John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire

Overview

"All he touched turned to gold, and it seemed as if fortunedelighted in erecting him a monument of her unerringpotency."–Philip Hone, the last aristocratic mayor of New York

When he died a few months short of his eighty-fifth birthday,John Jacob Astor was the richest man in the United States. Thefortune he left behind represented an astounding one-fifteenth ofall personal wealth in America. Now, in this revelatory biography,bestselling author Axel Madsen deftly examines the private life ofthe first multinational ...

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Overview

"All he touched turned to gold, and it seemed as if fortunedelighted in erecting him a monument of her unerringpotency."–Philip Hone, the last aristocratic mayor of New York

When he died a few months short of his eighty-fifth birthday,John Jacob Astor was the richest man in the United States. Thefortune he left behind represented an astounding one-fifteenth ofall personal wealth in America. Now, in this revelatory biography,bestselling author Axel Madsen deftly examines the private life ofthe first multinational entrepreneur of the New World.

Ruthless, tightfisted, but with an amazing gift for organizingbusiness, Astor built an empire that spanned the commercial worldof his time. From the end of the American Revolution to themid-nineteenth century, Astor exhibited his flair for business andleft a lasting impact on an emerging America. Astute and audacious,he became one of the first merchants to imagine the world as aglobal economy. And he had an uncanny knack for bolting out ofbusinesses just before they went bust. He liquidated his Chinaclippers just as tea from India and Japan cut into the tea trade;he dropped his fur interest just as fashion shifted and beavers andother furs became too scarce to be used in the emerging ready-madeclothing industry. He then successfully converted his profits intoManhattan real estate.

Astor was a slumlord, a war profiteer, and a merciless jobberwho shipped opium to China and sold liquor to Indians. He trickedPresident Thomas Jefferson into making an exception on the tradeembargo against Britain and France for him–and profitedhandsomely when James Madison blundered into the War of 1812.

John Jacob Astor tells the fascinating tale of this German-bornson of a butcher who made his fortune in a new world where hismoney influenced public policy and led him to socialize withpresidents and kings. This intriguing book features some of themost fascinating figures in the early history of the United States,including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, andWashington Irving.

A thrilling account of this legendary figure and the harrowingcross-country expedition he financed in order to rule the richwestern fur trade, John Jacob Astor weaves the story of thebeginning of big business in America with Astor’s life and,ultimately, reveals a man whose desire to reinvent himself reshapedthe modern world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
American history is littered with millionaires, but most of those magnates focused on a particular arena of commerce. Carnegie found his fortune in steel, Rockefeller got rich in oil, and banker extraordinaire J. P. Morgan made his money from, well, money. The nation's first millionaire, though, liked to have his fingers in many pots. John Jacob Astor started out his business career by unloading, of all things, a bag of flutes, but he would eventually move on to dabble in furs, tea, liquor, opium, and even Manhattan real estate. In John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire, acclaimed biographer Axel Madsen offers an entertaining and insightful look at a lucrative life and, at the same time, explores the rise of big business in America.
From the Publisher
Fur trader, slumlord, war profiteer, opium dealer, liquor salesman.That's the rap on the first of America's legendary business titans,John Jacob Astor.
The biography, John Jacob Astor: America's FirstMultimillionaire by Axel Madsen, records how in 1784, hearrived in America after an unusually long crossing of theAtlantic: He was at sea for 4 months. He was 20 years old with $25in his pocket. At the time of his death, a few months shy of his85th birthday, he was worth upward of $20 million and was therichest man in the USA.
According to Axel Madsen (who has written 15 biographies on famousfigures, such as Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson), Astor embodiedthe American Dream
His desire to reinvent himself propelled him to levels offinancial success few could attain.
By all historical accounts (the vast majority supplied by the NewYork Public Library archives), Astor was ruthless and stingy, buthe had a flair for business. Sounds like a viable strategy.
And he had an uncanny ability for high-tailing it out of abusiness before it went bust.
A poor German immigrant, Astor made his way to New York andrapidly stamped his mark on an economy that was taking off.
He seemingly glided from the fur trade, bolstered by sellingliquor to the Indians, to shipping opium to China, to Manhattanreal estate (his greatest coup). He is described as a slum lord.Fairly unsavory stuff, but worth a fortune.
Money was his passion, and that's all that mattered to him. Heunderstood the impermanence of success and understood thevolatility of the markets and how to anticipate change. Worthyinstincts, even today.
The fascinating thing about Astor is that, regardless of how onefeels about his business practices, he was one of the firstbusinessmen to imagine the world as a global economy. He went forit with gusto.
To get a snapshot of how rich he was in his heyday, the authorgives us this fine example:
In 1844, the average New Yorker earned $1 a week. That year, Astorgave his granddaughter Laura a wedding gift of $250,000,conservatively worth $50 million today.
The author reveals that it was really his wife, Sarah Todd, whocame with a $300 dowry and a free place to live with her family,who started him on his financial way.
Her wealth allowed him to quit hawking bread on the streets oflower Manhattan, his first job in this country.
His work schedule is admirable, given the hours many of today'sworkers put in.
He would have breakfast at 9a.m., leave the office at 2 in theafternoon, have dinner at 3, then savor a glass of beer and threegames of checkers each evening, according to Madsen.
Astor offers a historical insight into a vibrant, growing Americaneconomy, as well as a glimpse of a man who made the most of histime here.
The fault is the inability to tap into the real heart of whatpropelled this man to such great heights. We learn of his businesspractices but little about his inner motivation and soul.
We know that after money was no object, he spent much timetraipsing around Europe from court to court, trying to marry hisfavorite daughter off to royalty.
But more of his business acumen would have been worth notingbeyond the notion that he was merciless and aggressive. How so?
The author assures us that part of that problem was that none ofAstor's children or siblings ever published an anecdote that might throw light on hischaracter.
Too bad.
USA Today

