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DYNASTY: The Astors and Their Times by David Sinclair

DYNASTY: The Astors and Their Times


Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Beaufort

Lots of swipes at the vulgar, mercenary American Astors, some plaudits for the politically-active British branch of the family--in yet another tacky go, by a British author (Snowdon), at chronicling the fortunes of fur trader and real-estate tycoon John Jacob Astor and his motley descendants. Sinclair begins with a cheap, sensationalized contrast (""A Tale of Two Cities"") between a January Ball at the Fifth Avenue mansion of Mrs. William Backhouse Astor--the Mrs. Astor (""a small, plump woman with a black wig, rather ugly. . . gloriously, tastelessly, ridiculously overdressed"")--and, ""within two miles,"" the tenements (""a sick child lay in a rear room gasping for breath. . ."") which provided a considerable part of the Astors' wealth. In Astor pretensions, moreover, he sees ""the relentless materialism which has been at once the most powerful driving force and the greatest weakness in modern American life""--by contrast, too, with ""the European concept of nobility, with its overtones of public service and social responsibility."" Following this tripe, Sinclair launches into a long account of founding-father John Jacob Astor's checkered career (the vast ambition, the amorality and stinginess); pronounces his descendant's lives ""warped"" thereby; and then takes up their personalities, how they managed and/or dissipated their inheritance. Even as gossip, this is drab stuff (the family rivalry for social supremacy, the mismarriages) until we reach the rather poignant figure of Vincent Astor, the effectual end of the American line who bequeathed what was left of the family fortune to good works. Even here, Sinclair misses the boat by not following up on the commitment of his widow, Brooke, to John Jacob's single good work, the New York Public Library. Meanwhile, the family's British branch (established in disgust at America's disrespect for its rich) produces Lady Astor, the London Times proprietorship, latter-day radicals and, with the Profumo affair, another big scandal. Today, on both sides of the Atlantic, Asters more or less work for a living. As a ""dynasty"" the Asters have never been much more than a Gilded Age phenomenon--best met in books on that era or, separately, in their British setting. (John Gates' 1981 The Astor Family is less tasteless, but no less dreary.)