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Astor, John Jacob, IIIlocked

(10 June 1822–22 February 1890)
  • Jerome Mushkat

Astor, John Jacob, III (10 June 1822–22 February 1890), capitalist and philanthropist, was born in New York City, the son of William Backhouse Astor and Margaret Rebecca Armstrong. The family was noted for great wealth and public charity. Astor graduated from Columbia College in 1839, and after studying at the University of Göttingen for a short time and traveling through Europe he earned a law degree at Harvard in 1842. He practiced briefly as an attorney specializing in commercial transactions and then entered his father’s burgeoning real estate office. In 1846 Astor married the socially prominent Charlotte Augusta Gibbes of South Carolina. They had one child, William Waldorf Astor, who eventually became a naturalized British citizen, a member of Parliament, and the first Viscount Astor.

In contrast to his father, who supported the Democrats prior to the Civil War because of the family’s economic ties to the South, Astor backed the Republicans in 1860. When the Civil War broke out he became a volunteer aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel on Major General George B. McClellan’s (1826–1885) staff, where he served in the Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond. On July 11, 1862, shortly after the climactic battle at Seven Pines, he resigned his commission and lashed out at what he called Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s deliberate interference in McClellan’s strategy. Even so, Astor remembered his military experience as the happiest time of his life. He remained loyal to McClellan, supported and bankrolled his presidential candidacy in 1864, and became his benefactor when he left the military, helping to purchase for him a four-story brick house in New York City and seeking to have him named president of the New Jersey Railroad.

After leaving the army, Astor returned to the family’s real estate business. When his father died in 1875, Astor and his brother, William Backhouse Astor, Jr., inherited equal shares of his fortune, estimated at about $20 million each. As the eldest son, Astor took over his father’s position as the head of the Astor family estate, which included the administration, purchase, and construction of office buildings, hotels, private homes, warehouses, and tenements. In addition, Astor was a trustee or director of the Union Trust Company, the Western Union Telegraph Company, the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, and a major stockholder in numerous New York banks. Over the next fifteen years, he bought a great deal of prime New York real estate, seldom selling any of it. He parlayed his inherited fortune into one that contemporary newspapers guessed was worth between $75 million and $100 million.

Tall, slender, and aristocratic, Astor was a man of towering contradictions. To critics, he seemed vain, imperious, conceited, pompous, parsimonious, hypocritical, and the classic slum landlord. A man of limited social sympathies who grew even richer by exploiting the poor in an era when municipal authorities rarely enforced building codes, Astor owned scandalously ramshackle tenements. He constructed new ones out of flimsy material and rarely improved the inadequate living conditions of those he purchased. Astor habitually protected his property by relying on political influence. He was on good terms with prominent Tammany Hall leaders. His relationship with “Boss” William M. Tweed, however, proved embarrassing. In 1871, shortly before revelations about Tweed’s corruption made his name synonymous with municipal thievery, Astor joined five other prominent businessmen in inspecting the ledgers of Comptroller Richard B. Connolly, one of Tweed’s close associates, and pronounced them honest and above suspicion.

Supporters drew a more favorable picture of Astor. They argued that he had a high sense of social responsibility and religious obligation. Both he and his wife gave large sums to charitable institutions such as the Children’s Aid Society, the New York Cancer Society, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Astor also was for years a vestryman at Trinity Church and a large contributor to its building and maintenance funds. Even more, he carried on his family’s commitment to the Astor Library, founded by the first John Jacob Astor (1763–1848). He deeded the library three city lots, built an addition costing $250,000, and left the library $400,000 in his will.

Astor was secure enough to ignore his critics. Unlike his brother’s wife, the gregarious Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who sought to make herself the social arbiter of New York society, Astor avoided ostentation. However, he and his wife spent lavish sums on quiet entertainments, furniture, books, paintings, and vacations in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Europe. Astor imported a French chef and became a noted connoisseur of vintage wines and cigars. He died in New York City.

Bibliography

Although Astor left no personal papers, relevant material may be found in contemporary newspapers. There are some useful studies of the Astor family. Three in particular provide glimpses of his career: Virginia Cowles, The Astors (1979); Lucy Kavaler, The Astors: An American Legend (1968); and Harvey O’Connor, The Astors (1941). See also Ward McAllister, Society as I have Found It (1890); Lloyd Morris, Incredible New York (1951); and Gustavus Myers, The History of the Great American Fortunes (1910). A short obituary is in the New York Times, 23 Feb. 1890.