When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age

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Overview

In this marvelous anecdotal history, Justin Kaplan––Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Mark Twain––vividly brings to life a glittering, bygone age.

Endowed with the largest private fortunes of their day, cousins John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor vied for primacy in New York society, producing the grandest hotels ever seen in a marriage of ostentation and efficiency that transformed American social behavior.

Kaplan exposes it all ...

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When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age

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Overview

In this marvelous anecdotal history, Justin Kaplan––Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Mark Twain––vividly brings to life a glittering, bygone age.

Endowed with the largest private fortunes of their day, cousins John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor vied for primacy in New York society, producing the grandest hotels ever seen in a marriage of ostentation and efficiency that transformed American social behavior.

Kaplan exposes it all in exquisite detail, taking readers from the 1890s to the Roaring Twenties in a combination of biography, history, architectural appreciation, and pure reading pleasure
 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In our opinion (validated by two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize!), Justin Kaplan is one of the best literary biographers around. This latest work from the acclaimed author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain offers an enticing slice of life in Manhattan's Gilded Age, an era dominated by two combative heirs to the Astor family fortune. Kaplan limns the lives of John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor -- feuding cousins who erected the city's first luxury hotels as rival monuments to wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption. Social history at its best, this superlative biography recounts how one ambitious, aspiring family managed to impose its overweening pride, vanity, and ostentation in fin-de-siècle Manhattan.
The New York Observer
Mr. Kaplan is a companionable writer, and his well-turned sentences are a delight to read.
New York Daily News
An entertaining social history.
The New York Sun
Mr. Kaplan, a dazzling stylist, is perfectly suited to his subject: what Henry James lovingly called 'hotel civilization' ... [A] splendid book about a bygone age that has not quite gone away.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
A subject that proves more revealing of the nature of American democracy than many hefty social and political histories.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Justin Kaplan's short but diverting tale of the career of the Astor family is told with gleeful humor and frequent sarcasm. He defines his subject as a commentary on the progression of taste and social attitude—and does it very well.
BookPage
A fascinating social history as well as a fun gossipy read. Kaplan has an eye for both the dishy details and the deeper meaning beneath them. This vision makes When the Astors Owned New York the best kind of history: entertaining.
Jonathan Yardley
… Kaplan's evocative, witty and handsomely written little book reminds us that there were indeed giants in those days and that the Astors, for all their innumerable faults, were among them.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This frothy look at several generations of Astors by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain is custom-made for the Waldorf gift shop. The tightwad founder of the Astor dynasty was a butcher's son from the German backwater of Waldorf. By the time John Jacob Astor died in 1848 at the age of 84, the richest man in America had turned a fur trade monopoly into a Manhattan real estate empire. Astor House, his "astonishing" luxury hotel adjacent to City Hall, cosseted the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Britain's future King Edward VII in its 80-year history. John Jacob's "phlegmatic and cautious" son, William, increased the family fortune, married a blueblood and sired sons who couldn't abide one another. "Imperious and somber" John Jacob III and playboy William, who was married to society queen Caroline Schermerhorn, passed on the family feud to their sons who managed to combine forces in 1897 to build the Waldorf-Astoria. Prickly and snobbish William Waldorf Astor failed in New York State politics, became a novelist and an art collector, and died a British viscount. John Jacob IV's military service and his death on the Titanic helped temper his reputation as a spoiled fool. B&w photos. (June 5) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From humble origins in Waldorf, Germany, where he was born in 1763, John Jacob Astor became the wealthiest man in America. Through a fortune founded mainly on the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, he left heirs who have influenced the social life of New York City almost to this day. Kaplan (Walt Whitman: A Life) eloquently tells a part of the family story in his highly literate book, focusing on two of John Jacob's great-grandsons, cousins William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, who developed separate-but ultimately conjoined-hotels, the Waldorf (opened in 1893) and the Astoria (opened in 1897). In discussing these men's lives and projects, Kaplan writes charmingly about an era in all its cultural prominence and extravagance. John Jacob Astor IV's life ended as a first-class passenger on the Titanic; William Waldorf Astor became an English aristocrat who hired genealogists to search for a possible noble ancestry. He died in his adopted country after achieving his long-sought British peerage. This book will be a welcome addition to all libraries.-Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award-winning biographer Kaplan (Walt Whitman, 1980, etc.) tells a tale of two cousins, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV. Great-grandsons of America's first millionaire, and prototypical scions of America's Gilded Age, the two men left enduring marks on their native New York City's architecture, high society and especially on the business of luxury hotels that they all but defined. They inherited a family feud along with their fortunes, exacerbated by their divergent temperaments. John Jacob (1854-1912), better known as Jack, was tagged in the newspapers with the sobriquet "Jack Ass," thanks to his knack for political blunders, social faux pas and a habit of running the family's mammoth 250-foot yacht aground or into other vessels. William Waldorf (1848-1919) was a rigidly disciplined intellectual and collector of fine art who eventually immigrated to England. Together, they created the original Waldorf=Astoria, which debuted in 1897 as the world's most opulent hotel, but their fragile alliance soon shattered as the cousins engaged in a continuing struggle of competitive extravagance that produced such luxurious establishments as the Hotel Astor (William) and the St. Regis (Jack). Yet while they helped to transform the very idea of the hotel into an ostentatious showcase for the lifestyles of the extremely wealthy, the Astor scions maintained the tradition of their dynasty's founder by also serving as the city's leading slumlords. William and Jack were as much responsible for the invention of conspicuous consumption as they were for the creation of the grand hotel, and long before the likes of Dennis Kozlowski, the Astor cousins were groundbreakers in thediscovery that it's easier to buy crass than class. A far-reaching portrait of fin de siecle New York, buttressed by the author's assiduous research-even though one can only gasp so many times at the excesses, indulgences and vanities of these two antiheroes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452288584
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/26/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 204,777
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.45 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Justin Kaplan was an editor, biographer, and author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain and Walt Whitman: A Life, among other books. He was a member of the American Academy of  Arts and Letters. He died in 2014.

