William Waldorf Astor

William Waldorf "Willy" Astor, 1st Viscount Astor[1] (March 31, 1848 – October 18, 1919) was an American-British attorney, politician, businessman (hotels and newspapers), and philanthropist. Astor was a scion of the very wealthy Astor family of New York City. He moved to Britain in 1891, became a British subject in 1899, and was made a peer as Baron Astor in 1916 and Viscount Astor in 1917 for his contributions to war charities.

The Viscount Astor
William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
1 January 1916  18 October 1919
Hereditary peerage
Preceded byPeerage created
Succeeded byThe 2nd Viscount Astor
Member of the New York Senate
from the 10th district
In office
1 January 1880  31 December 1881
Preceded byDaniel B. St. John
Succeeded byJoseph Koch
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the New York County's 11th district
In office
1 January 1878  31 December 1878
Preceded byElliot C. Cowdin
Succeeded byJames M. Varnum
Personal details
William Waldorf Astor

(1848-03-31)March 31, 1848
New York City, U.S.
DiedOctober 18, 1919(1919-10-18) (aged 71)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Cause of deathHeart failure
Political partyRepublican (US)
Mary Dahlgren Paul
(m. 1878; died 1894)
RelativesSee Astor family
Alma materColumbia Law School

Early life and education

William Waldorf Astor was born in New York City. He was the only child of financier and philanthropist John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890) and Charlotte Augusta Gibbes (1825–1887). He studied in Germany and in Italy under the care of private tutors and a governess. He grew up in a cold and distant household.

In his early adult years, Astor returned to the United States and went to Columbia Law School, graduating with a LL.B. in 1875.[2] He was called to the United States Bar in 1875.[3] He worked for a short time in law practice and in the management of his father's estate of financial and real estate holdings.

Personal life

Mary Dahlgren Paul

Astor married Mary Dahlgren Paul (born 1858, died 22 December 1894)[citation needed] on 6 June 1878. She is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery Manhattan. They had five children:[citation needed]


After some time practicing law, Astor thought he had found his true calling and an opportunity to make a name for himself outside of his family's fortune by entering the political realm. In 1877, with his eyes set on the United States Congress, Astor entered New York City politics as a Republican.[4]

He was elected as a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 11th D.) in 1878; and of the New York State Senate (10th D.) in 1880 and 1881.[5] Astor was likely supported by the boss of the New York State Republican machine, Roscoe Conkling, with whom his family was involved.

In 1881, Astor was defeated by Roswell P. Flower as a candidate for the United States Congress.[5] A second attempt at the seat also resulted in defeat. His shy nature could not handle the political attacks on his character. This was the end of his political career. The press used his political failures as fodder for harsh criticisms.[6]

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Astor Minister to Italy, a post he held until 1885. He told Astor, "Go and enjoy yourself, my dear boy."[7] While living in Rome, Astor developed a lifelong passion for art and sculpture.

Move to England

Upon the death of his father in February 1890, Astor inherited a personal fortune that made him the richest man in America.

That year he initiated the construction of the luxurious Waldorf Hotel on the site of his former residence. At 13 stories high, it overshadowed the adjacent mansion of his aunt, socialite "Lina" Astor. Lina complained bitterly about this commercial establishment next door. However, in 1897, her son "Jack" Astor IV persuaded her to move away and replaced their mansion with the Astoria Hotel, which was operated as an extension of the Waldorf; the complex became the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

In the meantime, the friction had blown up into a feud; Aunt Lina also insisted that she, not William's wife Mary, was the Mrs. Astor in New York society.

So Astor moved with his wife and children to England. He rented Lansdowne House in London until 1893. That year he purchased a country estate, Cliveden in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, from the Duke of Westminster. In 1899, William Waldorf Astor picked up British citizenship, which drew him further away from American history.

To disappear from public view, in the summer of 1892, Astor faked his own death by having his staff report to American reporters that he had died, apparently from pneumonia.[8] However, the ruse was soon discovered, whereupon Astor was mocked in the press.

In 1895 he built a gothic mansion[nb 1] on London's Victoria Embankment at Two Temple Place overlooking the River Thames. He commissioned architect John Loughborough Pearson to design a $1.5 million building, a "crenelated Tudor stronghold"[9] which he used as an office for managing his extensive holdings.[10][11][12][13][14]

Astor made several business acquisitions while living in London. In 1892, he purchased the Pall Mall Gazette, and in 1893 established the Pall Mall Magazine. In 1911 he acquired The Observer a national newspaper. In 1912 he sold the Magazine, and in 1914 made a present of the Gazette and The Observer, with the building in Newton Street and its contents, to his son Waldorf Astor.[3]

In 1903 he acquired the Hever Castle Estate near Edenbridge, Kent, about 30 miles south of London. The estate of over 3,500 acres had at its centre a castle built in 1270 where Anne Boleyn lived as a child. Astor invested a great deal of time and money to restore the castle, building what is known as the "Tudor Village," and creating a lake and lavish gardens. He also added the Italian Garden (including Fernery) to display his collection of statuary and ornaments.[15]

In 1906 he gave his eldest son Waldorf Astor and his new daughter-in-law, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, the Cliveden estate as a wedding present. Nancy Astor (as she became on her marriage) became Britain's first seated female Member of Parliament.

