55 pages 1 hour read

Anderson Cooper, Katherine Howe

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Eminent broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper and historical novelist Katherine Howe reunite to tell the story of one of America’s richest families in Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune, published in 2023. This family biography follows their earlier collaboration on a book about Cooper’s own prominent ancestors, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, which was recognized on the New York Times bestseller list and the Washington Post Notable Works of Nonfiction of 2021.

In Astor, Cooper contributes his family insight and journalistic flair to Howe’s historical knowledge and storytelling skills. Together they create a readable, revealing account of the most colorful and scandalous members of New York’s Astor family, from ruthless immigrant fur trader John Jacob Astor to the last Mrs. Astor and her son, Tony Marshall, whose own son leveled shocking accusations of elder abuse against him.

The Astors helped shape the fabric of New York City for more than two centuries. Their name became synonymous with high society and Gilded Age riches. Cooper and Howe argue, however, that the family’s claim to represent a hopeful manifestation of the American Dream masked a reality of very human turmoil in their lives and a callous attitude toward the working-class people whom they—and others in America’s elite—exploited.

This guide uses the 2023 Harper Collins hardcover edition.

Content Warning: This book contains descriptions of abuse and discrimination against the elderly; brief mentions of death by suicide, racist violence, involuntary institutionalization for mental health; and graphic descriptions of the killing of animals.


Anderson Cooper met Mrs. Brooke Astor, the last prominent member of New York’s Astor family, twice. On the first occasion he was with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and society doyenne Brooke greeted him cordially. The second time he wore a waiter’s uniform, and Brooke looked through him as if he didn’t even exist. In recalling this interaction, Cooper begins to paint a picture of a high-society family that influenced New York City but exploited the working class while socially not even acknowledging their existence.

John Jacob Astor, an immigrant from Germany, created the Astor fortune through the fur trade in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Initially, he did work hard, venturing into the wilderness and learning Indigenous American languages. Later, he used his profits to form the monopolistic American Fur Company, which used alcohol, debt, and political connections as leverage, to dominate the industry while taking advantage of Indigenous Americans and independent trappers. In addition, he founded an offshoot, the Pacific Fur Company, with which he aimed to create a new country on the West Coast. Despite internal conflict and the deaths of many on the expeditions to the West, his company founded Astoria (in modern-day Oregon), only to see the British destroy it in the War of 1812. Sensing the decline of the fur industry, John Jacob turned to Manhattan real estate. He bought it cheaply before the influx of immigrants in the mid-1800s. At his death, John Jacob was the richest man in America and the second-biggest slumlord in New York City (though he was unlikely to boast of the latter).

John Jacob’s son, William Backhouse Astor Sr., quietly continued his father’s real estate success. During his tenure, class tensions erupted in New York via the Astor Place Riot. The riot’s name derived from the street name rather than the family’s name, but the fact that prominent streets and buildings now bore the Astor name testifies to the Astor family’s centrality in New York society. Caroline Astor, the daughter-in-law of the senior William Backhouse, solidified that status when she helped organize and lay down the rules of high society. Her insistence that she was the Mrs. Astor, however, irked her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, and his wife. William Waldorf, after a failed political career, decided to leave New York City for good and go to Britain. There, to the disgust of traditional English families and the betrayed astonishment of New Yorkers, he became a viscount due to his wealth. Before leaving New York, William Waldorf tore down his brownstone there and built an enormous hotel on the site that literally overshadowed his aunt’s fine house next door. She eventually moved, and her son, John Jacob Astor IV, or “Jack,” tore down the old house and built an adjacent hotel to be run in tandem with his cousin’s. The result was the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a name synonymous with luxury and an institution that introduced the concierge to the US and created the Waldorf salad.

Tragedy and scandal then began to strike the half of the Astor family remaining in the US. Among the Chanlers, a minor branch of the family, eight children were orphaned. The eldest, Archie, held his siblings together but then fell apart personally. He claimed to have developed psychic powers, and his disbelieving siblings had him “committed” to a mental hospital. Later, Jack Astor caused scandal when he divorced his wife and married a teenager. Tragedy soon overshadowed the scandal, however, when he died on the Titanic in 1912. Initial reports portrayed him as heroically helping women and children onto lifeboats and then nobly sacrificing his life for them; Cooper and Howe cast doubt on that story. Oddly, another John Jacob Astor had died in New York shortly before him. This John Jacob had immigrated to New York City in 1863, shortly before the destructive New York City Draft Riots. Unlike the first immigrant, this other John Jacob worked hard for a pittance his entire life and died in poverty. This contrast illustrates the fragility of the American Dream.

After the death of Jack Astor on the Titanic, the Astor legacy partly continued in institutions like the Astor Hotel on Times Square, which became a center of culture. The hotel was a haven for the burgeoning underground gay culture. Jack Astor’s son Vincent inherited the bulk of the family fortune, but illness rendered him infertile. Horrified at the slums his family owned, Vincent began to sell off the family’s real estate and move the money into a charitable trust. His third wife, Brooke Astor, wielded control of the foundation after his death and became the biggest philanthropist in New York. Thus, she became a social leader comparable to Caroline Astor. As her mental competency declined with age, however, her son, Tony Marshall, took advantage of her to try to seize the remains of the Astor fortune. Tony’s own son, Philip, and several of Brooke’s friends challenged him, alleging elder abuse. In the end, half the remaining money went to charity and half went to Tony. However, Tony went to prison. He refused to reconcile with his son and disinherited him. Therefore, the fortune of New York’s Astor family came to a sad, scandal-ridden end.

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