Astor, William Waldorf, first Viscount Astor 1848-1919, urban landlord and newspaper proprietor, was born 31 March 1848 in New York, the only child of John Jacob Astor, manager of the family estate, and his wife Charlotte Gibbes. He was educated privately and at Columbia Law School, and worked as a lawyer and in the family estates before entering the New York State Assembly as a Republican in 1877. He built the Waldorf section of what later became the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In 1879 he was elected to the State Senate, and in 1880 ran unsuccessfully for Congress. In 1882 he was appointed as minister to Italy. There he wrote Valentino: an Historical Romance of the Sixteenth Century, published in 1885, the year when he ceased to hold his diplomatic office.
Astor married Mary Dahlgren, daughter of James William Paul of Philadelphia, in 1878. They had two sons, Waldorf (later second Viscount Astor, qv.) and John Jacob (later Baron Astor of Hever, qv.), and a daughter.
In 1890 Astors father died, leaving him a legacy estimated at 100 million dollars. In September 1890 he took his family to London. In 1893 he bought Cliveden House, to which he added the entire balustrade of the Villa Borghese. He was naturalized as a British subject in 1899. In 1906 he made over Cliveden to his newly married elder son, and bought Hever Castle in Kent, which he reconstructed and where he housed his collection of pictures and artefacts.
In 1892 he bought the Pall Mall Gazette, a Liberal evening daily newspaper which he turned into a Conservative organ. In 1893 he launched the Pall Mall Magazine, a monthly journal. In 1911 he bought the Observer, in order to get the services of its editor, J. L. Garvin [qv.], as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette was sold in August 1915, the Pall Mall Magazine having already been sold in 1912. Astor retained the Observer, which was subsequently passed down to his son Waldorf.
Astor was a substantial contributor to charities and to the Conservative Party. He was created Baron Astor in 1916, and promoted viscount in 1917. Astor was a shy, austere and, by all accounts, unlovable man. He despised his native country and said so in print. In return, he was lampooned by the New York press. He added two further novels of historical romance to his published output before 1900. He was important not so much for any positive achievement as for the unintended consequences of his purchases. Through buying the Observer, he preserved the independence of Garvin. By taking a peerage he ruined the political career of his elder son, who had become Unionist MP for Plymouth in 1910 and was elevated to the Lords in succession to his father in 1919, but also created the opportunity for his daughter-in-law, Nancy (later Viscountess Astor, qv.) to win her husbands seat at a by-election, and thus become the first woman to sit in the House of Commons. Astor died 18 October 1919 in Brighton.
Stephen Koss, The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain, vol. ii, 1984
Waldorf Astor papers (Reading University library)
J. L. Garvin papers (University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ranson Humanities Research Center)
Michael Astor, Tribal Feeling, 1963
W. J. Ghent in Dictionary of American Biography, vol. i, 1928.
Contributor: John Turner