For those with a boundless appetite for stories of the weird, relatively short-lived American aristocracy (i.e., most of us), the stateside Astor family – with its British lineage and its fur-trading origins; its glittering days as “New York’s landlords”; its invention of the luxury hotel; its passel of (rather wealthy) orphans; its Titanic drowning; its name still found up and down the streets, buildings, and boroughs of New York City; and, most recently, the scandal surrounding the will of perhaps its last famous member, extreme socialite Brooke Astor – is rich territory for seekers of both soap opera and schadenfreude.
Alexandra Aldrich’s new memoir, The Astor Orphan, is loaded with the kind of detail that could have easily turned lurid. A descendant of one of those Astor Orphans (great-great-grandchildren of patriarch John Jacob Astor whose parents died of pneumonia within months of each other), she was more or less raised by her goat-murdering, besotted grandmother at Rokeby, the crumbling Hudson Valley family estate, in the late 1970s and early 80s.
By the time Aldrich comes along, her branch of family money has dried up; all they have is Rokeby and their lineage. Her Harvard-educated, scion father keeps up the estate rather than earning money (or bathing) and moves in his French mistress, who later gives birth to their son. Her indifferent Polish mother paints her eyebrows blue and seems much more interested in her artwork than her daughter. Most shameful to Aldrich is the fact that she grows up poor in a squalid, three-room apartment, neglected by her bohemian parents, in the family manse alongside her better-off cousins and a great deal of grand, dusty memorabilia.
For all its precise detail and other-worldliness (this is the rare 1970s story with no mention of any fads, products or telling attributes of that decade), The Astor Orphan is not a sensationalistic memoir. For one thing, says Aldrich, “nothing in this story is a secret. I’m not airing dirty laundry that no one knew. Everyone knows my father has a son from his affair. My grandmother’s drinking was extremely obvious. Nobody tried to hide it – she was drunk very much of the time. Nobody else seemed to be embarrassed. I think I took on the shame for everybody.”
Aldrich’s situation was unique, even within the family. “Part of the conflict in the family was the different living standards that existed within our own family,” she says. “My father’s brother [who had a job] lived in the back of the house with his family; they had a very middle-class standard of living. My grandmother had money, and she took care of me. So this is my story.”
Aldrich is adamant on that point: She experienced Rokeby from a unique perspective. Still, it’s her inside/outside stories – of Brooke Astor coming to the estate in the mid-1980s for a luncheon, for example – that possess the clarity available only to someone on the boundaries of inclusion: “I was visiting from boarding school. She came for a lunch party hosted by my uncle. She arrived in a helicopter that landed in the front field. I remember her walking up through the tall grass in her high heels. I remember being really embarrassed even then. I think my uncle’s intention was that she might give a little money to Rokeby. I remember her leaving really quickly. I can’t say how she felt, but I remember it being quite awkward.”
As a child, Aldrich reacted to the chaos by becoming dedicated to order, routine, and her violin (her list of her ideal daily schedules from that time, compared to her descriptions of how her days actually went, is heartbreaking). She dreamed of escape, via either the proverbial long-lost aunt or professional musicianship.
Instead, she took a winding journey through boarding school (which is where she ends the memoir), Bard College, Poland, abandonment of her musical career, conversion to Judaism, marriage, motherhood and divorce, ending up back at Rokeby to write the book.
“I sort of inherited the tendency to be a dilettante,” she explains. “I’ve done lots of different things. I wrote the book to put the past behind me.” While her path took her to conversion to Judaism – a years-long process, she says, and one that would have flown in the face of her Episcopalian great-grandmother, who allowed neither divorcees nor religious converts into her house – was a complex and crucial turning point in her life, she first had to address family matters.
“When I was growing up,” says Aldrich, “my ancestors were always put on pedestals. They were beautifully perfect people painted in gilt-framed portraits. The family seemed so devoted to keeping the legacy alive, and it seems that they were so much more important than I or my generation was.
“As I got older,” she continues, “I realized that they all were broken. There’s generations here of people who lost their parents. In the beginning, it was people who lost their actual parents – they were orphans; they were raised by grandparents or cousins or other people. Eventually, it wasn’t the physical lack of parents, but the emotional absence that we inherited.”
Cindy Widner is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The Austin Chronicle, Pop Culture Press, Bitch magazine, and other publications.