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When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age [Paperback]

Justin Kaplan
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age + 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building + Six Tycoons: The lives of John Jacoob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Joseph P. Kennedy
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Product details

  • Paperback: 196 pages
  • Publisher: Plume Books; Reprint edition (1 July 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452288584
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452288584
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 13.7 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

In this marvelous anecdotal history, Justin Kaplan?Pulitzer Prize?winning biographer of Mark Twain?vividly brings to life a glittering, bygone age. Endowed with the largest private fortunes of their day, cousins John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor vied for primacy in New York society, producing the grandest hotels ever seen in a marriage of ostentation and efficiency that transformed American social behavior. Kaplan exposes it all in exquisite detail, taking readers from the 1890s to the Roaring Twenties in a combination of biography, history, architectural appreciation, and pure reading pleasure.

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First Sentence
A SEVENTEEN John Jacob Astor, founder of an American dynasty, left the German village of Waldorf, where he was born in 1763, and came to New York by way of London. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lives of privilege, aimlessness and frippery. 15 Feb 2008
Justin Kaplan writes an eloquent account of the sheer extravagant manner with which cousins, John Jacob Astor IV and William Waldorf Astor went about spending the endowment of one of the largest private fortunes of their day. It gives a wonderful insight into the 'unreal' atmosphere of New York and English high society in the second half of the Nineteenth and early part of the Twentieth Centuries.

As a direct consequence of their intense rivalry to dominate high society, the cousins individually embarked on building the most grandiose hotels the world had seen. The prime purpose of these temples of excess was not for sound investment but for vanity and social enhancement.

And did it do them any good? Seemingly not as William died in seclusion on his toilet in Brighton, England having alienated himself to his native America. John Jacob perished on the Titanic returning from his honeymoon having become almost a social outcast as a result of his marriage to a teenage girl considered an arriviste.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I did enjoy learning about the Astor side of America's history. I do have to agree with one review in so much as it seemed to digress at times and things did seem to dot about a bit.

Nevertheless I did find this account both interesting and fascinating when trying to imagine the original John Jacob bearly able to read and write to begin with to just before his death rubbing shoulders with some of the most historic Americans ever known.

I do think this account is a good example of money not being able to make you happy. I do firmly believe that weatlth and richness aren't always the same thing. Whilst the Astor cousins had the wealth, I'm not sure they had the richness in their lives to make them happy.
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull 21 Aug 2009
By Mopp
I was very disappointed with this book. I was expecting a straight forward chronological account of their lives but found it dotted about. Most annoying were the author's very general commenta about the Astor's personalities and so on.
Admittedly it was a while since I read it but I just don't think it warrants only a review with five stars.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  61 reviews
65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A slice of life from the turn of the last century 28 July 2006
By Esther Schindler - Published on Amazon.com
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.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slim volume promises much delivers little 5 Sep 2006
By Christina Lockstein - Published on Amazon.com
When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan is a bit of a disappointment. From the title and description, I was looking for a biography of the Astor family along with a taste of history about the times they lived in. While there is some brief biographical information in the book, much of it is focused on the hotels they (and others) built. Pages are allotted to the Palmer House in Chicago (which they didn't build), but far less to John Jacob Astor's death on the Titanic. His scandalous divorce and marriage to a much younger woman are also glossed over. His uncle William Waldorf Astor's life is covered in far greater detail, but even he doesn't get full coverage. Gossipy bits and pieces of the times are dropped here and there. Kaplan goes overboard in quoting Henry James in his eloquence about the beauty of hotels. There are pages of quotes from James, often repeated. The book meanders and repeats itself as well. I suppose not much should be expected from such a slim volume, but I was hoping for more.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "May The Force Be With You" and the Astor's 21 Jun 2006
By Kenneth R. Force - Published on Amazon.com
I really enjoyed this book and appreciated the many imfomative anecdotes that the author obviously searched out...take it from me...after reading MANY accounts of the famous Bradley-Martin Ball, this author actually researched the fact that the U.S. Marine Band was sent up from Washington. In all the accounts of this famous evening that are available, all that is mentioned is "a band" played ...that's the sort of detail that makes this book so enjoyable.

Having my great-aunt on the cover also added to my selfish recommendation of this book. The only negative I have is that there was an appalling lack of footnotes and specific references. That is truly unfortunate. Otherwise, this book will provide light, entertaining and very enjoyable fare!
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Astors on a budget 5 July 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
When The Astors Owned New York is a wonderfully concise version of a period in American history. It is not meant to be a person-by-person account of the Astor family, virtually skipping the grand Mrs. Astor as she is only tangentially related to the plot, which is the change in America during the Gilded Age. By centering on great-grandsons of the dynasty's founder, Kaplan is able to connect their wealth and dreams to that very specific period. When John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic and William Waldorf Astor died in his stately imperious mansion seven years later, that part of history was already ending. The hotels that they designed, that captured the American imagination, were rapidly disappearing.

Kaplan does very well in sticking to his central themes, and when he wanders, it's always for a short bit of fun that makes for grand reading. You can't write a history of any Astor without some gossip, but Kaplan puts those nuggets in their place and stays with his storyline as intended. If you want a quick read about some Astor family members, perhaps as a launching pad into some of the meatier biographies, definitely start here, but if you are interested in the period and what some Astors did with their money, Kaplan's is so far the latest word.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lacks Focus 3 Aug 2006
By rctnyc - Published on Amazon.com
The Astors are an iconic American family, rising from immigrant roots to great wealth and aristocratic pretensions, undermined by their own social ambition and self-imposed isolation and finally, in later generations, fading from economic and social prominence. (104 year-old Brooke Astor, the widow of Vincent, is the last multi-millionaire Astor, and will leave no Astor heirs.) Yet this book purports to be, not about the Astors, but about the great hotels that they conceived and built, including such landmarks as the old Waldorf-Astoria, The Astor and the St. Regis. As such, the book lacks focus and is poorly integrated; it's not quite a bio of the Astors, since it's character portraits are superficial, but it's not really about the great hotels either, because it limits that story to the role played by the Astors. The result is disjointed and, occasionally, boring. This author knows alot about the Astors and would have done better to write a straightforward biography or family history.
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