Expertly situating his subject's accomplishments in the contextof late 18th- and early 19th-century commercial and geopoliticalexpansion, Madsen (Chanel; Gloria and Joe) weighs in with anabsorbing biography of one of 19th-century America's most powerfulmen. Having immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1783, Astor wason friendly terms with such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson,James Madison and Albert Gallatin by the time he came to dominatethe North American fur trade in 1800. While Astor's relationshipswith Jefferson and others characterized the wheeling and dealingfledgling Washington, D.C., his mastery over the fur trade figuredsignificantly in opening up the American West. The book's bestmoments come when Madsen describes Astor's efforts to establish apermanent outpost in the Oregon territory. Called Astor, it wasdesigned not only to aid its founder's domination of the fur tradein the Northwest, but to help him facilitate trade with China - forwhile fur brought Astor his first fortune, foreign trade providedhim with his second. While he had a talent for exploiting newbusiness opportunities, Astor also had the foresight to extricatehimself from both the fur and trading businesses before they waned.Astor's third fortune, the legacy he would pass on to his heirs,sprang from his real estate investments in Manhattan. He sank theprofits from his first ventures into large swaths of land inrapidly expanding New York City, where he built mansions andtenements alike. Madsen provides a largely sympathetic portrait ofAstor; while no revelations emerge, the book effectively projectshis story against the backdrop of seminal events in early Americanhistory.
Publishers Weekly

