“Lina” and Nancy Astor were obviously different sorts of women – their personalities, appearances and lives were worlds apart. But, in three ways, they were alike – each was born in the Victorian era, each married an Astor, and each became more famous and influential than her husband.
“Lina” was the former Caroline Webster Schermerhorn (1830 – 1908). She was a member of New York’s Dutch aristocracy, the descendants of the city’s original settlers, and she married somewhat beneath herself when she became Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr.
For the first few decades of her married life, Lina was typical of her class and time – she was preoccupied with raising her five children and running her household properly. In 1862, she and her husband built a fashionable brownstone mansion. It occupied the land where the Empire State building now stands, and was next door to her husband’s older brother, John Jacob Astor III. The two families were next door neighbors for 28 years – but the brothers didn’t get along.
After the Civil War, New York grew at an astronomical rate, and keeping the nouveau riche would-be socialites in their place became Lina’s new cause. Her husband, a notorious womanizer, had little interest in Lina, their marriage, or the “social whirl,” so Lina threw herself into her new mission. She took on the burden of being the unchallenged grande dame of New York’s estalishment, and demanded that she be addressed as “The Mrs. Astor.”
Working with her distant cousin, Ward McAllister, a so-called social arbiter, Lina came up with “The Four Hundred,” the only people who counted, the only ones who belonged to New York’s “Fashionable Society.” Lina and Ward didn’t arrive at the amount based on the size of Lina’s rather small ballroom, but that’s still accepted as the origin of the magical number.
In 1883, Lina’s world began to crack around the edges. The barbarians (the Vanderbilts) were at the gates. For her housewarming party, Alva Vanderbilt planned a costume ball with “entertainments” given by young society figures. At the last minute she sent word that Lina’s youngest daughter, Caroline, couldn’t participate, because Mrs. Astor had never formally called on Mrs. Vanderbilt. Lina chose her daughter’s feelings over her own social position and took her calling card to Alva Vanderbilt.
This was only the beginning of Lina’s fall from power. In 1890, her brother-in-law, who had lived next door for so long, died. His son, William Waldorf Astor, inherited his father’s holdings, and by all rights, should be considered the head of the Astor family. He wanted his aunt Lina to stop using the “title,” The Mrs. Astor. Lina refused and the New York papers sensationalized the conflict.
After William Waldorf Astor was defeated in his bid for a seat in the United States Congress, he decided to leave New York and his disagreeable aunt behind and move to Great Britain. He later became a viscount, but he left a parting gift for Aunt Lina. He had his father’s mansion torn down and replaced with the first Waldorf Hotel. Lina was devastated. She told people “There is a glorified tavern next door.”
In retaliation, Lina and her son, John Jacob Astor IV, considered tearing down her mansion and replacing it with a livery stable. But the opulent new Waldorf Hotel revolutionized how New York socialized. Unwilling to live next door to New York’s latest sensation, Lina and her son tore down her mansion and replaced it with another hotel, the Astor. The two hotels later merged and became the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
By the time she moved into her new house facing Central Park, at the corner of 65th Street, Lina’s husband had died. She lived with her son and his family until her death at age 78.
A big influence in Nancy’s early life was Archdeacon Frederick Neve. Educated at Oxford, he came to Virginia to help poor whites in the interior mountains. Nancy worked with him as much as her father would allow and gained her first taste of a more charitable life.
The family also produced three sons, but they were eclipsed by their well-known sisters and little is known of them today. Early on, the lovely Irene was the sister in the limelight. She was the Gibson Girl who married Charles Dana Gibson. He was the famous illustrator and New York’s most eligible bachelor until he met Irene, who was dubbed a Virginia society belle by Northerners.
Outspoken Nancy went to New York to finishing school as well, but she was labeled a “rustic fool” by New Yorkers. Irene tried to alleviate this by taking Nancy everywhere she went. Unfortunately, this led to Nancy’s meeting and marrying Bob Shaw. Their marriage was a disaster. It lasted four years and produced one son, Robert Gould Shaw, III. The marriage ended after he agreed to the condition that his adultery would be stated as the cause of the divorce.
*I married beneath me. All women do.