Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune by Anderson Cooper & Katherine Howe - review by Stephen Bates

Stephen Bates

Embarrassment & Riches

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune


Harper 322pp £25

Was there ever a group of men so wealthy and powerful as the American robber barons of the 19th century? Their names and the dynasties they founded, the ostentatious palaces they built for themselves on Fifth Avenue and the country mansions they stocked with European antiques on Rhode Island still make you gasp. They may not have had the absolute riches of a modern internet entrepreneur – Jeff Bezos has apparently just spent $500 million on a new yacht, whereas Vincent Astor only splashed out a million (roughly $17 million today) on his back in 1929 – but the old names reverberate more than a century on.

Astor is about one such dynasty, still a name to conjure with despite the collapse of the family’s fortunes in recent years. As Anderson Cooper, best-known as a CNN presenter but himself an offshoot of the Vanderbilts, and Katherine Howe note in this entertaining, gossipy book, there are places and hotels named Astor or Astoria not only in New York but across the United States and even in Russia as well. Waldorf, the grumpy old man in The Muppets, even had a wife called Astoria.

The line was founded at the end of the 18th century by John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant and son of a butcher from Walldorf, near Frankfurt. He landed in New York with a set of flutes to sell and subsequently spotted an opportunity to corner the market in beaver

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