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The author of a dreary book about the rich, feudal, but not unendowed DuPonts has written an even drearier book about the rich, social, mostly unaccomplished Astors. The prime exception, of course, is founding-father John Jacob Astor (1763-1847)--monopolist of the fur trade, investor in New York real estate, the first American millionaire, and, arguably, the first of the ""robber barons."" That gaudy story told--without the detail or flavor of earlier Astor biographers--Gates picks up the trail of Astor progeny; all sorts of Astor progeny, by many another name. But he neglects to describe the will by which John Jacob, skirting American law (against primogeniture and entail), kept the family fortune together--the very basis of the Astors' persistence on the American scene and later ascendancy in Britain. It hardly matters, however, so inconsequential and toneless is most of what follows. We read, without relish, about the Mrs. Astor, social arbiter Ward McAllister, and their creation of New York's Four Hundred; skip around through feuds, disgraces, and misalliances centered at Rokeby, the family seat on the Hudson; pick up the dominant strain back in Newport, where the old ""Mrs. Astor"" and the new ""Mrs. Astor,"" her nephew's wife, vie for social dominance; briefly follow the dwindling of the American branch; move to Britain with rebellious nephew William Waldorf Astor; see his daughter-in-law, Nancy Langhorne Astor, score in politics; and then wrap up what remains of both the English and the American lines. Those who are interested in the afterlife of once-famous families will find lots of unremarkable particulars in these later sections--which do read more smoothly than the strictly historical segments. But the book, if more upbeat, is no improvement on Virginia Cowles' 1979 The Astors--and not nearly so solidly informative as Harvey O'Connor's The Astors, from 1941. Think of it rather as filling in the background for Brooke Astor's recent, featherweight Footprints.

Pub Date: May 8th, 1981
Publisher: Doubleday