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  Waldorf Astor (1879–1952), by Philip A. de Laszlo Waldorf Astor (1879–1952), by Philip A. de Laszlo
Astor, Waldorf, second Viscount Astor (1879–1952), politician and newspaper proprietor, was born in New York city on 19 May 1879, the elder son in the family of two sons and one daughter of and his wife, Mary (Mamie) Dahlgren Paul (d. 1894) of Philadelphia. , was his younger brother. The elder Astor settled in Britain in 1889, and both of his sons were educated at Eton College and at New College, Oxford. Young Waldorf enjoyed a brilliant career at school, where in addition to being captain of the boats, an editor of the Eton College Chronicle, and treasurer of Pop he won the prince consort's first French prize. At Oxford he earned no academic acclaim, taking a fourth-class degree in modern history in 1902, but he distinguished himself as a sportsman, by earning blues in both polo and fencing, and once again among the social élites—he was master of the drag as well as a member of the Bullingdon Club. It was also at this time that he was diagnosed as having a weak heart and, to his great sadness, forbidden ever again to ride.

On an eastward Atlantic crossing in 1905 Waldorf met and fell in love with the beautiful, brilliant, and outspoken young American divorcee Mrs Nancy Langhorne Shaw of Virginia (1879–1964) [see ]. Formerly the wife of Robert Gould Shaw, she was the daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne of Virginia. After a whirlwind courtship they were married on 3 May 1906, and the senior Astor gave as his wedding present his Thames-side country house, Cliveden, Taplow. The young Astors also purchased a London house at 4 St James's Square and, eventually, another on the hoe in Plymouth. With their marriage, the two established a partnership in all things which lasted until the end of their political careers. Both happy with the idea of a large family, they were to have four sons and a daughter. Nancy strengthened Astor's commitment to social reform and encouraged his inherent puritanism (they were teetotallers throughout their marriage) and, among other things, brought him in 1924 to Christian Science, to which she had become an enthusiastic convert ten years earlier.

With his wife's encouragement Astor pursued a career in politics and, though defeated at Plymouth in the January 1910 election, he was elected in December and held the seat until he succeeded his father as viscount in 1919, when his wife was elected in his place. In 1911 Astor encouraged his father to purchase in his interest from Lord Northcliffe the influential Sunday newspaper The Observer. With effective control of the paper, Astor formed a close working relationship with the editor, J. L. Garvin. The two shared a deep reverence for the empire and for social reform, which brought them both into the orbit of Alfred Milner. Astor became a close associate of the so-called Round Table group of Milner's young admirers, which brought him together with Philip Kerr (later marquess of Lothian), Lionel Curtis, and his wife's brother-in-law Robert Brand. A maverick Conservative with little respect for the English class system, Astor broke with the party line to support the Lloyd George budget of 1909 and the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1916, perhaps to solidify his place as an aristocrat in his adopted country, Astor's father accepted a peerage (he became viscount the following year) without consultation with his elder son. The inevitability of the inheritance, which would remove Astor from the House of Commons and the centre of British politics, caused a quarrel between father and son which lasted almost until the former's death in 1919.

In the First World War, Astor's bad heart kept him from the trenches but not from the army. He rose to the rank of major and spent the first two years of wartime first checking waste in army management and later inspecting armament factories. With the advent of the Lloyd George coalition in December 1916, he became the new prime minister's parliamentary private secretary; in 1918 he became parliamentary secretary to the new Ministry of Food; and in the immediate post-war period (1919–21) he was parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Health. More importantly, he was a member of the premier's ‘garden suburb’, the group of formal and informal advisers whose offices were in temporary huts in the back garden of 10 Downing Street. In this capacity he became an important link between Lloyd George—a Liberal premier of a largely Conservative-backed government—and the tory back benches.

Astor's active political career lost its momentum after the war with the death of his father in 1919. His attempts to avoid his inheritance failed, and he resigned his seat to become the second viscount, remaining active in the government only until shortly before Lloyd George's fall in 1922. He would never again hold political office. In a gesture typical of him, he encouraged his wife, Nancy, to contest the Sutton division of Plymouth, and she became the first woman to sit in the Commons and prolonged the Astor sway over politics in the port city until her retirement in 1945. His remarkable dedication to her political career from this point, however, ensured that his own was at an end.

