Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 9, 2006
There's a little town in my home county called Trempealeau. Years back, while excavating for a new building, diggers found an old fur trading station from the early 19th century, long before Wisconsin became a state. In grade school our teachers told us about it over and over again and explained it was a fur collecting outpost sponsored by John Jacob Astor. The teachers had little to say about him and his offspring, but I was always interested.
Pulitzer Prize winner Justin Kaplan has come to my rescue 60 years later with a fascinating book, "When the Astors Owned New York." (Viking, $24.95) Kaplan begins with old John Jacob, a German immigrant who could barely read or write and skinned animals for a living when he first arrived in New York City. That was all to change as he became the richest man in America, trading in furs and real estate, most notably in Manhattan, Missouri and -- get this -- Wisconsin. He was also one of the most miserly. And crude, despite the fact he hired a cultural adviser to be at his side at all times.
His offspring continued in the tradition of amassing more money until we come to Astor heirs John Jacob IV and his Cousin William, who were very different both from their great-grandfather and from each other. Both became famous in history.
John Jacob IV made his mark by fighting in the Spanish American War and later refusing a seat in a lifeboat while the Titanic was sinking (he retired to the game room for one last game of bridge). His cousin William, who was more serious, moved to Great Britain and became an English citizen and a rather notorious one, at that.
His estate at Cliveden became known in the 1930s as a place where wealthy folks ("The Cliveden Set") gathered to figure out how to play ball with Adolph Hitler and stay out of war with Germany.
Kaplan, however, is more interested in how the two cousins dominated not only the society of New York City, but also its architecture, building hotel after hotel, each one more elaborate than the last. In fact, they even collaborated on investing in one of the hotels, the old Waldorf-Astoria, which closed its doors when the Great Depression struck in 1929. (The present Waldorf-Astoria has no connection to the Astor family.) Kaplan describes in detail the facilities hotels like The Knickerbocker, the Astor, the New Netherland, all of which are now gone. The St. Regis, built by John Jacob IV still stands, having undergone a $100 million remodeling not long ago.
In an epilogue, Kaplan tells us what happened to the families, their properties and their reputations in an altogether charming book about a not-so-charming family and the great city they helped build.
Moving west, even further than old John Jacob's outpost in Prairie du Chien, we come to a new book about St. Paul by Jeffrey A. Hess and Paul Clifford Larson. "St. Paul's Architecture" (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95) is an oversized book chock full of photos and architectural plans of many of St. Paul's great buildings from the 1840s to the present. We might be Flyover Land out here, but some of the pictures of downtown St. Paul buildings look strangely like the palaces thrown up by the Astor boys.
Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.