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Astor, John Jacob, first Baron Astor of Heverlocked

(1886–1971)
  • Derek Wilson

John Jacob Astor, first Baron Astor of Hever (1886–1971)

by Cuthbert Julian Orde, 1950

Astor, John Jacob, first Baron Astor of Hever (1886–1971), newspaper proprietor, was born at the family mansion on East 33rd Street, New York, USA, on 20 May 1886, the second surviving son of William Waldorf Astor, first Viscount Astor of Hever Castle (1848–1919), and his wife, Mary (Mamie) Dahlgren Paul (d. 1894), of Villa Nova, Philadelphia. His elder brother was Waldorf Astor, second Viscount Astor (1879–1952). His baptismal names were those traditionally given in every generation to one boy in each branch of the family descended from John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), who emigrated from Germany in the aftermath of the American War of Independence and through general trade and, later, investment in Manhattan property, became the richest citizen of the new nation. William Waldorf was the great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty. He had little sympathy with east-coast society, which he regarded as brash and uncivilized. His sympathies and tastes lay on the other side of the Atlantic and, in 1890, he moved with his family to Britain. Determined that his sons should be brought up as English gentlemen, William Waldorf sent them to Eton College and New College. But John had set his heart on a military career and after only a year at Oxford he was commissioned into the 1st Life Guards. He was an outstanding athlete, the leading sportsman of his year at Eton and equally at home on horseback and on the tennis court. However, racquets was his real game and in the 1908 Olympics he won a gold medal in the doubles and a bronze in the singles. Soon after this he went with his regiment to India, where, in 1911, he was appointed aide-de-camp to the new viceroy, Charles, Baron Hardinge.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 Captain Astor volunteered for the British expeditionary force and went to France as a Household Cavalry signalling officer, even though his connections could easily have secured him a safe staff job. In October 1914 he was wounded at Messines and invalided home. While in Britain he renewed acquaintance with Lady Violet Mary Mercer Nairne (d. 1965), recently widowed on the death of a fellow officer, Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, younger son of the fifth marquess of Lansdowne. They were married on 28 August 1916. Violet was the youngest daughter of Gilbert John Elliot, fourth earl of Minto (1845–1914), Hardinge's predecessor as viceroy of India. On returning to the front Astor displayed a courage which was of the phlegmatic rather than the impulsive kind and as commander of the 520th household siege battery he distinguished himself in several engagements and was awarded the Légion d'honneur. When the ‘big push’ came in September 1918 his unit came under heavy attack at Cambrai and Astor's right leg was shattered by a shell. Gangrene set in rapidly and it was only amputation in a field hospital that saved his life.

John Jacob, though always quiet and self-deprecating, returned a hero. His father immediately vacated his beloved Hever Castle, Kent, so that John Jacob and his family could have a suitable home. William Waldorf's warm feelings for his younger son were undoubtedly reinforced by his estrangement from his elder son, Waldorf, furious at his father's acceptance of a peerage in 1916. John Jacob made strenuous efforts to close the rift but to no avail, and it was some years before he and his brother were fully reconciled.

John Jacob was not the kind of man to be satisfied with quietly enjoying life on his Kentish acres, and was certainly not going to be regarded as a semi-invalid. He worked so hard at ‘breaking in’ his artificial limb that he was soon able to take on younger men at squash—and beat them. Determined to play a part in national life, he became Conservative member of parliament for Dover in October 1922 and continued to represent the constituency for twenty-three years. However, unlike his elder brother, he was not a political animal, and sought some other influential vehicle for his wealth and enthusiasm. His father had owned the Pall Mall Gazette and The Observer and the latter weekly was now being run very successfully by Waldorf and its editor, James Garvin. They found themselves frequently in trenchant rivalry with Lord Northcliffe, who used The Times, his flagship paper, to champion his own views vigorously. When Northcliffe died in August 1922, his will decreed that John Walter, whose family had owned The Times from its foundation until 1908, should have the first option to buy, but Walter did not possess the £1.5 million necessary to do so. Northcliffe's brother Lord Rothermere now seemed all set to take over the 'Thunderer'. Then, enter Major Astor. He was determined not to see The Times fall back under Harmsworth control and wanted, as he said, 'to secure as far as possible the continued independence of one great journal, and through it the perpetuation of the highest standards of British journalism' (Astor, 945). In December 1922 he acquired a 90 per cent shareholding and became co-proprietor with Walter. Astor and Walter reappointed as editor Geoffrey Dawson, whom Northcliffe had sacked; thereafter, they left him to get on with his job unencumbered by proprietorial directives.

Astor took the same attitude towards the BBC. As a member of the parliamentary committee set up in 1923 to devise the procedures and regulations which should control the new phenomenon of broadcasting, he argued strongly for independence from government control and strongly supported the first director-general, John Reith. In his memoirs Reith recorded a minor incident very typical of Major Astor. Reith had been called upon to address the tories' 1922 committee at a time when the BBC was coming under prolonged attack in the press. Expecting a rough ride, the speaker diffidently entered the room. Immediately 'J. J. Astor from a seat near the front came up and shook hands; I was sure he did this deliberately' (Reith, 185–6).

