National Book Award–winning biographer Kaplan (Walt Whitman, 1980, etc.) tells a tale of two cousins, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV.
Great-grandsons of America’s first millionaire, and prototypical scions of America’s Gilded Age, the two men left enduring marks on their native New York City’s architecture, high society and especially on the business of luxury hotels that they all but defined. They inherited a family feud along with their fortunes, exacerbated by their divergent temperaments. John Jacob (1854–1912), better known as Jack, was tagged in the newspapers with the sobriquet “Jack Ass,” thanks to his knack for political blunders, social faux pas and a habit of running the family’s mammoth 250-foot yacht aground or into other vessels. William Waldorf (1848–1919) was a rigidly disciplined intellectual and collector of fine art who eventually immigrated to England. Together, they created the original Waldorf=Astoria, which debuted in 1897 as the world’s most opulent hotel, but their fragile alliance soon shattered as the cousins engaged in a continuing struggle of competitive extravagance that produced such luxurious establishments as the Hotel Astor (William) and the St. Regis (Jack). Yet while they helped to transform the very idea of the hotel into an ostentatious showcase for the lifestyles of the extremely wealthy, the Astor scions maintained the tradition of their dynasty’s founder by also serving as the city’s leading slumlords. William and Jack were as much responsible for the invention of conspicuous consumption as they were for the creation of the grand hotel, and long before the likes of Dennis Kozlowski, the Astor cousins were groundbreakers in the discovery that it’s easier to buy crass than class.
A far-reaching portrait of fin de siècle New York, buttressed by the author’s assiduous research—even though one can only gasp so many times at the excesses, indulgences and vanities of these two antiheroes.