Lady Astor's election to the Commons made her the politician of the family, and her powerful personality and love of the spotlight soon made her the more celebrated partner. Astor contented himself with other pursuits. He continued his interest in Plymouth, presenting many generous gifts to the city and serving as lord mayor, 1939–44. He served as a delegate to the League of Nations assembly in 1931 and, because of another favourite interest, chaired the league's advisory committee on agriculture and published with Keith Murray Land and Life (1932) and The Planning of Agriculture (1933), and with B. Seebohm Rowntree Mixed Farming and Muddled Thinking (1946). His interest in world affairs grew no less keen: he travelled widely and in the 1930s met both Stalin and Hitler in their capitals. He gave much energy to the establishment of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and was its chairman from 1935 to 1949. His translation from the Commons left him time to pursue another lifelong love: the development of his extremely successful racing stud. His horses would eventually win the Oaks five times, the One Thousand Guineas twice, and the St Leger once, though he had to content himself with no fewer than five second-place finishes at the Derby.

Since the Astors' earliest days there, Cliveden had been a popular meeting-place for many politicians and other notables of all sorts. Its guest books (and those at St James's Square) contained the signatures of Lloyd George, Milner, and Asquith, Churchill, Eden, and Neville Chamberlain, but also of Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, and even Gandhi. It was a monstrously unfair myth created by a brilliant left-wing journalist, Claud Cockburn, that Cliveden was the home of a sort of alternative government dedicated in the 1930s to bending British policy to the will of Hitler [see ]. The Astors loathed the fascist dictatorships, as they did the Bolshevik tyranny, but they believed also that if another great war was to be prevented, appeasement of a Germany ill-treated at Versailles made supreme political sense. This opinion was shared by Lothian, by Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times, by Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, and, of course, by Neville Chamberlain—all of whom from time to time were regular guests at Cliveden. The prime minister pursued his own policy, which the Astors and much of Britain supported. Yet the fiction that a Cliveden conspiracy worked a malign influence over British foreign policy lingered for many years.

After war began in 1939 Waldorf Astor's energies were devoted largely to Plymouth, which was heavily and repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe. Its rebuilding was begun long before the conflict ended, and he deserves the credit for commissioning Professor Patrick Abercrombie to lead the effort. In the spring of 1941 he collapsed with what may in fact have been a mild stroke. While he continued to lead the city and serve an unprecedented five years as lord mayor, his health was never robust again. Astor also decided the time for other changes had come: in 1942, after forty years as editor of The Observer, Garvin was forced to retire and plans were laid to invest ownership of the newspaper in a trust. In the same year Cliveden was made over to the National Trust, and Lord Astor became its tenant. In 1945, with his health in decline, he asked Lady Astor to retire rather than defend Plymouth, advice on which she acted but which caused an estrangement between them which lasted at least until, in 1950, he suffered a stroke. He died at his beloved Cliveden on 30 September 1952 and was succeeded as viscount by his eldest son, William Waldorf (1907–1966).

Astor was a tall, handsome man, whose thoroughly natural smile turned away much wrath. His Anglo-American background and world view—despite his charm and great wealth—made him something of an outsider in British society. He was from boyhood, his love of sport and games notwithstanding, a serious man with the heart of a natural puritan. His enormous fortune made him all the more conscious of his responsibility to his fellow human beings and the good works he endeavoured to practise came naturally to him. Though sincerely ambitious in politics, he did not particularly love the spotlight; and he was always at his best as part of a company of like-minded colleagues—leaving the centre stage to others.

R. J. Q. Adams

Sources  

U. Reading L., Astor MSS · M. Astor, Tribal feeling (1963) · J. Grigg, Nancy Astor: a lady unashamed (1980) · V. Cowles, The Astors (1979) · T. Harrisson, Living through the blitz (1976) · R. J. Q. Adams, British politics and foreign policy in the age of appeasement, 1935–39 (1993) · J. Turner, Lloyd George's secretariat (1980) · GEC, Peerage

Archives  

Devon RO, corresp. and papers · New York Historical Society, estate corresp. and papers · U. Reading L., corresp. and papers |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis · Devon RO, corresp. with J. J. Judge · Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, corresp. with B. Seebohm Rowntree · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., corresp. with David Lloyd George · Welwyn Garden City Central Library, corresp. with Frederic Osborn


Likenesses  

photographs, 1903–36, Hult. Arch. · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1921, NPG · J. Gunn, oils, c.1944, Guildhall, Plymouth · J. Gunn, portrait, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London · P. A. de Laszlo, portrait, Cliveden, Buckinghamshire [see illus.] · photograph (after P. A. de Laszlo), NPG

Wealth at death  

£974,724 10s. 3d.: probate, 25 Nov 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales