Vincent Astor

From Academic Kids

Benjamin N. Duke
Benjamin N. Duke

William Vincent Astor (November 15, 1891, New York, New York, United States - February 3, 1959) was a businessman and philanthropist and a member of the prominent Astor family.

Called Vincent, he was born in the Fifth Avenue mansion where his grandmother, Caroline Astor, reigned over American Society. He was the son of Col. John Jacob Astor IV, a gangly, unattractive, and highly amorous millionaire and inventor, and his first wife, Ava Lowle Willing, a famously beautiful and famously spoilt heiress from Philadelphia.

Vincent endured a difficult childhood. His vain mother was embarrassed by his resemblance to his father and would humiliate him in public. In addition his parent's marriage was less than perfect. Vincent's only sister, Alice Ava Muriel Astor, was reportedly Ava Astor's child by a titled lover, while Vincent's father, a friend wrote in a letter to her husband, had numerous affairs and morals shockingly loose for a warden of the Episcopal church. They ultimately divorced in 1909. A year later, Jack Astor married Madeleine Talmadge Force, an 18-year-old beauty a year younger than his son, and in 1919, Ava married an English nobleman, Thomas Lister, Baron Ribblesdale. While a student at Harvard University in 1912, Vincent inherited an estimated $200 million when his father went down with the Titanic.

Vincent Astor was, according to Astor family biographer Derek Wilson, "a hitherto unknown phenomenon in America: an Astor with a highly developed social conscience." He was only 20 when his father died and having inherited a massive fortune, Vincent Astor dropped out of Harvard University. He set about to change the family image from that of miserly, aloof slum landlords who enjoyed the good life at the expense of others. Over time, he sold off the family's New York City slum housing and reinvested in reputable enterprises while spending a great deal of time and energy helping others. He was responsible for the construction of a large housing complex in the Bronx that included sufficient land for a large children's playground, and in Harlem, he transformed a valuable piece of real estate into another playground for children.

Vincent Astor appeared as no. 12 on the first list of America's richest people complied by Forbes Magazine. His net worth at the time was estimated at $75 million. Amongst his holdings was Newsweek magazine which had for a time its headquarters in the former Knickerbocker Hotel that had been built by Vincent Astor's father. He also inherited "Ferncliff," the Astor family's estate in Rhinebeck, New York where his father had been born. However, Vincent Astor would be the last occupant of "Ferncliff," On his death in 1959, Vincent Astor bequeathed the Ferncliff house to the Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, New York and in 1964 his widow donated the remaining land to become Ferncliff Forest Game Refuge and Forest Preserve."

Astor married the first of three wives, Helen Dinsmore Huntington, in April 1913. At the ceremony, he was stricken with the mumps, a disease that made him sterile; as for the bride, her friend Glenway Wescott, the novelist, admiringly described her in his unpublished diaries as "a grand, old-fashioned lesbian." At the outbreak of World War I, Vincent took advice from his friend and Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and joined the Navy. He served overseas with his wife, who did charity work with the YMCA in France. Vincent was promoted from an ensign to a lieutenant during the War.

In 1940, Astor divorced Helen (she later married New York socialite Lytle Hull) and married Mary Benedict Cushing, a daughter of a prominent Baltimore surgeon. In 1953 the Astors divorced (Minnie Astor later married the gay painter James Fosburgh), and Vincent soon after married his third and last wife, the once-divorced, once-widowed Brooke Russell Marshall. Vincent, along with Brooke, whom he called Pookie, developed the Vincent Astor Foundation, a foundation that was designed to give back to New York City.

Vincent died in 1959 leaving all of his money to Brooke, surprising many. He is interred in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York

John Jacob Astor VI, Vincent's half brother who was not yet born when the Titanic sank, contested Vincent's will. John Jacob lost his case, the two had never been on good terms.


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