Astor, Waldorf, second Viscount Astor 1879-1952, public servant, was born in New York 19 May 1879, the elder son of William Waldorf (later first Viscount) Astor, who settled in England in 1889 and was naturalized ten years later, and his wife, Mary Dahlgren Paul, of Philadelphia. He had a distinguished career at Eton where he won the Prince Consort's first French prize (1897), was captain of the boats (1898), and one of the editors of the Eton College Chronicle. He went on to New College, Oxford, where he obtained a fourth class in history (1902) and represented the university at polo, steeplechasing, and sabres.
In 1906 Astor married Mrs. Nancy Witcher Shaw (died 1964), daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, of Virginia. She was one of the sisters whose grace and beauty were made famous by the artist Charles Dana Gibson who was himself married to one of them. His father gave them as a wedding present his house Cliveden, built by Sir Charles Barry [qv.] in 1850, overlooking the Thames.
After a defeat in January 1910 Astor entered Parliament in December as a Unionist member for Plymouth. In the following year, 1911, his father bought the Sunday newspaper, the Observer, from Lord Northcliffe [qv.]. Since his father lived mainly in Italy, Astor, as the man on the spot, became in many ways the de facto proprietor, especially in matters relating to editorial policy. A close political co-operation with the editor, J. L. Garvin [qv.], developed. Ownership of the paper enhanced Astor's influence as a young Tory member of Parliament. In other ways, too, he widened his influence. He was a prominent member of the Round Table group concerned with the advancement of imperial unity which included his brother-in-law Lord Brand; and Lionel Curtis [qv.], Philip Kerr (later Marquess of Lothian) [qv.], and Edward Grigg (later Lord Altrincham) [qv.]. These remained his friends and political associates for many years.
In 1914, because of poor health contracted as a young man, he was unable to join the armed forces and served as an inspector of ordnance factories for which he was mentioned in dispatches. His political career prospered. He became successively parliamentary private secretary to the prime minister, Lloyd George (1917), parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Food (1918) and to the Ministry of Health (1919-21). Meanwhile in 1916 his father was created a baron and in 1917 a viscount, and on his death in 1919 Astor had to resign his seat. He endeavoured to decline the title in order to remain in the House of Commons, but this proved to be legally impossible. His wife stood for the Sutton division of Plymouth in his stead and was elected, and thereby became the first woman to take her seat in the British Parliament, thus beginning a career which was to make her one of the most widely known public figures in Britain.
Although after a few years Astor gave up political office, he did not give up his political interests but pursued them through other channels. He remained proprietor of the Observer. He was an original member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and served as chairman of its study groups committee and later as chairman of council (1935-49). He was an active supporter of the League of Nations, and was a British delegate to the Assembly in 1931. He developed his lifelong special interest in agriculture. He was the joint author with Keith Murray (later Lord Murray of Newhaven) of Land and Life (1932). In the following year, also with Murray, he published The Planning of Agriculture and in 1938 British Agriculture to which B. Seebohm Rowntree [qv.] and others contributed. After the war, with Rowntree, he published Mixed Farming and Muddled Thinking (1946). In 1936 Astor became chairman of the joint committee of agricultural, economic, and health experts appointed by the League of Nations, the progenitor of the subsequent United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
Cliveden, situated conveniently halfway between Oxford and London, was a week-end rendezvous for politicians, journalists, and dons. In the late thirties those who regularly gathered there as the guests of the Astors became popularly known as the Cliveden set. They included the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, the editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson [qv.], and Lord Lothian who was later ambassador in Washington. They were the people who believed, in varying degrees, in the general thesis that a second world war could be averted by making restitution to Hitler's Germany for the disabilities laid upon her by the treaty of Versailles. The opponents of this policy of appeasement as it came to be known claimed that members of this group, meeting as they did regularly at Cliveden, were exercising an undue and even unconstitutional influence on foreign policy. As those who met regularly at Cliveden were people holding key positions of power in the country it was natural that they influenced policy, but their conduct was neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented in English history. Nevertheless in 1938 Astor felt it necessary to rebut the charges in a letter to The Times.
While engaged in these wider activities, Astor did not neglect Plymouth, for which his wife remained the sitting member until 1945. He built a housing estate there which bore his name. He founded Virginia House as a social centre for women and girls: besides playing fields, an institute, and a university hall of residence. After the war of 1939-45, during which Plymouth was severely damaged by bombing, he played a leading part in planning its reconstruction. He was made an honorary freeman of the city in 1936 and was lord mayor in 1939-44.
In 1942 Astor parted company with Garvin. During the latter years of the partnership there had been mounting difficulties. Garvin had been editor of the Observer for over thirty years and Astor was looking to the succession. There was an open breach when Garvin wrote an article in the Observer dealing with the higher direction of the war; his views were in direct opposition to Astor's. The tribunal which existed to adjudicate on the relations between them decided against Garvin. In 1945 Astor set up a trust, which was to own all the shares in the Observer and to devote the income to charitable purposes, chiefly connected with newspapers or journalism.
One of Astor's abiding interests throughout his life was his racing stable. While at Oxford he bought the mare Conjure, and later Popinjay and Maid of the Mist. From these brood mares and their stock were bred the winners of eleven classic races. His horses ran second in the Derby five times, but he never succeeded in winning it. The building up of one of the best-known studs in the country from scratch was his personal consideration, the fruit of much study and care.
Born to great wealth and the first of his line to be brought up in England from an early age, Astor devoted his energies to public service, without asking or expecting reward or recognition. He was a good, modest, and dedicated man, who in the public eye was inevitably overshadowed by the powerful and vivid personality of his wife. In agriculture he possessed especial expertise and his views were ahead of his time. He was a committee man, rather than an individualist, and for this reason his influence on affairs was not always easy to trace. One result, as in the case of the Cliveden set myth, was that responsibility was sometimes attributed to him for views or actions which he would not necessarily have agreed with in their entirety, particularly in their more extreme expressions. In youth an outstanding games player and sportsman, he was addicted to country pursuits, but ill health put a limit on his activity. Like his wife, he was a Christian Scientist.
Astor died at Cliveden 30 September 1952 and was succeeded by his eldest son, William Waldorf (1907-66). His second son, David Astor, became editor of the Observer in 1948. He had two other sons, both of whom served as members of Parliament, and a daughter (the Countess of Ancaster).
A portrait of Astor by (Sir) James Gunn hangs in the Astor Room in Chatham House. Another, in lord mayor's robes, by the same artist hangs in the Astor Room at the Guildhall, Plymouth, and a copy of this, in ordinary dress, is in the board-room of the Observer. A portrait by P. A. de László is at Cliveden which in 1942 was handed over to the National Trust.
The Times, 1 October 1952
Michael Astor, Tribal Feeling, 1963
Alfred M. Gollin, The Observer and J. L. Garvin, 1908-14, 1960
Contributor: Oliver Woods.