Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Ageby Donna M. Lucey
John Armstrong Chanler-Archie to his family-was an heir to the Astor fortune, an eccentric, dashing, and handsome millionaire. Amelie Rives, from a Southern family and a goddaughter of Robert E. Lee, was a daring author, a stunning temptress, and a woman ahead of her time. Their love affair and whirlwind marriage shocked society. To the world, the couple appeared charmed: rich, famous, and moving in social circles that included Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stanford White. But their private lives were troubled from the start. They were the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their day-a celebrated couple too dramatic and unconventional to last. Now, from long-buried private papers, Donna M. Lucey has recovered the astonishing, moving story of these extraordinary lovers and their tragic romance.
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Archie and Amelie
By Donna M. Lucey
Random HouseDonna M. Lucey
All right reserved.
The Education of an Astor, or A Name That Rings Like Bullion
The irony of Archie--man on the run, hiding his face as he crossed the familiar Manhattan precincts of his youth--was not lost on the Astor heir himself. He had been, and still considered himself, one of the princes of the city. In fact, much of the real estate he traversed during that hansom cab ride in 1900 was owned by his family.
The story of the Astor wealth was legend, and Archie could recite it chapter and verse. He had been schooled in the family history and in the expectations that it created. Archie understood only too well the burden involved. As the eldest son in his huge family (he had seven surviving brothers and sisters) he carried a particularly heavy load. All of the Chanler siblings prided themselves on their individuality, on their strong-willed and often eccentric ways. They all professed an indifference to money. Why not? They had plenty of it. Piles of it had been amassed by their forebears, and none of the current generation--least of all Archie--wanted to spend their lives the way their great-grandfather William Backhouse Astor had.
Nicknamed "Landlord of New York," William Backhouse Astor was both reviled and envied in his lifetime. He was a "hard dreary looking old man and the richest in the world," in theestimation of Lord Rosebery, the future prime minister of England. Six feet tall but stoop-shouldered, William B. Astor spent his life hunched over his contracts and leases. He had inherited from his father, John Jacob Astor, vast stretches of Manhattan real estate, and as the population boomed in nineteenth-century New York, the value of the land rose exponentially. By 1860, tenement slums with a population density of 290,000 per square mile became William B. Astor's specialty. The arithmetic was simple: one block
lled with tenements could generate at least twice the revenue of a similar block with more-spacious middle-class housing. As immigrants poured into the city, the Astor name became synonymous with misery. When one newcomer proudly announced to a Board of Health inspector that his house was owned by Astor, the of
cial shot back, "More's the pity."
William B. was the caretaker for the vast empire his father had acquired; he had little interest in building or transforming the landscape. He would just as soon let others erect housing for the poor on his land; he would merely collect the rents. Being a pious man, he could then blame others for--or claim ignorance of--the inhumane conditions that prevailed on his property. But of course his ignorance of conditions only went so far. Eager to maintain the status quo and keep his coffers full, he did his best to defy all attempts at tenement reform and for years succeeded in delaying the construction of subways that would allow immigrants to live in more distant parts of the city. Besides, in his view, it was laziness that kept a man in a miserable tenement with no ventilation, plumbing, or light. It was not William B.'s problem. One had only to look at his father's example to see the opportunity available to any man willing to work hard--a belief commonly held by William B. and other plutocrats who had inherited vast fortunes without lifting a
Archie knew as well of the more colorful saga of his great-great- grandfather, who had amassed the original fortune. The family patriarch's saga was indeed impressive. As legend has it, John Jacob Astor, twenty-year-old son of a poor butcher in Waldorf, Germany, arrived in Baltimore in 1784 with seven utes and about
ve pounds sterling, and parlayed it into a fortune conservatively estimated at $20 million, a sum that staggered the imagination of his contemporaries. In 1848, the year Astor died, the richest man in Boston left behind only $2 million. John Jacob's winter passage to America was in steerage, and he subsisted on salt beef, biscuits, and dreams of what lay ahead. Just short of Baltimore the ship became trapped in ice, and there it remained stranded for two months--enough time for Astor to hatch a plan. One of his fellow German passengers was in the fur trade, and he passed the time by telling stories of the fortunes that could be made by buying American furs for next to nothing and selling them in England for exorbitant prices.
