldorf, Germany, so a few of his progeny bear the name of his birthplace.
The patriarch immigrated to America in 1784 when things were still really swampy and gross here, and moved to New York City (formerly known as New Amsterdam). You might be thinking that he went into the apple-growing business since that’s all that I thought was going on in New York during that time, but actually he married a cute wench named Sarah and together they built an enormously successful, international fur-trading empire. But because it was hard to run an international fur-trading empire without cell phones, Astor did a sort of last-minute career change (which was really during his retirement in the 1830s) and started buying land in New York. (Check out this map of Manhattan about 15 years before Astor Numero Uno moved to the big city.) He was the first guy to be like, “Investing in New York real estate is smart!” He bought low and he watched the value of his land skyrocket in the last few decades of his life. When JJA died at age 84 (he must have been one of like five people living over 60), he was our country’s first multimillionaire, with a net worth of about 20 million dollars (that’s about $110 billion in the 2006 market). He was making about 1/107th of the entire US GNP. Take that Oprah. But most importantly, Mr. Astor had started one of America’s first “blue-blooded” dynasties.
So here’s where things get scandalous. Two John Jacobs later we get John Jacob Astor IV who’s main occupation, other than making craploads of money in real estate, is being THE baller of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Remember that at this time even though silent film was at its height the real “celebrity” of early 20th century America was the millionaire. So everything John Jacob was doing, like gambling and drinking, and just being an all-around awesome guy to party with, was covered by the press.
When he was 27, he tried to curb the ol’ bachelor way of life by marrying a lady named Ava Lowle Willing. They had two kids together. One of those kids, the second one, was rumored to have been the bastard of Ava’s lover. Sort of shocking for the time, right? But JJA wasn’t so good at being a devoted husband either and he was probably out on the town getting his D wet all over the place, too. Even though they were both kind of publicly not into each other, New York society folk were appalled when Ava sued Astor for d-i-v-o-r-c-e and accused him of adultery (pot kettle black?).
Because divorce was so taboo, even in 1909, many people believed that if you got divorced, you shouldn’t get another chance at the whole marriage thing. “You fuck up once, too bad,” the religious people said I think. So it was even more fabulously scandalous when less than two years after he and Ava called it quits, the 47 year old divorcee put a ring on the finger of 19-year-old Brooklyn socialite Madeleine Talmage Force. After the engagement, she became the (oh I don’t know, I suck at pop culture) Brittany Spears of her time? People followed that bitch around and took pictures of her, that’s what I’m getting at.
But this isn’t where the scandalosity stops. JJA and Maddie started courting as early as September of 1910, not too long after his d-i-v-o-r-c-e, when he invited her whole family to hang out at his house in Bar Harbor. Which is not not a party that I would have diiiieeeeed to go to. They got married one year later, in September of 1911 and immediately started their honeymoon in Europe.
In Europe, like women are like to do, she got pregnant real fast. Because these were blue blooded American folk and thinking about the future political career of their unborn child, they were all, “This kid needs to be born in America, y’all,” and they nabbed two seats on a brand new ship called the FUCKING TITANIC.
This story just got a little ICY didn’t it. Didn’t think this was the direction we were headed (at too fast of a speed for the vessel of its size) did you??
So, they’re on the Titanic, they eat dinner with some red-headed slut and a really hot poor guy named Zack or Jack or something, and the boat hits an iceberg. JJA is like, “Be calm, bitch, I got this.” He straps his baby mama into one of those totally helpful cork life-jackets and escorts her (like a boss) to lifeboat #4. As he’s helping her onto the boat, he says to the dude with the paddle, “Listen bro, my wife is in a delicate condition, ifyouknowhatimsayinnnn??” The guy was like, “No, man. I mean, yeah, I get what you’re saying, but no you can’t get on the boat. Women and kids only. And by kids, I don’t mean small goats.” So he’s like, “Fine, whatever. Later, toots.”
After that, he supposedly met up with some of his bros (including the Isador Strauss, one of the first owners of Macy’s who was also probably the only Jew on the ship), played some cards, and then, you know, drowned on the fucking Titanic.
But get this: The same newspapers who printed a bunch of nasty stuff about Astor getting remarried, calling him Jack Ass — because his nick-name was Jack and his last name was Astor (which is actually like really clever when you think about it), were all of a sudden printing a bunch of crap about the poor Mr. Astor who saved his bride and blah blah blah. He was, after all, the richest person to die in the sinking. The fuckin media, amirightpeople??
So, like a boss, Madeline became one of the richest women in the country. She got a ton of money outright, and a trust fund, and a trust fund for their kid, and rights to live in the Astor apartment on 5th Avenue as long as she never remarried. She did end up remarrying eventually and moving out of that undoubtedly swank-ass house, but she enjoyed it for four or five years. The newspaper headline when she married her childhood friend read, “Four Years a Widow, She Gives up Income of Millions for Love of Girlhood Friend,” which is kind of sweet and lovely or whatever. And then she got divorced, and then remarried and then divorced. Whatever.
All right. Now let me do the little thing I do where I give the scandalous individual whose story I have exploited a redeeming moment by talking about their accomplishments. Well first of all, even though Astor IV married a girl less than half his age and was a spoiled trust fund baby, the guy was undoubtedly a hard worker and did not just sit on a fortune already built for him, he grew it, too. He built the Astoria Hotel, next door to the hotel his cousin built, the Waldorf Hotel. (It would of course become the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.) He was also a science fiction novelist, an inventor, and a bit of an engineer (he helped develop a turbine engine.) And he helped out a little in the Spanish American war too by lending the government his yacht.
But being the snazziest Patriot this side of the Atlantic doesn’t always mean you’ll survive a tragic ship sinking incident that will set the tone for the entire century. But it does mean that you’ll make headlines and have salads named after you. So, you know, win some lose some.
Stay tuned this week as we crank out two more posts before we unleash upon your asses one of our most exciting theme weeks ever!! (I don’t have the go ahead from my colleagues to announce the theme, so one of them will do it in their upcoming posts. It’s REALLY GOOD. I’m serious. Fucking read this week is all I’m saying.)