Like Caesar's Gaul, the continent of popular businessbiographies has lately been divided into three parts - let's callthem Pittsburgh, Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
The Pittsburgh precinct is crowded with tales of the famous empirebuilders of the Gilded Age, the perennially interesting Morgans,Mellons and Rockefellers. The Wall Street region has produced avast crop of books about various stock market geniuses. And SiliconValley has become a fertile field for stories about famous youngnerds and their favorite gadgets.
So it is refreshing to find a new business biography that returnsto some long-neglected historical terrain: America's firstgeneration of business titans. Long before there were Steel millsin Pittsburgh - indeed, before there was anything but Fort Duquesnein Pittsburgh - there were colorful American entrepreneurs whomobilized the capital, labor force and greed of the frontier toproduce a new aristocracy of wealth to challenge the pedigrees ofEurope.
And the most successful of them all, for those who use money tokeep score, was John Jacob Astor. At the time of his death in 1848,at the age of 84, he was by far the richest man in America -indeed, he personally owned nearly 7 percent of all the personalwealth in the young country, far more than the young upstartCornelius Vanderbilt. As recently as the early 20th century, theAstor name was still a widely recognized synonym for limitlesswealth.
"John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire" byAxel Madsen (John Wiley Sons, $30) offers an overdue refreshercourse in the roots of what is still a formidable fortune. Born inwhat is now southern Germany in 1763, Astor was a bright,enterprising young man whose early schooling gave him a tantalizingglimpse of the world's possibilities. He reluctantly followed hisfather into the butcher's trade, but two older brothers struck outfor London and New York. Soon, he followed - first, to England, andfinally, in November 1783, to America.
He made his first fortune in the fur trade, and the men of hisAmerican Fur Company left their mark - and inevitably, theirbruises - on the face of a barely explored North Americanwilderness. To help his fur trade with the Indians, he built ashipping empire, competing with the Boston Brahmins for a lucrativeslice of the infamous opium trade with China.
Finally, he plowed his profits into real estate, buying andleasing out the bucolic farms and riverfront property that are nowknown as Midtown Manhattan. Astor left money for what became one ofthe founding collections of the New York City Public Library, buthe was clearly no philanthropist-indeed, his offspring would bemore famous for their conspicuous consumption than for theirgenerosity.
His only grand edifice was the Astor Hotel, the city's firstluxury lodging, but his name was appropriated by a community inQueens - Astoria - that could be seen from his country estate onthe Manhattan shore of the East River.
This is Mr. Madsen's second purely business biography after morethan a dozen works drawn from the stylish world of fashion andfilm. Unfortunately, Astor's life was singularly lacking in similarglamour. He was a primitive man whose written English was almostincomprehensible. His personal papers are sparse, and primarysources have been well-thumbed by earlier biographers - includingWashington lrving, who knew and briefly lived with Astor in the old trader's later years.None of Astor's offspring penned so much as a short anecdote aboutthe man who paid the bills.
As a result, Astor's essential personality seems to elude his newbiographer, leaving the reader with little more than the pelts andantlers, the deeds and mortgages of a life. Mr. Madsen moves theseinanimate relics around with great energy but never truly makesthem come alive.
The same cannot be said for Mr. Madsen's first foray into businessbiography, which has just been released in paperback. "The DealMaker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors" (John WileySons, $16.95) is a lively and fascinating account of a seminalfigure in the history of the automobile industry.
Durant, born in 1861, did not invent the automobile, but he almostmight be said to have invented the American idea of the automobile- that shimmering amalgamation of style, speed and sex appeal thatremains the essence of car marketing.
He was a master salesman and a daring dreamer who, one friendsaid, was never happy unless he was clinging to a windowsill by hisfingertips. His grand visions made conservative bankers like J. P.Morgan nervous. Nevertheless, before the 20th century was a decadeold, Durant was able to pull together dozens of idiosyncratic carcompanies over an 18-month period to form the corporation thatwould dominate the
American auto industry for more than 50 years.
And then, like some magnificent figure from Greek mythology, helost it all. He caught the stock market fever that broke out afterWorld War 1. His frenzied speculations left him at the mercy of hisbiggest blue-chip investors, and they drove him from the G.M.boardroom in 1920.
He tried for a second act as a stock speculator, but was ruined inthe 1929 crash. Again, he started over, finding some poignantlymodest success late in life as manager of a bowling alley in Flint,Mich., where his fascinating journey had begun.
Durant's story is told with a confidence and passion that fullycompensates for the occasional awkward phrasing and confusingchronology. Besides bringing the forgotten Durant to life, Mr.Madsen transforms familiar brands into real people, providing humanfaces for the proper nouns that Detroit has hardwired into ourbrains: Olds, Dodge, Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler and even, for usold-timers, Nash and Studebaker.
"The Deal Maker" is a wonderful tale, well told.
—by Diana B.Henriques, NY Times

USA Today

Fur trader, slumlord, war profiteer, opium dealer, liquor salesman. That's the rap on the first of America's legendary business titans, John Jacob Astor.

The biography, John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire by Axel Madsen, records how in 1784, he arrived in America after an unusually long crossing of the Atlantic: He was at sea for 4 months. He was 20 years old with $25 in his pocket. At the time of his death, a few months shy of his 85th birthday, he was worth upward of $20 million and was the richest man in the USA. According to Axel Madsen (who has written 15 biographies on famous figures, such as Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson), Astor embodied the American Dream. His desire to reinvent himself propelled him to levels of financial success few could attain.

By all historical accounts (the vast majority supplied by the New York Public Library archives), Astor was ruthless and stingy, but he had a flair for business. Sounds like a viable strategy. And he had an uncanny ability for high-tailing it out of a business before it went bust.

A poor German immigrant, Astor made his way to New York and rapidly stamped his mark on an economy that was taking off. He seemingly glided from the fur trade, bolstered by selling liquor to the Indians, to shipping opium to China, to Manhattan real estate (his greatest coup). He is described as a slum lord. Fairly unsavory stuff, but worth a fortune.

