Unlike other reviewers, I didn't read this book with the expectation that I'd get insights into the emotional biographies of each of the Astors. Good thing, too, because it isn't here. The relationships between the family members -- and these people could clearly put on a good snit with one another -- is told at arm's length, as if much of the research done was from the newspapers of the time. We don't know what John Jacob Astor thought as much as what he did. Which is okay, too.
The Astors _were_ slightly bizarre (such as working very hard to find a geneaology more uplifting than a successful furrier who was the son of a Baden butcher), and they were definitely influential; I grew up in 1960s New York, and I still felt their influence through my grandparents' attitudes. Among other things, the Astors owned a huge percentage of the real estate of Manhattan island, including the tenements in which many of our ancestors lived.
Where Kaplan's book succeeds is in its ability to capture the gilded era in which these super-rich people lived: a time in which being rich meant being the _idle_ rich, with little to keep themselves occupied other than social engagements or getting involved in the "mine is bigger and more elegant than yours" competitions -- the objects involved being luxury hotels, in this case.
Today, our celebrities are movie stars and musicians. In this era, Kaplan explains, the attention of the media was on the famous rich, the parties they threw, the hissy fits that occassionally happened in public. "According to Mark Twain," he writes, "the appetite for news of the moneyed classes and their doings could be satisfied even by a page-one headline, RICH WOMAN FALLS DOWN STAIRS, NOT HURT."
The Astors are the excuse for the book, but you'll enjoy the book more by focusing on the part after the colon: blue bloods and grand hotels in a gilded age. We learn quite a bit of detail about each of the hotels built -- primarily the original Waldorf-Astoria, a collaboration of convenience through clenched teeth. That sounds awfully dull, but these hotels were so innovative for their time, and so over-the-top in what they offered and to whom, that the book kept my interest without flagging. Writes the author, "The Waldorf-Astoria made dining and lunching in public fashionable, brought society out into the open, and inspired an age of lavish entertainments, parties, balls, and dinners -- grand occasions previously confined to public houses."
We learn everything from the invention of the Waldorf salad to the relationship between the Astors and the other powerful families of the time (such as the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and the Astor who was related by marriage to President Taft), to the political effect of Mrs Cornelia Astor's party during an economic recession, "half a million dollars gone up in frippery and flowers," at which Mrs Astor wore Marie Antoinette's crown jewels. All far, far more entertaining than the "news" in the latest issue of People magazine.
This isn't an important, scholarly book, but I definitely recommend it if you're interested in the ambiance of an earlier age, or curious about the history of New York. Or heck, for no reason whatsoever. It's interesting stuff.