Chapter 3: John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor was the first poor American to leave his family an enormous fortune when he died. He wouldn’t be the last.
By the end of the nineteenth century Caroline Astor, the wife of one of John Jacob’s grandsons, was the reigning diva of East Coast high society. The elite of New York social circles were known as “The 400” because that’s how many people she invited to the annual ball she hosted in her Rhode Island summer house. The coveted invitations were sent only to snobbish “old money” families like hers; self-made millionaires like Diamond Jim Brady waited in vain for an invitation.
In the early twentieth century Caroline’s nephew, William Waldorf Astor, set his heart on becoming a titled English Lord. He moved to Britain and effectively bought a title by donating vast amounts of money to charities favored by King George V. The king made him “Baron Astor” in 1916 and upgraded his status to “Viscount Astor” in 1917, a title his great-grandson holds today.
The Astor family fortune was founded by a man who left Germany at the age of 16 with nothing but a bag of clothes on his shoulder and a few small coins in his pocket.
The Yankee Peddler Tradition
The United States had just won its independence from England when Astor arrived on American shores, but the tradition of poor itinerant peddlers earning their fortunes in the American colonies goes back to the mid-1600s…