Money was his passion, and that's all that mattered to him. He understood the impermanence of success and understood the volatility of the markets and how to anticipate change. Worthy instincts, even today.

The fascinating thing about Astor is that, regardless of how one feels about his business practices, he was one of the first businessmen to imagine the world as a global economy. He went for it with gusto. To get a snapshot of how rich he was in his heyday, the author gives us this fine example:

In 1844, the average New Yorker earned $1 a week. That year, Astor gave his granddaughter Laura a wedding gift of $250,000, conservatively worth $50 million today.

The author reveals that it was really his wife, Sarah Todd, who came with a $300 dowry and a free place to live with her family, who started him on his financial way. Her wealth allowed him to quit hawking bread on the streets of lower Manhattan, his first job in this country. His work schedule is admirable, given the hours many of today's workers put in. He would have breakfast at 9a.m., leave the office at 2 in the afternoon, have dinner at 3, then savor a glass of beer and three games of checkers each evening, according to Madsen.

Astor offers a historical insight into a vibrant, growing American economy, as well as a glimpse of a man who made the most of his time here. The fault is the inability to tap into the real heart of what propelled this man to such great heights. We learn of his business practices but little about his inner motivation and soul. We know that after money was no object, he spent much time traipsing around Europe from court to court, trying to marry his favorite daughter off to royalty. But more of his business acumen would have been worth noting beyond the notion that he was merciless and aggressive. How so? The author assures us that part of that problem was that none of Astor's children or siblings ever published an anecdote that might throw light on his character.

Too bad.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Expertly situating his subject's accomplishments in the context of late 18th- and early 19th-century commercial and geopolitical expansion, Madsen (Chanel; Gloria and Joe) weighs in with an absorbing biography of one of 19th-century America's most powerful men. Having immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1783, Astor was on friendly terms with such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Albert Gallatin by the time he came to dominate the North American fur trade in 1800. While Astor's relationships with Jefferson and others characterized the wheeling and dealing in fledgling Washington, D.C., his mastery over the fur trade figured significantly in opening up the American West. The book's best moments come when Madsen describes Astor's efforts to establish a permanent outpost in the Oregon territory. Called Astor, it was designed not only to aid its founder's domination of the fur trade in the Northwest, but to help him facilitate trade with China--for while fur brought Astor his first fortune, foreign trade provided him with his second. While he had a talent for exploiting new business opportunities, Astor also had the foresight to extricate himself from both the fur and trading businesses before they waned. Astor's third fortune, the legacy he would pass on to his heirs, sprang from his real estate investments in Manhattan. He sank the profits from his first ventures into large swaths of land in rapidly expanding New York City, where he built mansions and tenements alike. Madsen provides a largely sympathetic portrait of Astor; while no revelations emerge, the book effectively projects his story against the backdrop of seminal events in early American history. 21 illus. and 2 maps. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
For much of our nation's history, the name Astor has been synonymous with great wealth. Madsen (Chanel, Gloria and Joe) now adds his account of the life and times of the nation's first multimillionaire. Astor was born in Germany in 1763 and came to the New World at age 20 with a shipment of musical instruments as his stake. By the time he died in 1848, he had made separate fortunes in the fur trade, the China trade, and New York real estate, with a few bucks from opium trading thrown in. But his really big money came from land, which he purchased in large tracts in and around the burgeoning city of New York and leased out on long contracts. By the late 1880s, his descendants were collecting $9 million per year in rent from the city alone! This work is based on such published sources as Kenneth W. Porter's John Jacob Astor, Businessman (1931) and John Upton Terrell's Furs by Astor (1963) but does have both footnotes and a list of sources. Unfortunately, there are many awkwardly constructed sentences and geographic errors; otherwise, this would have been an acceptable public library purchase. Patrick J. Brunet, Western Wisconsin Technical Coll., La Crosse Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Biographer Axel Madsen examines the private life of the first multinational entrepreneur of the New World. He tells the tale of this ruthless, tight-fisted German-born son of a butcher whose amazing gift for organizing business led him to build an empire that spanned the commercial world of his time and to socialize with presidents and kings. In the process, the author weaves the story of the beginning of big business in America with Astor's life and reveals a man whose desire to reinvent himself reshaped the modern world. The book contains a few b&w illustrations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
This biography of Astor is ultimately about as interesting as watching grass grow, but it is not the fault of Madsen (The Deal Maker, 1999, etc.)—for all Astor did was make money in mostly uninteresting (although sometimes plainly evil) ways, and then use it to make more money. John Jacob Astor was a money machine. From the moment Madsen starts tracking him, as a butcher's apprentice in the margrave of Baden-Baden, that is what his life is all about: both eyes assiduously skinned for lucre. He arrived in London with a bag of flutes, sold those to buy China tea, sold that to finance the purchase of some skins, came to America, bought more tea, more skins, a whole lot more, and that's history. Scruples were not a question for Astor; he had them or didn't depending on whether they helped him turn a dollar. Occasionally Madsen tries to add a little raciness to Astor's story. He suggests that Astor"hoodwinked" President Jefferson by running through a trade embargo, but really it was Jefferson doing Astor a favor; at another time Madsen describes Sarah Todd Astor, Astor's wife, as having"full, sensuous lips," but since the only extant portrait of her is on the facing page, that one doesn't fly either. So Madsen forgets the angles and plays the biography straight—complete but with no startling revelations—detailing how Astor made his boodle, the smart plays with tea and the dastardly shenanigans that put his fur companies on top. He was a war profiteer, an opium merchant, he plied liquor to Indians. Then he got into the Manhattan real-estate market and practically invented the word slumlord. He died owning $1 out of every $15 of personal wealthinAmerica—andabout an equal number of enemies. A mighty rocky biography of a completely stony subject. (21 illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471385035
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 1/30/2001
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,046,384
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

