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  Nancy Witcher Astor (1879–1964), by George Charles Beresford, 1920 Nancy Witcher Astor (1879–1964), by George Charles Beresford, 1920
Astor [née Langhorne], Nancy Witcher, Viscountess Astor (1879–1964), society hostess and politician, was born at Danville, Virginia, on 19 May 1879, the eighth child in a family of eleven. Her father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne (1843–1919), a veteran of the American Civil War, had made his fortune in railway construction and bought an estate at Mirador near Charlottesville. Her mother, Nancy Witcher (Nanaire) Keene (1848–1903), a beautiful girl of Irish extraction, married when she was sixteen and worked as a nurse in the last days of the Confederacy.

Upbringing and marriage

Nancy Langhorne received a scanty education at a school in Richmond and later at Miss Brown's Academy for Young Ladies, a finishing school in New York. A small, trim figure with piercing blue eyes, she lacked the good looks of her sister, Irene, an acknowledged southern beauty who was known as Queen Bee in the family. From an early age Nancy used her ready wit, which often deteriorated into mere rudeness, to help her fight for a dominant role in her large and competitive family. She possessed enormous energy, loved sports, and was rather a tomboy. But her outward aggression hid considerable insecurity, and throughout her life she found difficulty in establishing close relationships. The combination of her southern protestant upbringing and her personal insecurity made her appear puritanical and censorious; in particular she had a lifelong aversion for alcoholic drink and a rooted fear of physical relationships. She told her own children they had been ‘conceived without pleasure and born without pain’ (Fox, 384). Later in life she managed to resolve the problem by engaging in a number of safe, platonic affairs with Julian Grenfell, G. B. Shaw, T. E. Lawrence, and, above all, with Philip Kerr (later the marquess of Lothian).

In October 1897 Nancy made a disastrous marriage to Robert Gould Shaw (1871–1930), who quickly revolted her by his heavy drinking and his sexual demands. Though they had a son, Bobbie, they were separated in 1901 and divorced in 1903. In the following year Nancy went to England, attracted by the hunting and the social life. She soon felt at home. ‘I suppose you have come over here to get one of our husbands’, Nancy Cunard reportedly told her. ‘If you knew the trouble I've had getting rid of mine, you'd know I don't want yours’, Nancy replied (Fox, 76). In 1906, however, she found a much more suitable match in , the son of the eccentric millionaire William Waldorf Astor, and they were married on 3 May. ‘I married beneath me,’ she liked to say, ‘all women do.’ They had five children: William Waldorf (Bill), Phyllis (Wissie), , Michael, and John Jacob (Jakie), but they all suffered from Nancy's possessiveness and from her inability to give affection. ‘I suppose you all think you're misunderstood’, she once remarked. ‘We've given up hoping for that’, replied Bobbie. ‘All we want is a bit of civility’ (ibid., 384).

Nancy energetically supported Waldorf's political career by canvassing and organizing the Primrose League in Plymouth, where he became one of the two members in 1910. But her role was essentially conventional; she showed little interest in women's suffrage or in an independent career for herself. She became famous as a hostess at Cliveden, their magnificent country house perched above the Thames at Taplow, and at St James's Square where she liked to pose at the top of the staircase, sparkling with jewels, to welcome her guests. She made a point of inviting men and women with whom she disagreed, such as Sylvia Pankhurst, the socialist and suffragette, and Winston Churchill, who detested the entry of women into the House of Commons. It was at breakfast at Cliveden that the famous, though perhaps apocryphal, exchange occurred when Nancy commented: ‘Winston, if I was married to you I'd put poison in your coffee.’ He replied: ‘Nancy, if I was married to you I'd drink it.’

Following an illness in February 1914 Nancy suddenly declared her soul ready for enlightenment and became converted to Christian Science. Although she was very voluble and dogmatic on the subject, several of her contemporaries doubted whether she was really a religious person. Her zeal lay in her own awareness of the gulf between her own bad behaviour and her aspirations to be a saint. Religion helped her to deal with the problem. An energetic missionary for Christian Science, she attempted to convert Stalin, who found her visit in 1931 very disagreeable, and the daughters of Hilaire Belloc, who broke off relations; she, however, claimed to have been offended by Belloc's antisemitism. Christian Science enabled her to sustain an intimate and prolonged friendship with Philip Kerr, whom she converted, without feelings of guilt and without the danger of sexual involvement.