Astor's course was set. Arriving in New York, he went to work for a furrier, and spent the following summer beating pelts to keep moths out of them. Astor became a keen student of the fur business, and within several years had set up his own shop. Shouldering a backpack stuffed with at least sixty pounds of trade items, he tramped hundreds of miles through the wilderness, struck tough bargains with the trappers, and then brought the pelts to London, where he sold them at great pro
t. One beaver pelt in London might bring the equivalent of three dollars--the same price as a musket, which Astor could then trade with an Indian for ten more beaver skins.
While in London, Astor cemented a deal with the
rm of Astor and Broadwood (his older brother was a partner in the company), manufacturers of musical instruments. He served as New York agent for their pianos, utes, and violins--valued and scarce commodities in New York--and, in the process, helped
nance his burgeoning fur business. He opened a small shop in Manhattan that bore the unusual sign furs and pianos. One of John Jacob's original pianos remains at Rokeby, a reminder of the Astor patriarch's early strivings in commerce.
As his business grew, so did John Jacob's ambition. He leaped into the China trade, eventually sending his own eet of ships to Canton, where furs could be bartered for tea, silk, and porcelain. With a ruthlessness and cunning that would be admired--and copied--by later robber barons, Astor turned his American Fur Company into the country's
rst great monopoly. Other successful merchants and
nanciers would hang paintings in their of
ces to display their re
ned taste; Astor preferred to hang a
ne fur in his counting room, which he would stroke and boast of its worth in China.
As he piled up more and more money, John Jacob turned his eye toward investing it. All he had to do was look around and see the changes that had transformed Manhattan. When he had arrived in New York in 1784, the city's 23,000 residents lived largely below Cortlandt Street, at the southern tip of the island. By 1800 the population had more than doubled, and buildings had sprouted nearly a mile farther north. Betting that the city would continue that constant move northward, Astor began buying up property just beyond the built-up sections of the city. It was the future he was buying. In around 1810, John Jacob sold a lot near Wall Street for $8,000. The purchaser was certain that he had just eeced Astor. Gloating, the new owner said, "Why, Mr. Astor, in a few years this lot will be worth twelve thousand dollars." "Very true," Astor replied, "but now you shall see what I will do with this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars." And he was right.
Astor's real estate holdings made him as rich as Croesus, his very name conjuring up lucre. "John Jacob Astor," the narrator of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" opined, "[is] a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion." The newly minted millionaire was disdained for his peasant aura, his heavily accented and grammatically fractured English, and his alarming table manners. In 1815, James Gallatin noted in his diary that the fur peddler had dined at their home and "ate his ice-cream and peas with a knife"-- reason enough for his father, the patrician Jeffersonian statesman, Albert Gallatin, to decline Astor's offer of a partnership in the American Fur Company. Five years later, John Jacob once more discom
ted the Gallatins, by dining at their home and wiping his dirty
ngers on their daughter's white sleeve.
Like a character out of Dickens, the richer Astor grew, the more miserly he became. "I used to know him, when an ignoble dealer in Musk Rat skins," James Kirke Paulding, novelist of old Knickerbocker society, wrote contemptuously, "but cut his acquaintance when he became a Millionaire, for found he grew mean faster than he grew rich, and that his avarice increased with his means of being generous. He lived miserably and died miserably." Stories of his mean- spiritedness were legion. This "monarch of the counting-room" was tarnished by his greed, according to a scathing biographical sketch of the millionaire in the February 1865 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine: "The roll-book of his possessions was his Bible. He scanned it fondly and saw with quiet but deep delight the catalogue of his property lengthening from month to month. The love of accumulation grew with his years until it ruled him like a tyrant. If at
fty he possessed his millions, at sixty-
ve his millions possessed him."
Though he was reputed to "now and then, bestow small sums in charity," the magazine claimed that "we have failed to get trust- worthy evidence of a single instance of his doing so." In his
nal years, however, he was talked into leaving behind a gift to the city that had made him rich: a library open to the public. Though the nuances of the English language eluded him, Astor was particularly fascinated by literary men, and in his semi-retirement years he frequently entertained writers and poets in his home. He befriended Washington
Irving and chose him as one of the executors of his estate; he also employed the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck as his personal secretary for sixteen years. (The poet once made the mistake of telling his employer in jest that he had no need of millions, that he could live happily on several hundred dollars a year--as a cruel joke, that is exactly what Astor left Halleck as an annuity.) The Astor Library, John Jacob hoped, would serve as a permanent monument to him and to his
fortune--and perhaps counter his infamous reputation as a tightwad.