AXEL MADSEN has written fifteen biographies, including Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy, and The Deal Maker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors (Wiley). He lives in Los Angeles.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments.

Introduction.

The Hard Years.

Flutes and Miss Todd.

Into the Woods.

Politics.

Rounding Out the Century.

China Profits.

Realpolitik.

Punqua Wingchong.

Family.

The Good Ship Enterprise.

A Perfect Triangle.

Outbound.

The Hunt Journey.

No News.

Mr. Madison's War.

"So Long as I Have a Dollar".

John Jacob Astor & Son.

Paris.

This Land Is My Land.

Estimable Grand-Papa.

The Bigger Picture.

Writing about It.

A Third Fortune.

Richest Man in America.

Heirs and Graces.

Notes.

Bibliography.

Index.

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First Chapter

The Hard Years

At a time when most people lived and died within a hundred miles of where they were born, John Jacob Astor's birth in the German territory of the margrave of Baden-Baden was almost accidental. The Astors--the name was variously spelled Astore and Aoster--were Italian Protestants from the Alpine village of Chiavenna high above the northern end of Lake Como. A medieval ancestor was supposed to have been Pedro de Astorga, a knight from León, in northwestern Spain, whose coat of arms featured a goshawk--azor in Spanish--and who was killed in Jerusalem on the Fourth Crusade in 1203. Tracing the lineage back to the Castilian grandee was the genealogical handiwork of John Jacob's great-grandson, William Waldorf Astor, when the latter pressed his case for British peerage. The first documented ancestor is Jean-Jacques d'Astorg, who embraced the Reformation. He and his family are assumed to have been followers of the persecuted Waldensian Puritan faith originating in southern France and existing chiefly in Savoy, a small duchy in northwestern Italy. The religious wars, which broke out in 1618, resulted in brutal persecutions.

Like most subjects of the duke of Savoy, d'Astorg spoke French and Italian, and answered both to Jean-Jacques and Giovan Pietro Astore. The duke of Savoy was a boy of ten and a vassal of Louis XIV in 1685 when the Sun King revoked the Edict of Nantes, which for nearly a century had protected French Calvinists and Lutherans. The massacre of Protestants in Valtellina high up in the Adda Valley sent d'Astorg-Astore, his wife, and their two children fleeing north across Switzerland to Heidelberg, the old university town and Calvinist stronghold where freedom of worship was respected. The family was uprooted again in 1693 when the troops of Louis XIV razed the town. They settled in Zurich, the birthplace a century earlier of Ulrich Zwingli's Reformation. Astore found work as a silk maker and changed his name to Hans Peter Astor. He died in 1711 at the age of forty-seven. His grandson Johann Jakob moved north to Nussloch in Baden, one of the three hundred German principalities, duchies, free cities, and estates forever changing shapes and allegiances as a result of wars and dynastic marriages.