In 1908, building on his success with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York he financed the Waldorf Hotel in London's West End.

Philanthropy and peerage

Astor became a British subject in 1899. He continued his philanthropic activities, like his father. Among the charities he supported were The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street (to which he gave $250,000 in 1903); University College, London (including a gift of £20,000 in 1902 for professorships[16]); the Cancer Research Fund; Oxford University; Cambridge University; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; the British Red Cross Society; Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum; the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association; and the Women's Memorial to Queen Victoria. His gifts to war charities included $125,000 to the Prince of Wales's National Relief Fund; a similar amount to Princess Louise's Officers' Families Fund; $200,000 to the British Red Cross; $25,000 to Queen Mary's Employment Committee; and a similar sum to the Lord Mayor's National Bands Fund. He gave $5,000 to King Edward's Hospital Fund annually starting with its founding in 1897.[3]

In recognition of his work for charity, on January 1, 1916, he was offered and accepted a peerage of the United Kingdom under the title of Baron Astor of Hever Castle in the County of Kent. On June 3, 1917, he was elevated to the rank of Viscount as The Viscount Astor.[3] The elevation was controversial; some felt that a rich American had bought his way into the English aristocracy.


On October 18, 1919 he unexpectedly died of heart failure in the lavatory of his seaside house at Brighton in Sussex.[17][18] His ashes were buried under the marble floor of the Astor family chapel (also called the Octagon Temple) at Cliveden.[19]


  • Valentino: An Historical Romance of the Sixteenth Century in Italy (1885)
  • Sforza, a Story of Milan (1889)
  • Pharaoh's Daughter and Other Stories (1890)


  1. There are also sources that say that he built the place.


  1. "An Age of Splendor, and Hotel One-Upmanship". New York Times. June 18, 2006.
  2. Catalogue of Columbia College. New York City: Columiba University. 1875.
  3. Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Astor, William Waldorf" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  4. Virginia Cowles, The Astors (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), p. 92.
  5. Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Astor, William Waldorf" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  6. Cowles (1972), The Astors, p. 112.
  7. Cowles (1972), The Astors, p. 115.
  8. "W.W. Astor is Dead: A Sketch of His Career and Estimate of His Vast Estate", New York Herald-Tribune, 12 July 1892
  9. Kaplin, Justin. (2007). When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age. Penguin Books. Chapter 7.
  10. Introduction. Two Temple Place. Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  11. Moore, Rowan. (15 October 2011). "Two Temple Place; University of the Arts London – review: Viscount Astor's stately old HQ – lavish, ornate and stuffed with cultural trophies – is to be opened as a new gallery space", London: The Observer
  12. Strachan, Donald. (2012) Frommer's London 2013. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-118-28862-7.
  13. Kaplan, Justin. (2007). When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age. New York: Penguin Books. p. PT 109. ISBN 978-1-1012-1881-5.
  14. Moore, Rowan. (15 October 2011). Two Temple Place; University of the Arts London – review: Viscount Astor's stately old HQ – lavish, ornate and stuffed with cultural trophies – is to be opened as a new gallery space. London: The Observer.
  15. Brown, Jane (1999). The English Garden Through the 20th Century. England: Garden Art Press. ISBN 1870673298.
  16. "Munificent gift to University College". The Times (36744). London. 17 April 1902. p. 9.
  17. "Viscount Astor Died Suddenly of Heart Disease. Stricken Saturday Morning, After Having Passed Part of Preceding Day Outdoors. Body Will Be Cremated and the Ashes Placed in Private Chapel at Cliveden. Peerage Came as Reward for War Gifts. Realty Holdings Here Valued at $60,000,000. Little Known to British Public. Estate Will Pay a Heavy Tax. His Pursuit of Title Evoked Bitter Criticism. Became a British Subject in 1899. Peerage Followed War Gifts". New York Times. October 20, 1919. Retrieved 2008-08-01. Viscount Astor died yesterday morning. His death, which was from heart disease, was unexpected.
  18. Kaplan, Justin. When the Astors Owned New York. New York: Viking, 2006.
  19. dijit.net. "Astor Mausoleum - Mausolea & Monuments Trust". www.mmtrust.org.uk. Retrieved 11 August 2017.