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Everyone knows the story of the RMS Titanic, the luxurious ocean liner that sank enroute to New York on its maiden voyage in April, 1912. Among the 1,500 individuals who lost their lives in the tragedy—most of them crew Third Class immigrants—were several prominent New Yorkers. There was Isidore Strauss, a co-owner of Macy’s, then the largest store in the world; Benjamin Guggenheim, a wealthy businessman of the now-famous Guggenheim family; Henry B. Harris, a Broadway producer who built the Hudson Theater (most recently home to Burn This, starring Adam Driver and Keri Russell). Best-known, however, was John Jacob Astor IV, of the renowned Astor family. His net worth of $87 million, the equivalent of $2.2 billion today, made him amongst the wealthiest men in New York City, and by far the richest man onboard. Astor had made his money mostly through real estate. Case in point: in 1906, he opened one of New York’s most luxurious hotels yet, The Knickerbocker.
Here, we look back at John Jacob Astor IV, born 155 years ago this month.
Born at the Astor family estate in Rhinebeck New York on July 13, 1864, John Jacob Astor IV was the fifth child (and first son) of William Blackhouse Astor Jr. and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn. Caroline, known by her nickname Lina, dominated New York society, and maintained the infamous Four Hundred list, which tallied the few hundred people she felt belonged in a high society ballroom. (Astor’s namesake and great-grandfather was the German-American immigrant John Jacob Astor, who made a fortune in the fur trade, and made the Astor name synonymous with wealth.) Astor, who went by the name Jack, attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and then Harvard College. He dabbled in writing, publishing A Journey in Other Worlds, a sci-fi novel set in the year 2000. Astor also had an inventive side, patenting a bicycle break in 1898 among other engineering developments, such as an air-pressured road improver.
In the 1890s, he served as a colonel on the military staff of New York’s governor Levi P. Morton. And in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Astor personally financed a battalion which served in the Philippines. Later that year, he served as an officer in Cuba.
His main fortunes, however, came from realty, notably through hotel development. Over a decade before he built The Knickerbocker, Astor opened the Astoria. The ultra-luxury property stood just across 34th Street from the Waldorf Hotel, owned by Astor’s cousin and rival, Waldorf Astor. Point taken, Waldorf and Jack combined properties into the Waldorf-Astoria, which remained a testament to hospitality until the construction of the Empire State Building necessitated their destruction. In 1904, Astor also opened the St. Regis, named for the St. Regis Lake in the Adirondacks. The tallest hotel in the city, it marked society’s shift Uptown from Herald Square. And two years later, Astor outdid himself again when he opened The Knickerbocker. The property instantly became a centerpoint for New York elite, who flocked to its restaurants, which could seat 2,000 people for after-theater dinner. The bar’s simultaneous popularity and exclusiveness earned it the nickname of “the 42nd Street Country Club,” and is rumored to be the birthplace of the martini.
His vast wealth allowed Astor to build one of the city’s most sumptuous private homes: a joint mansion for his mother, Caroline, and for his own family on prestigious Fifth Avenue just across from Central Park on 65th Street. In 1909, Astor divorced from his first wife, Ava Lowle Willing, with whom he had two children. A year later, 47-year-old Astor scandalized New York society announcing his engagement to Madeleine Talmage Force. At the age of 18, she was two years younger than Astor’s son William Vincent.
For their honeymoon, the Astors took an extended vacation in France and Egypt, hoping the scandal would dissipate. After four months abroad, and with Madeleine pregnant, they booked return passage on the RMS Titanic, having taken its sister ship, the Olympic, on their sail to Europe. The couple, accompanied by several servants and Astor’s beloved airedale, Kitty, boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France. During the sinking, Astor helped Madeleine, along with her servant and nurse, into a lifeboat. He initially hoped to join her, especially given her pregnancy, but was instructed only women and children could board. Taking note of which lifeboat she had entered, so that he could find it later, he then stepped back and allowed others to board. Astor was last seen on the deck of the ship, smoking a cigarette with journalist and famed mystery writer Jacques Futrelle. Both would die in the sinking, although Astor’s body was recovered and laid to rest at Trinity Church in Manhattan.