Records show that Johann Jakob and his wife, Anna Margaretha Eberhard, had only one child, Felix Astor. He, too, moved. After Felix married Eva Freund and came into property settled on his wife, the couple established themselves in Walldorf--from the German words Wald and Dorf, meaning literally "wood village"--a community of a thousand souls on the edge of the Black Forest twenty miles south of Heidelberg.

Baden was a long strip of territory stretching from Mannheim to the Swiss border on the south and on the west facing French Alsace across the Rhine. Baden was divided into two states, Catholic Baden-Baden and Protestant Baden-Durlach, a rift that provided little incentive for commerce and industry. Because the Catholic and Protestant halves had pursued diverging policies, Baden had been left helpless during French expansion across the Rhine. Towns and citadels had been destroyed. Felix Astor bought a vineyard in Walldorf in 1713, but he and Eva were never part of the landowning class, although he achieved the honorable position of churchwarden. They were enterprising in commerce. Johann Jacob chose to stay while his half brother Georg Peter--one of the six sons born to Felix Astor's second wife, Susannah--sought his fortune in England. Johann Jacob became the town butcher and, in 1750, married Maria Magdalena Volfelder, when she was seventeen. Five sons and one daughter were born of the union. The first boy died in infancy. Georg Peter, Johann Heinrich, Catherine, and Melchior followed.

The future empire builder and founder of the Anglo-American dynasty was the fifth and youngest son, born on July 17, 1763. Johann Jakob, as he was christened, was three when his mother died. The widowed butcher remarried, but his new wife, Christina Barbara, proved to be of little benefit to her stepchildren as she bore her husband six children of her own. The first set of children resented their stepmother and the second brood. The loathing was mutual. Perhaps because he was only three when his birth mother died, young Johann Jakob seemed not to have suffered the problems so often associated with boys and stepmothers. No letters indicating his affection for Christina exist, but as a mature man he hired an artist to paint portraits of his father and stepmother. Like modern-day police sketches, the portraits were painstakingly drawn from the adult John Jacob's memory. The portraits showed the elder Johann Jakob, toothless and scrawny, selling fish and game. Christina is thin and wrinkled. She holds up one egg from a basket of eggs in the Walldorf market square.

Maria Magdalena's offspring left the overcrowded home as soon as they were old enough to fend for themselves--Catherine to marry, the boys to seek their fortunes elsewhere. There was little motivation for their father to keep them at home or for them to stay. Johann Jakob Sr. was a stubborn, careless, and optimistic man. After a few steins of beer, he could turn nasty and cruel. None of his children apparently liked him. But he ran Walldorf's leading butcher shop for forty years and after that enjoyed good health for another three decades. He was ninety-two when he died in 1816.


The margrave Karl Friedrich was a benevolent ruler of Baden-Durlach and, after the other line of margraves became extinct in 1771, of Baden-Baden. In his youth, he had visited France, the Netherlands, England, and Italy and for a time studied at the University of Lausanne. With his wife, Caroline Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt, he was devoted to art and science beyond mere patronage, and became a friend of Mirabeau and the benefactor of Goethe, Voltaire, and Linnaeus. His concern for improving farming made him an acquaintance of Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, who would flee the French Revolution for the United States and make a fortune in gunpowder.

Karl Friedrich introduced reforms that were much admired in other German states. Among them was early schooling, from which the Astor children benefited. Johann Jakob came under the influences of schoolmaster Valentin Jeune, a French Protestant who had settled in Walldorf, and the village pastor, John Philip Steiner. Both men seemed to have recognized an able mind in young Johann Jakob because both made special efforts to broaden the boy's horizons beyond reading, writing, and ciphering. The boy was no dreamer. His talents were practical and analytical, and he was an avid reader of the few books and newspapers available in Walldorf. Since his brothers Georg and Heinrich had emigrated, he was especially interested in foreign countries.

Georg, the eldest son of Johann and Maria Magdalena, had been the first to leave. In London, Uncle Georg Peter secured him a job in a company making musical instruments. Young Georg was a gifted musician and craftsman who did well in his uncle's workshop. In 1777, he borrowed enough money to set out to make his own way in the London music scene. He wooed a young girl named Elizabeth Wright. Because she was under the age of consent, her father had to agree to their union. The fact that he did so suggests Georg was not regarded as a penniless foreigner.