During the general strike Astor was determined that the 'Thunderer' should not be silenced. He personally marshalled a crew of office staff, friends, and family to get the presses rolling. For the seven days of the strike, while other newspaper offices were paralysed, Astor's band of volunteers produced a slimmed-down Times and John Jacob was very proud of being able to boast 'We never closed'. During the Chamberlain years The Times was closely associated with appeasement and was accused of being hand-in-glove with John Jacob's brother and the so-called Cliveden set. John Jacob stuck resolutely to his policy of editorial non-intervention, despite his waning confidence in the government. Astor's reticence over the international crisis was all the more surprising because he enjoyed a close friendship with Winston Churchill, who often came to Hever on painting trips during his wilderness years. In his fifties John Jacob also took up painting just as, having an abhorrence of being idle, he added archery, golf, and organ-playing to his pastimes.

Not that there was much danger of his finding the days to drag. Astor presided over a family of three sons and a growing crop of grandchildren. He was for several years a very active president of the Empire (later Commonwealth) Press Union. He was heavily involved in ex-servicemen's charities, and his own experiences alerted him to the plight of those who had fought for their country and subsequently found themselves in difficulties. He created jobs on the Hever estate for men disabled in war. He made a point of collecting his own 10s. a week pension as a demonstration to others who were reluctant to accept what they mistakenly regarded as charity. The Middlesex Hospital was the principal recipient of his benevolence. Over the many years of his active involvement with it he donated, among other gifts, £300,000 for a nurses' hostel and £450,000 for a medical school.

The outbreak of a second major war created a fresh batch of problems for The Times, and Astor was always on hand to organize, advise, and encourage the diminished and overstretched workforce. He was determined that a newspaper which had not been gagged by trade unions in 1926 was not going to be silenced by a mere German dictator. Nor was it, even when a direct hit demolished the editorial and administrative offices in September 1940. War saw Astor once more in military mode, this time as commanding officer of the 5th City of London (press) Home Guard. By this time he had become a highly respected elder statesman of the newspaper world, and his determination not to desert the capital (his town house was in Carlton House Terrace) for the quiet and safety of the country only served to enhance his reputation. Perhaps because he had always given his services quietly and unostentatiously, many years passed before he received national recognition. It came in the form of a barony in the 1956 new year's honours. Even then John Jacob thought hard and long about accepting the peerage. He was concerned that doing so might reflect on the independence and integrity of The Times, though his aloofness from the editorial process ensured that the award could not be seen as being made for political services rendered. Nevertheless, from this time Lord Astor began to transfer his interest in the newspaper to his sons Gavin and Hugh.

Astor found it difficult to come to terms with change in post-war society. While his sons could see the need for new techniques and presentation styles, Lord Astor and some members of his senior Times management could not share their vision. In an information industry spawning international, multimedia corporations, an eventual change of ownership was probably inevitable, but the Astors held on until 1966 before selling to the Thomson group. Maintaining stately homes and large estates was also becoming difficult. At one stage Lord Astor contemplated giving Hever Castle to the National Trust, as Waldorf had done with Cliveden in 1942. Negotiations went badly, and closed when John Jacob walked out of a meeting saying, 'I was under the impression we were trying to reach a gentleman's agreement. As far as I can see there is only one gentleman present' (Wilson, 328). For Lord Astor that was very strong language. In 1958 a devastating flood caused massive damage to the buildings and cost the estate millions in repairs and new precautions. Four years later the government of Harold Macmillan, a close family friend, introduced new death duties on the overseas holdings of British residents. Since most of the family's income came from trust funds in America, Lord and Lady Astor were faced with the choice of living (and specifically dying) abroad or seeing their children encumbered with impossible debts. In autumn 1962 they moved to a house at Pégomas, near Cannes.

For a quintessentially English couple this was a heartbreaking wrench. Lady Violet survived it by less than three years. Lord Astor characteristically made the best of his exile, building holiday homes so that all his friends could visit him and even sponsoring the local boule championship.

In appearance John Jacob Astor was almost the epitome of the English country gentleman—a slender figure of erect, military bearing with a keen eye and a neatly clipped moustache. He died on 19 July 1971 at Cannes, and was buried at Hever. He was succeeded in the title by his eldest son, Gavin Astor. In addition to Gavin and Hugh, Astor had a third son, John (1923–1987), who was regarded as the ‘brains’ of the family. He served as a navigator with Coastal Command during the Second World War and was Conservative MP for Newbury from 1964 to 1974.

Sources

  • private information (2004) [the archive of Lord Astor of Hever; and the Hon. Hugh Astor]
  • D. Wilson, Landscape with millionaires: the Astors, 1763–1992 (1993)
  • J. J. Astor, ‘The fortunes of The Times’, Empire Review (1923), 945
  • J. C. W. Reith, Into the wind (1949)

Archives

  • New York Historical Society, estate corresp. and papers
  • News Int. RO, papers [CR]
  • NRA, priv. coll., personal papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Geoffrey Dawson
  • Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Lauinger Library, letters to Christopher Sykes relating to Nancy Astor's biography
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook

Film

  • BFINA, amateur film footage
  • BFINA, news footage

Likenesses

  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1924, NPG
  • O. Birley, group portrait, oils, 1937, priv. coll.
  • C. J. Orde, oils, 1950, News International Syndication, London [see illus.]
  • attrib. C. Orde, chalk drawing, 1951, priv. coll.
  • S. Elwes, oils, priv. coll.
  • E. I. Halliday, oils, Middlesex Hospital
  • A. K. Lawrence, oils, Phoenix Assurance Company, London
  • J. Munnings, oils, priv. coll.
  • W. Orpen, oils, priv. coll.
  • J. S. Sargent, oils, Frenchstreet House, Westerham, Kent

Wealth at Death

£416,135 in England and Wales: administration with will, 13 March 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
(1803–) [sometimes ]
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]