Astor, Nancy Witcher, Viscountess Astor 1879-1964, politician and hostess, was born 19 May 1879 at Danville, Virginia, the eighth, and fifth surviving, child of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, Southern gentleman and Civil War veteran, who later made a fortune in railway development and bought an estate at Mirador near Charlottesville. Her mother, Nancy Witcher Keene, was of Irish extraction. The beauty of the second daughter, Irene, was immortalized by Charles Dana Gibson, the artist, whom she married.
Nancy herself was gifted with beauty, as well as wit and a good—although inadequately schooled—intelligence. In 1897 she was married, at the age of eighteen, to Robert Gould Shaw, by whom she had one son, but whom she divorced in 1903. This was a source of considerable embarrassment to her in her later career, when she was a vigorous opponent of divorce. In 1904 she came to England for the social and hunting seasons, and in 1906, after rejecting other suitors, married Waldorf (later second Viscount) Astor [qv.], who brought her immense wealth and lifelong devotion. They had four sons and one daughter.
Naturally religious, Nancy was converted in 1914 to Christian Science, which she thereafter practised and preached with missionary fervour, and to which she soon converted her friend Philip Kerr [qv.], later eleventh Marquess of Lothian. Her friendship with Kerr (always regarded as platonic) remained, until his death in 1940, the closest of her many friendships; and, since he was a fugitive from Roman Catholicism, it was probably under his influence that her natural Protestantism assumed an obsessively anti-Popish form.
In 1919 Waldorf Astor had to vacate his parliamentary seat—the Sutton division of Plymouth—on inheriting the peerage which he had not wanted his father to accept. In the resulting by-election Nancy, now Lady Astor, stood in his place and was returned as a Conservative supporter of the Lloyd George coalition. When she took her seat, 1 December 1919, she was the first woman to do so, since the Sinn Fein Countess Markievicz, elected in 1918, had disqualified herself by refusal to take the oath. To mark the historic occasion, Lady Astor was introduced by Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, the only two members who had attained the rank of prime minister.
A more conventional woman might have shown her reverence for the ancient and illustrious men's club to which she had gained admittance by conforming very punctiliously to its rules and customs. But Lady Astor did not seek to prove herself the equal of her male colleagues, since it was her line that women were the superior sex. I married beneath me, she used to say, all women do—and in that spirit she made her presence felt in the House of Commons. Partly because she hated pomposity of any kind, and partly because her mind was rather disorderly, she was never a good parliamentarian in the traditional sense. Her interruptions, although often witty, were too frequent, and once, when she claimed to have been listening for hours before interrupting, a member exclaimed: Yes, we heard you listening!Yet her service in the House of Commons was by no means barren of achievement, and her best work was done during the early years. In 1923 she introduced and carried through all its stages her own private member's Bill raising, in principle, to eighteen the age qualification for the purchase of alcoholic drinks. Her husband then took charge of it in the Lords, and it became law. Her maiden speech had been in favour of Temperance, and her Bill gave practical, if limited, effect to her convictions. In addition, she championed a variety of women's causes: for instance, votes for women at twenty-one, equal rights in the Civil Service, and the preservation of the women's police force. She was also active on behalf of children, especially as a strong supporter and benefactress of the nursery schools of Margaret McMillan [qv.].
In 1931 she and her husband visited the Soviet Union with G. B. Shaw [qv.]. Shaw returned an ecstatic admirer of Stalin, but the Astors were not blind to the atrocity of the Soviet regime. At home Lady Astor was one of those who vainly demanded more generous treatment of the unemployed.
She was instinctively anti-Nazi, never visited Hitler, and was, later, on his black list. All the same, she believed that the policy of appeasement was right and became one of its most conspicuous partisans—conspicuous mainly through the influence of the Cliveden set myth. Cliveden was the Astors' magnificent home overlooking the Thames near Taplow, where they entertained liberally. The idea of a conspiratorial set meeting there to promote appeasement and a sell-out to Nazi Germany was a journalistic invention. It was demonstrably mythical since the outstanding feature of the Astors' hospitality was its open-endedness: no country house of the period had a more comprehensive clientele. Moreover, even among the Astors' intimate friends (naturally their most frequent guests) there were deep differences of opinion on foreign policy.
Churchill, however, was not one of their friends. Between him and Lady Astor relations were never good, although in 1940 she helped to make him prime minister by voting against the Government in the Norway division. During the war of 1939-45 the Astors dedicated themselves to Plymouth, she as one of the city's members of Parliament, he as its lord mayor for five successive years. They spent a lot of time at their house on the Hoe, which—with them in it—was damaged by high explosive and incendiary bombs. Lady Astor did much to sustain morale, not least by performing, for the benefit of people in air-raid shelters, the cartwheels with which she had amazed Edwardian house-parties when she was nearly forty years younger.
It is a virtual certainty, however, that she would have lost her seat in the Labour tide had she stood again in 1945, and it is possible that she would not have been asked to stand, for her parliamentary performance had deteriorated over the years. Her husband wisely persuaded her not to seek re-election. Resentful at being out of Parliament, she turned her resentment against him, with the sad result that their partnership was clouded during the years before he died in 1952. Surviving him by more than a decade, she died at her daughter's house, Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire, 2 May 1964, and was buried with her husband at Cliveden.
Lady Astor was short and neat, but her air of alertness and challenge made her seem taller. Her eyes were blue, her colouring was fair, her nose and chin were strong and finely shaped, but without undue prominence. Her clothes were expensive, but she never wore bright colours, and in the House of Commons unfailingly wore a black coat and skirt with a white blouse and a black tricorn hat. A gardenia or sprig of verbena was usually in her lapel. Her finest qualities were courage, generosity, and zest; her principal defects insensitivity, prejudice, and a streak of cruelty. She was a curious mixture of religious maniac and clown, oscillating between the extremes of earnestness and levity. Moderation never came easily to her, yet paradoxically she always supported moderates in politics.
An oil painting of her by J. S. Sargent (1923) is in the National Portrait Gallery. There are three charcoal drawings of her by the same artist, two belonging to the fourth Viscount Astor, and one presented to the National Portrait Gallery by her son, Michael Astor. A picture by Charles Sims of her taking her seat in the House of Commons is on loan to the university of Virginia at Charlottesville, and a copy of this painting is in the Plymouth Art Gallery. A bust of her by K. de Strobl was presented by Shaw to the Palace of Westminster.
Lady Astor was appointed CH in 1937 and made an honorary freeman of Plymouth in 1959.
Maurice Collis, Nancy Astor, 1960
Michael Astor, Tribal Feeling, 1963
Christopher Sykes, Nancy: the Life of Lady Astor, 1972
Contributor: John Grigg