The second son, Heinrich, seized his opportunity when German princes began raising regiments to help the Hanoverian King George III of England fight dissidence in his American colonies. Wars were remarkably passionless in eighteenth-century Europe, restricted by conventions and fought for dynastic reasons, with limited objectives. Nationality made little difference to allegiance. Armies were immobile and expensive, and mostly recruited from nobles, vagabonds, and sons pushed out of large, hardscrabble families. The officer corps was permeated by corruption and ineptness, and was separated from the enlisted men by arrogance and incompetence. Heinrich enlisted in Frankfurt, one of the 29,166 men rented out to George III by German rulers for the gross sum of £850,000 a year. Germany was the British army's traditional recruiting ground. German mercenaries were cheaper to recruit than working-class Englishmen who, although poor, enjoyed a high standard of living and were rarely driven by hunger to enlist. Besides, procuring mercenaries for Britain was all in the family. The ruler of Frankfurt was Prince William of Hesse-Kassel, King George's nephew.

Heinrich sailed in a Royal Navy man-of-war in 1775 and arrived in British-held New York, not as a soldier but as a butcher. His job was to procure and prepare meat to feed the Regiment of Hesse. He Anglicized his name to Henry, but the way he pronounced his last name made people spell it Ashdour. He discovered that a third of the colonists were for accommodation with the Crown, a third were for independence, and a third had no opinion.

When his regiment moved out, he deserted and soon opened a butcher's stall in Fly Market. To overcome the shortage of meat, he slipped out of New York City on horseback and somewhere in Westchester County bought stolen livestock from a raiding party. Under cover of night he drove the animals into town, slaughtered them, and sold the meat. Since his prices were generally lower than those of other butchers, competitors protested.

On Palm Sunday of 1777, fourteen-year-old Johann Jakob was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. For peasant and village boys the ceremony marked the end of schooling. Thanks to Karl Friedrich's education reforms and to schoolmaster Jeune's teaching and interest in him, Johann Jakob was better educated than the majority of poor youths of his time. However much his head was filled with ideas of striking out on his own like George and Henry, he followed his father's edict and learned the butcher's trade.

The next two years were the unhappiest in his life. He hated the slaughterhouse and the butcher shop where he worked skinning animals, jointing carcasses, serving customers, and delivering orders. At fifteen he was an expert meat cutter and, with his knack for calculations, a competent would-be tradesman. He was serious, and eager to improve himself. From his mother he was said to have inherited an alert mind. Physically, he was a lanky blond youth, strong and sturdy.

The letters from his brothers made him realize that Walldorf was, economically, the sticks. Henry wrote from New York that even a butcher boy could earn three times as much as he could in Walldorf. Letters from George in London also stirred John Jacob's imagination, and he showed the letters to Reverend Steiner and Schoolmaster Jeune. The trio gravely discussed the contents. It was hard to believe that the rebels in America could possibly win against the powers of the English king. But George reported that London merchants were uneasy over the way the fighting was going in the colonies.

George suggested Melchior join him in his expanding flute-making business. But Melchior could not or would not leave home. He either had no interest or his father could not do without him. Late in life John Jacob would remember how he tramped miles to collect the letters his brothers sent, how his imagination was stirred by descriptions of life in London and the New World. Melchior eventually left their father's shop and joined a community of the evangelistic Moravian church near Koblenz. There he managed a community school and became a tenant farmer on the estate of the prince of Neuwied.

Johann Jakob wrote back to his brothers, asking if he could take Melchior's place. The answer came from London after many weeks, from New York after many months. Yes, they said, he should leave. We do not know why he chose flute making in London over slaughtering in New York: perhaps one step at the time was sensible, or perhaps money for passage to America was out of the question; after all, the king of England had paid for Henry's Atlantic crossing. Johann Jakob discussed the opportunities with Steiner and Jeune. The choice no doubt came down to what was common sense. Other Germans worked in George's instrument factory. Pastor and schoolmaster put in a word with Butcher Astor. It apparently took months before Johann Jakob Sr. agreed to give the youngest son of his first wife the chance he had afforded his other sons.

Two months short of his seventeenth birthday, Johann Jakob stood at the edge of Walldorf and gravely said goodbye to Steiner, Jeune, and one of his half sisters. Only the teacher was cheerful, saying Johann Jakob had a good head and that the world would hear of him. Out of their sight, Johann Jakob knelt under a tree and, according to a story he probably originated himself, promised der lieber Gott he would be honest, industrious, and never gamble. With that he walked to the Rhine and, in the town of Speyer, became a deckhand on a raft transporting Black Forest lumber downriver. Two weeks later he was in Holland with enough money for passage to England. In London he found his way to the Astor & Broadwood musical instrument factory.