A woman in parliament

As a Conservative of liberal views, Waldorf became increasingly associated with David Lloyd George during the First World War. But his promising career suffered a setback in October 1919 when he reluctantly succeeded to his father's viscountcy. He made it known that he intended to divest himself of the title and meanwhile promoted Nancy as a stop-gap candidate in the by-election at Plymouth Sutton. At this point no woman had sat in the House of Commons, and prejudice ran high; even the tory party chairman, Sir George Younger, complained about her candidacy: ‘the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in’ (John Baird, diary, 27 Oct 1919, National Library of Australia). A defeat for Nancy at Plymouth would have set back the cause of women MPs for many years. In the event she managed to overcome the prejudice by posing as a loyal wife and by denying any intention of seeking a career in politics: ‘I am not standing before you as a sex candidate. I do not believe in sexes or classes’ (Western Morning News, 4 Nov 1919). The newspapers, which appreciated her lively exchanges with hecklers, treated her sympathetically, and the working-class voters who dominated the constituency were fascinated to find a wealthy and titled lady who had the common touch. She was also a little lucky in that public opinion—which had given the Lloyd George coalition a huge majority only a year earlier—had not yet become disillusioned with the prime minister. In a three-cornered contest she retained 51 per cent of the vote and was elected with a majority of 5000. When she took her seat on 1 December 1919 she was introduced by Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour. Nancy's triumph did not lead to a flood of women MPs, but it encouraged other Conservative wives to step into their husbands' shoes, and it put pressure on the Labour Party to get its leading women into parliament.

However, many feminists felt dismayed at Nancy's election because they saw her as merely a society hostess with no record of support for women's causes and, in the view of the well-informed feminist Ray Strachey, she was ‘lamentably ignorant of everything she ought to know’ (B. Strachey, Remarkable Relations: the Story of the Pearsall Smith Family, 1980, 287). But when carefully briefed by the women's organizations she soon became an asset to the movement even though her views were rather mixed. As many as 2000 women wrote to her each week—a sign that they regarded her as their special representative. Nancy's populist instincts put her on the same wavelength as thousands of ordinary women who were alienated by the more intellectual feminists who dominated the women's pressure groups. Nancy also exploited her connections with influential national figures by organizing ‘at homes’ designed to bring feminists into closer touch with the leading politicians. In parliament she worked closely with Margaret Wintringham, the second woman MP, who was elected as a Liberal in 1920. She campaigned for many women's issues including the provision of nursery schools, widows' pensions, equal employment, women police, and measures to reduce the maternal mortality rates. She strongly supported the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene which campaigned to raise the age of consent to eighteen, and in 1925 she introduced a bill designed to repeal the law on prostitution and soliciting so as to put men and women on an equal footing. On the other hand, she opposed legislation for equal rights in divorce in 1922, and found the movement to extend information on birth control to married women very embarrassing; she regarded birth control in Victorian terms as almost calculated to lower women to men's standards.

On arriving at the House of Commons for the first time Nancy found her room filled with hats sent in by hopeful milliners. In order to stop the press from trivializing her by engaging in endless discussions of her clothes she adopted a simple costume comprising a white blouse and black skirt, jacket, and tricorn hat, which she invariably wore. A white gardenia in her buttonhole completed the outfit. Nancy adapted well to the adversarial style of the house, becoming notorious for her frequent interruptions of other members. However, she suffered from an inability to deliver a substantial and well-considered speech and her performances degenerated into heckling matches. In time members found her rather tedious, too lightweight and indiscreet, though her liveliness was always appreciated. Her greatest success came in 1923 when she promoted legislation to ban the sale of alcohol to anyone under eighteen. However, in view of the introduction of prohibition in the United States, Nancy's enthusiasm for temperance was a political liability. Although it helped her to attract Liberal votes, it provoked the brewing interests into running an independent candidate against her who split her vote and sharply reduced her majority at the 1922 election.

By the end of the 1920s Nancy's career had passed its peak, partly because she was being overshadowed by other women members who possessed greater intellect or who were simply more loyal to their party. At the Conservative women's conferences she advocated various social reforms including raising the school-leaving age to sixteen, but she spoke too much, provoked heckling, and was not very effective. On the other hand she rammed home the message that the new female electorate was more interested than the pre-war one in social questions, and in his administration of 1924–9 Stanley Baldwin showed himself alive to this change. However, Nancy was never offered a government post, and in 1924 she was passed over in favour of the duchess of Atholl. Though officially a Conservative, she never hid her ambivalent attitude towards the party, yet at the same time her attacks on the Labour Party made it difficult for her to emerge as an independent politician. That she had some aspirations to lead a women's party was shown after the general election of 1929, when she tried to co-ordinate the efforts of the fourteen women members in parliament; however, the nine Labour women saw nothing to be gained and the initiative failed. Her majority over Labour had been cut to barely 200 votes in 1929 but the popularity enjoyed by the National Government in 1931 and 1935 kept her safely in parliament.

