Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Astors

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Rating: 3.5 Stars

I really am kind of obsessed with the Astors. And the Vanderbilts. And the Rockefellers. And all the other families who made their fortunes primarily in the Gilded Age, and/or are who we think of as having the robber baron patriarchs.

I debated between three and four stars, mainly because there were some typos in the text. It was nothing major, sometimes a word misspelled due to an incorrect letter, or a number missing from a year, but it occurred often enough to be noticeable and for me to take note as I was reading. I ultimately decided on 3.5 - not because it was in the middle of the two, but because at one point the author referred to Elsa Maxwell as "the fat, ugly, energetic party organizer of the interwar era" (72%). Not cool. Not cool at all. I dig Elsa Maxwell and her story is equally as interesting. So, 3.5 stars.

This text is dated, having been written in 1979. This might be the biggest issue I really have with it, since Brooke Astor passed away a few years ago now. The book was republished recently by Endeavour Press, but the author was killed in a car accident in 1983 (and already in her 70s by that time), so the likelihood of it being updated is probably slim. But it would nice to have additional information about those Astors who have descended from such interesting founders.

Really, that is almost how they seem to be, as characters, despite the fact that they were actual real people who lived and worked and died, making and keeping a vast family fortune. From the very first John Jacob Astor and down the line, I feel like the book was generally very well-researched and the author provided me with so much information about the family that I did not previously know. There are more books about the Astors on my to-read list that I will be getting to shortly, but I feel like this was a great introduction and overview of the family as a whole.

A place where the author excelled was in the use of contemporary sources. The book is full of newspaper articles, book excerpts, letters, and so on from the time - both of members of the Astor family and those on the outside. I always appreciate when a text makes use of contemporary sources and quote them directly. You really get a sense for the time and the people that way and this book is no exception. One kind of source that I felt was missing though was photographs. It is hard enough to keep track of all the John Jacob Astors, let alone all the brothers and nephews and such, photographs would have been nice - as would a family tree. However, with this being a Kindle edition that might not have been as helpful anyway, as it is much harder to go back and forth between pages this way vs. reading a physical copy.

Fun fact I learned about Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor IV who perished with the Titanic: "He hated the school so much that he tried to burn it down, but apparently even this heinous offense was overlooked if one was an Astor" (62%).

As I mentioned in a recent review of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue about the life and death of heiress Huguette Clark, it bums me out that all these mansions are gone now. All these ridiculous palaces built by these outrageous fortunes must have just been a sight, and the photographs just do not do them justice. Same with the original Waldorf-Astoria, and other buildings of the era. They would be so amazing to see now, but of course progress means they're all gone now.

Overall, I would recommend this one to anyone interested in both the family and the eras where they lived and thrived. The text is not without some issues, but this is still a worthwhile read.

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