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Table of Contents


Prologue     3
The House of Astor     9
Town Topics     27
Inventor and Novelist     55
Palaces for the People     67
"A New Thing Under the Sun"     81
After the Ball Was Over     99
Aladdin     112
"Mine! All Mine!"     139
Baron Astor of Hever Castle     160
End of the Line     175
Acknowledgment     183
Sources     185
Index     189
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
Rating Distribution

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(4)

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2011

    enjoyable read for history buffs

    Interesting look into the life of the Astors and life in the 19th century. Ideal book for history buffs although I wish that the author had delved more into the animosity between William and John Jacob IV and other family members. Did make me go to the internet to look up the buildings that were mentioned so I learned alot about NYC history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2013

    gossipy but dry

    Lots of scurrilous Victorian and Edwardian gossip about the Astors. If you've read 1900-1940s books with thinly veiled real New Yorkers as characters, you can probably work out who some of them are with this book's help.

    There's also a good bit of useful social history detail to go along with the gossip.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2012

    The majority of this short book has nothing to do with the Astor

    The majority of this short book has nothing to do with the Astor’s lives in New York or even the Astor’s hotels in New York. Whole chapters are devoted to William Waldorf Astor’s later life in England and other European countries. Sections from other chapters are devoted to grand hotels outside of New York City that were not owned by the Astors. The narrative lacks focus and has unnecessary information that adds nothing to the book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 14, 2012

    Very boorish

    This book basically exposes the pettiness that the rich have with everything. Their lack of patience combined with the desire to be better than everyone else. The love that this family shows for each other can be framed in one word "non-existent". The family competed over everything from the having the most expensive homes, hotels, yahts, furniture, etc. If a family member manage to build a bigger house...another family member went to work to build an even bigger house. Basically their entire empire was under construction for 100+ years. Their was absolutely no love for each other in this family which is very telling when the news of sinking of the Titanic took down John Jacob Astor and the reaction by the family is not commented on nor seen as tragedy. Rather it becomes an opportunity to grab some more money from an estate.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    For anyone who loves American history

    The Astors made their own unique contribution to this country. Like them or not they were an integral part of the history of New York. "When the Astors Owned New York" has an interesting perspective in that its main focus was on the way that two Astor cousins greatly influenced the evolution of the modern hotel. In writing about the Astors and the many hotels they competed with each other to build, Justin Kaplan also touches on the story of others who were building grand hotels in the same era. The author has an understanding of his story and writes it in an interesting and informative manner.

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  • Posted February 1, 2010

    A Wonderful Peek Inside One Of America's Wealthiest Family

    I have always been intrigued with the history of American families during the gilded age. I loved reading about the rise of the family, how they were connected with history of New York and all of their many contributions. A wonderful peek into a world I wish I could have experienced. =)

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  • Posted January 1, 2009

    The Hotels...

    More than a chronology of the Astors, this book is more of a history of the hotels which the Astor family built. But there is still enough of the family stories and rivalries to make the book interesting and take it out of the realm of architectural history.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2006

    Perfect Pitch

    Justin Kaplan is a superb writer, plain and simple. As an historian he is the perfect host. He keeps the conversation moving and serves up the past with delectable detail, wit and finesse. He has that special gift of writing in the right key.

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    Posted May 8, 2010

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    Posted December 5, 2009

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    Posted January 14, 2010

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    Posted December 11, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2008

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