Johann Jakob stayed four years in London and Anglicized his name to John Jacob. In 1778, the musical instrument firm of George and John Astor opened its doors at 26 Wych Street, off Drury Lane, in the heart of fashionable London. The brothers made wooden flutes, clarinets, and other wind instruments, slowly broadening their range. As John matured, he learned the business from his brother, and became fluent in English, though he never lost his heavy, guttural accent and never learned the spelling. George was an astute merchant who expanded and diversified into keyboard instruments. John proved to be a born salesman.

News from the American colonies told a confusing story. Letters from Henry spoke of opportunities for ambitious young men and suggested John Jacob come and try his luck. France entered the war on the side of the American rebels the year George and John Jacob opened their shop, and bolstered George Washington's resistance to Britain's veteran troops. The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 did not settle the conflict, but peace negotiations were started. Thomas Jefferson, President Washington's ambassador to France, was particularly anti-British. "Mr. Jefferson likes us because he detests England," wrote the French minister Pierre Adet, "but he might change his opinion of us tomorrow, if tomorrow Great Britain should cease to inspire his fears." Even after the peace treaty was signed in Paris in 1783, Jefferson brought Anglo-American relations close to war again after a 1790 flare-up between Britain and Spain over English navigator George Vancouver's claims for Britain of a stretch of the Pacific coast of North America.

Twenty-year-old John Jacob possessed both imagination and caution. Peace meant the ex-colonists would turn to cultivating the arts, meaning they would want musical instruments. On the other hand, if the music business failed, there was always the butcher's trade. Flutes were a luxury, but people always needed meat, leather, and furs. The brothers dissolved their London partnership and, with his own modest resources, John Jacob embarked aboard a vessel named the North Carolina or the Carolina in November 1783. His luggage included a consignment of flutes.

The average transatlantic crossing took sixty-six days. Because of an unusually severe winter, the ship taking John Jacob to America was four months at sea. Captain Jacob Stout veered south toward Baltimore to avoid pack ice, which clogged the more northerly ports. The ship was nevertheless immobilized in the frozen waters of Chesapeake Bay. The ice encasing the vessel was thick enough to walk on, and by February and March 1784 a number of John Jacob's fellow passengers clambered overboard and made their way on foot to the Maryland headland. There are two versions of how John Jacob reached America's shore. In 1929, Arthur Howden Smith would write in John Jacob Astor: Landlord of New York that John Jacob waited until the ice broke and the captain was able to move the ship to her berth. In his 1993 biography, The Astors 1763--1992: Landscape with Millionaires, Derek Wilson would claim John Jacob stayed on the ship because the shipping company was obliged to provide bed and board until the end of the voyage. However, by March 24 or 25, he, too, had enough and, with no sign of an imminent thaw, made his way across the frozen Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore.

Half a century later, when he commissioned the best-selling author, historian, diplomat, and gossip Washington Irving to write his life story, he dictated this sketch of his first day in the New World:

I took a walk to see the town, getting up Market Street. While standing and looking about, a little man came out of his shop. This was Nicholas Tuschdy. He addressed me saying--young man I believe you are a stranger, to which I replied yes. Where did you come from--from London--but you are not an Englishman, no a German. Then he says we are near countrymen. I am a Swiss--we are glad to see people coming to this country from Europe. On this he asked me into his house and offered me a glass of wine and introduced me to his wife as a countryman. He offered his services and advice while in Baltimore and requested me to call again to see him.

John Jacob stayed three weeks in Baltimore. Tuschdy displayed some of John Jacob's instruments in his shop window. Several sold. When it was time for J. J. to move on, he had money enough to take a coach for New York.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2001

    Worthwhile

    A interesting book primarily for it's description of the opening of the American frontier,references to notable historical figures,portrayal of early New York City,and documentation of early American business practices and the development of Capitalism. John Jacob's personnal life is modestly interesting as a look at the period of time he lived in. But clearly his true gift was in the accumulation and retention of wealth. His greatest lesson to us is to get ahead of the crowd and then leave that business as the times and tastes change. Through today's looking glass his business practices may seem seedy and unethical, but one must remember that that was how the game was played in those days and we should not judge him by today's politically correct standards.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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