Not everyone was convinced. The press, led by the irascible James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the mass-circulation New York Herald, howled. Calling John Jacob "a self-invented money-making machine," he declared that by rights Astor should bestow half his fortune on the people of New York--after all, it was they who had created his wealth. In fact, Astor left about two and a half percent of his estate, a little over half a million dollars, for benevolent purposes. The largest chunk, $400,000, was allotted to fund the library, the rest given to a small assortment of charities: the German Society of New York, the German Reformed Congregation, the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, the Institution for the Blind, the Society for the Relief of Half Orphans and Destitute Children, and the New York Lying-In Asylum. Astor had a perfect horror of beggars, but obviously made an exception when it came to the poor in his native village of Waldorf, to whose care he pledged $50,000. The rest of his $20 million went to his family.
The reformer Horace Mann denounced Astor's parsimony as nothing short of "insanity," depicting him as "hoarding wealth for the base love of wealth, hugging to his breast, in his dying hour, the memory of his gold and not of his Redeemer; gripping his riches till the scythe of death cut off his hands and he was changed, in the twinkling of an eye, from being one of the richest men that ever lived in this world to being one of the poorest souls who ever went out of it." In Astor's defense, public philanthropy--with some notable exceptions--was not commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century; but the immense scale of his wealth in an era before the personal income tax, combined with the fact that he himself had come from poverty, made his gifts--with the exception of the library--appear paltry and, in fact, reinforced the stereotype of him as a mean-spirited old miser.
Archie was well aware of the contempt the populist press had for his forebear, and was determined that his life would be different. As heir to a fortune, Archie felt a keen sense of responsibility toward others; it was part of his patrician notion of noblesse oblige. Nonetheless, the sheer drama of John Jacob's life--from poor immigrant to fur peddler traipsing through the wilderness to merchant prince whose empire stretched from China to the streets of Manhattan--had a swashbuckling style that Archie and his siblings couldn't help but admire. John Jacob's energy and dash, and even his touch of eccentricity (attributes that could also be ascribed to Archie and his siblings) somehow managed to elude entirely his son and principal heir, William Backhouse Astor. Even the patriarch's uncouth manners lent him a comic edge--a humanity--that his somber son could never attain. At John Jacob's funeral, James Gallatin--who had once sneered at the senior Astor's boorish manners--was among his pallbearers. In a
tting touch, the family waiters marched with napkins pinned to their sleeves at the rear of the funeral procession.
Of course, by the time of John Jacob's death in 1848, he had long since been accepted--however grudgingly--into the fabric of the old Knickerbocker society that ruled New York. Having enough money will do that in New York. Besides, in 1818 his son, William Backhouse, had made a most propitious marriage to Margaret Armstrong, a woman with impeccable social credentials who helped raise the standing of the Astors. Margaret Armstrong was the daughter of General John Armstrong Jr. and Alida Livingston, one of the heirs to the vast Livingston lands--nearly a million acres--in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. The Livingstons were among the great landed aristocratic families in New York dating back to the seventeenth century, and they ruled the Hudson Valley like lords of a feudal empire. After serving as minister to France, General Armstrong built a country house on Livingston land overlooking the Hudson and christened it La Bergerie, "the sheep pen," in reference to the merino sheep he imported at the suggestion of Napoleon.
The Astor name rose immeasurably in social importance, tied as it was to the Livingston-Armstrong blue bloods.
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Meet the Author
Donna M. Lucey is an award-winning writer and photo editor whose previous books include Photographing Montana 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron and I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600–1920. She lives with her husband and son in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the story of Archie and Amélie is part of local lore.
From the Hardcover edition.
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A fascinating glimpse into lives of the wealthy families who were said to build America. High society revealed and at times shockingly misbehaved. A testimony to the rich who have the same problems as many commoners, only for much higher stakes and higher costs.
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Great! I cant wait to read the next chapter!! Just something: Greate characterization!!
Awwwwwww! Come on! Longer chapters! Fan(get it? FAN?????)tastic!