The ‘Cliveden set’

From 1936 onwards when the left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn launched his attacks on the ‘’, Nancy's reputation suffered irretrievable damage. Cockburn targetted the Astors as an example of very wealthy people who used their connections and their newspapers to subvert the policy of the government. He linked them to appeasement on the basis that they were keen to use Hitler as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Like many people at that time Waldorf and Nancy were appeasers in the sense that they believed that Germany had been treated harshly by the treaty of Versailles; she also had connections with influential people such as Philip Kerr who was active as an emissary to Hitler. However, the idea of Cliveden as the centre of a conspiracy to impose appeasement is regarded as essentially a fiction. Nancy's guests included a wide range of politicians including leading opponents of appeasement. When she invited von Ribbentrop to lunch, at Kerr's suggestion, they got on badly and her name ended up on a Nazi list of people to be arrested in the event of a German invasion. However, despite her repeated denials, the charges gained wide credibility due to speculation in the press and the cartoons by David Low. By 1939 she was becoming a liability to her party, though her reputation was partly restored by her courage and patriotism during the Second World War. She joined the Conservative rebels in forcing Neville Chamberlain from office in May 1940, and throughout the war she and Waldorf devoted much of their time to raising morale in Plymouth, where he served as mayor for five years. Plymouth became a major target of attack and the Astors' house suffered damage from incendiary bombs. During the blitz Nancy became famous for performing cartwheels to entertain sailors and leading the dancing on the Hoe each evening. The city made her an honorary freeman in 1959 in recognition of her long service; this was one of very few honours she received for her public work apart from her appointment as Companion of Honour in 1937.

Despite her wartime popularity in Plymouth, Waldorf advised Nancy that she would be defeated if she contested the general election in 1945, and he took it upon himself to inform her local association that she would stand down. Though she agreed, she resented his intervention, and their relations became more distant during the years leading to his death in 1952. She found it difficult to adjust to being out of the limelight after so many years. Nancy fell ill in spring 1964 when staying with her daughter, who was now the countess of Ancaster, at Grimsthorpe Castle, Bourne, Lincolnshire. She died there on 2 May and was buried at Cliveden beside Waldorf. A memorial service was held on 13 May in Westminster Abbey.

Martin Pugh

Sources  

C. Sykes, Nancy: the life of Lady Astor (1972) · J. Fox, The Langhorne sisters (1998) · M. Pugh, Women and the women's movement in Britain, 1914–1959 (1992) · M. Astor, Tribal feeling (1963) · DNB · B. Harrison, ‘Women in a men's house: the women MPs, 1919–45’, HJ, 29 (1986), 623–54 · B. Harrison, Prudent revolutionaries: portraits of British feminists between the wars (1987), chap. 3 · J. Grigg, Nancy Astor (1980) · A. Masters, Nancy Astor: a life (1981) · The Times (4 May 1964) · M. Collis, Nancy Astor (1960) · E. Vallance, Women in the house: a study of women members of parliament (1979) · K. J. Musolf, From Plymouth to parliament: a rhetorical history of Nancy Astor's 1919 campaign (1999) · N. Rose, The Cliveden set: portrait of an exclusive fraternity (2000) · A. de Courcy, The viceroy's daughters: the lives of the Curzon sisters (2000) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1964)

Archives  

Devon RO, corresp. and papers · U. Reading L., political and family corresp., diaries, and papers · Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, corresp. and papers |  BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52703 · BL, corresp. with Albert Mansbridge, Add. MS 65253 · BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50528 · BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 58555 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Sir R. R. Welensky · Devon RO, corresp. with J. J. Judge · National Archives of Zimbabwe, Harare, corresp. with Cyril Mainwaring · NL Wales, letters to George M. L. Davies · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · U. Reading L., Waldorf, second Viscount Astor papers  

FILM

 

BFINA, ‘Nancy Astor’, Jan 1982 · BFINA, ‘Rewind’, BBC1, 11 March 1999 · BFINA, ‘Nancy’, ITV, 7 Dec 1999 · BFINA, news footage · IWM FVA, actuality footage


Likenesses  

J. S. Sargent, oils, 1908, Cliveden, Buckinghamshire · G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1920, NPG [see illus.] · O. Edis, photograph, 1920, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1921, NPG · J. S. Sargent, chalk drawing, 1923, NPG · J. S. Sargent, oils, 1923, NPG · C. Sims, group portrait, oils, 1923 (The introduction of Lady Astor to the House of Commons), Palace of Westminster; on loan to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville; copy, Plymouth Art Gallery · H. Cecil, photograph, c.1928–1937, NPG · D. Wilding, photograph, 1937?, NPG · Madame Yevonde, photograph, 1942, NPG · Y. Karsh, bromide print, 1946, NPG · C. Beaton, photograph, 1949, NPG · J. S. Sargent, two charcoal drawings, priv. coll. · K. de Strobl, bust, Palace of Westminster · B. Thomas, ink caricature, NPG

Wealth at death  

£25,467: probate, 19 Aug 1964, CGPLA Eng. & Wales