Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Do the Astors own you?
On the passing yesterday of the 800 year old Astor family monarch Brooke Astor, I thought I'd give you a brief rundown on all the places in which they've left a literal impression.
Okay, ole Brooke was really 105, but in New York anyway, her passing has the feeling of an institution having left the building. She married into the family via Vincent Astor, the only son of John Jacob Astor IV. However she quickly embodied the family's heritage and sophistication. Unfortunately she fell victim not only to Alzheimer's but to an apparently abusive son who was accused of squandering her fortune on, among other things, theatrical productions.
But her charitable contributions set the bar for philanthropy among New York's upper class, benefiting a wide range of organizations, from the New York Public Library to the Fresh Air Fund.
But the Astor family has given New Yorkers another present, the name. Most derive from the progenitor of the family clan, John Jacob Astor, a self-made fur trader who made his name at the start of the 19th century and ended up becoming the richest man in New York history:
Astoria Queens -- This area of New York's most diverse borough is named after John Jacob, who at first didn't have much to do with it at all. Stephen Halsey built a village here and tried to lure John Jacob, the creme of nouveau riche at the time, into donating money by offering to name it after him. He didn't donate much ($5,000, pocket change to a millionaire), but he still got the name, and later had a summer home there.
Located in Astoria was the Paramount owned movie studio Astoria Studios, which made silent pictures in its heyday. It was transformed into the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988, focusing on the history of American cinema. The city's oldest surviving beer garden, Bohemian Hall, is also located here.
Astor Place -- This plaza near Cooper Union, St Marks Place, and that funny looking cube was the home of his John Jacob's notorious opera house the Astor Place Opera House, where in 1849, Irish-English tensions (hmm, that seems to be our theme this week!) spilled over during a production of Macbeth, and in the ensuing riot, 18 people were killed.
Theater of the less deadly variety can be found down at the Astor Place Theater, where the Blue Man Group has made a permanent residence.
Astor Place Wines, one of the best wine stores in Manhattan, left their famous corner location last year and are just a block down on Lafayette.
Astor Row -- Certainly one of Manhattan's more unusual streets, the houses on this Harlem block (on east 130th street) have a distinctly Southern feel, with lumbering porches and cute front yards. John Jacob bought this land too, but left the housing development to his grandson. After years of deterioration, the homes are now preserved to their original beauty and worth a visit.
Waldorf-Astoria -- Dont be fooled by the name; its actually the blending of two different Astors, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV. As befitting the ultra rich, the hotel developed from a family feud, two competing hotels from the same family next to each other. They were soon connected as one and became the gold standard of hoteliers in the world.
By the way, the Waldorf salad was invented in the kitchens of the hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria is now owned by the Hiltons and contributes in part to the fortunes in which Paris rolls about in.
John Jacob Astor IV would have been quite a doting father-in-law to Brooke had she known him. Unfortunately he died in the sinking of the Titanic.