Most family scandals don’t result in hotel construction. However, the famed Waldorf-Astoria owes its existence to the Astor family quarrel.
The Astor fortune was divided between two branches of the Astor family headed by the two grandsons of the dynasty founder – John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor, Jr. Each of them had a wife, a son, and a house. Their neighboring houses, or rather mansions, were located next to each other on 5th Ave, one on the northwest corner of 33rd Street and the other on the southwest corner 34th Street. The latter mansion, at 340 5th Avenue, belonged to William Backhouse Astor, Jr., whose wife was the lady who came to be known as Mrs. Astor – the title that lies at the center of the whole story.
Caroline Astor (nee Schermerhorn) possessed neither grace nor beauty but had the determination of an army sergeant, a will of iron and, most importantly, her ancestry. In Gilded Age New York the select group of people who could trace their lineage to the early settlers, especially with Dutch names, like the Schermerhorns, were considered aristocracy. (A paradox, really, as the early settlers weren’t exactly princes but rather merchants who managed to become financially successful.)
After marrying into the Astor family, Caroline Schermerhorn became Mrs. Caroline William Backhouse Astor. She promptly dropped the unfortunate middle name, since the word “Backhouse” did not conjure any princely images. Her official title became Mrs. Caroline William Astor.
After the death of John Jacob Astor III’s wife, Caroline’s sister-in-law (who, while alive, had equal rights to the coveted name), Mrs. Caroline William Astor did away with another middle name and declared herself in a direct and laconic manner as simply Mrs. Astor. With this gesture, Caroline Astor establishing herself as the head of the family clan.
More so, Mrs. Astor became the undisputed society leader in Gilded Age New York. Her annual ball, always given on the third Monday of January, became the most important social event of the season. Only the invited were anointed as New York aristocracy, while the rest could just as well consider leaving town or simply dying. It was Mrs. Astor who got to decide who is in and who is out. The Ball was held at the Astors’ mansion on 34th Street.
However, Mrs. Astor’s reign was challenged by her nephew, William Waldorf Astor (the son of John Jacob Astor III), who after the death of his father inherited the neighboring mansion at 33rd street. He firmly believed that the coveted title of Mrs. Astor should be rightfully and peacefully transferred to his young and gentle wife, Mary.
The battle for social domination ended with the complete and utter defeat of William Waldorf Astor, who was just not a match for the reigning Mrs. Astor. Disappointed, he announced that America was not a place for the civilized, and moved permanently to Europe. But, he did not go quietly, as he razed his mansion on 33rd street in order to do the unthinkable – build a hotel – next to the single most important private residence in the city.
The new hotel was called Waldorf – the namesake of the little town in Germany where the Astor family originally came from. Mrs. Astor had to suffer not only the inconveniences of construction next door but also the indignity of living next to a hotel. She lasted a year until she abandoned her stronghold for a much more magnificent house at 5th Ave and 64th Street. Her only son and defender of her honor, John Jacob Astor IV, hired Richard Morris Hunt, an eminent figure in American architecture, to build a new residence for his family and his mother so that she could continue her reign over polite society and go on giving her annual balls.
At the same time, instead of picking a battle with his cousin over his insolence, John Jacob Astor IV turned to a practical solution … building a hotel! He razed his mom’s mansion on 34th Street to erect a hotel named… you guessed it… Astoria!
Built by Henry Hardenbergh, the combined hotel, Waldorf-Astoria, was the largest and the most luxurious in the world. The two buildings were connected by a striking corridor adorned with Corinthian columns, mosaic floors, and cozy upholstered benches along the sides. Almost from the opening, it became a favorite promenade location where the upper crust could parade pearl necklaces, diamond tiaras, fancy hats, and the latest fashions. The promenade came to be known as a “Peacock Alley” and the hotel as the “Hyphen.” If you were asked to meet a friend at the Hyphen you would know to come to the Waldorf-Astoria promenade. In fact, “Meet Me at the Hyphen” was a popular song of the day. The hyphenated hotel, which catered to the wealthy, was the first hotel to offer electricity and private bathrooms throughout. Its celebrity chef, Oscar Tschirky, is responsible for forever connecting the name Waldorf in the collective imagination with the name of the salad.
As successful as the hotel was, it only lasted in its original location until the late 1920s, when it was taken down to give way to the construction of the Empire State Building. The present-day Waldorf-Astoria moved to Park Ave, with the memory of Peacock Alley for some time preserved in the name of the “Peacock Alley” hotel bar. Conrad Hilton, who purchased the hotel in 1949, temporarily changed the name Waldorf-Astoria to Waldorf=Astoria where “=” was a homage to the famed Peacock Alley.
Mrs. Astor’s mansion located at 64th and 5th Ave, much like the original Waldorf-Astoria, only survived until the late 1920s. In a humorous twist of fate, a stronghold of Gilded Age society closed to “all sorts of people,” especially of the Jewish sort, was replaced by Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest synagogues in the world.
1862 The two brothers, John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor, Jr, erect grand brownstone mansions, separated by a garden, at Nos. 338 and 350 Fifth Avenue
1887 Caroline (Lina) Astor, formally known as “Mrs. William Astor,” becomes Mrs. Astor
1890 Ward McAllister, who along with Mrs. Astor was instrumental in organizing Gilded Ave society, publishes his memoir “Society, as I Have Found It”
1890 John Jacob Astor III’s son, William Waldorf Astor, inherits his father’s share of the Astor holdings and formally becomes head of the Astor family. He then insists that his wife, Mary “Mamie” Dahlgren Paul, should be the Mrs. Astor.
1891 Declaring America an unsuitable place for gentlemen, William Waldorf Astor departs to settle permanently in England
1892 William Waldorf Astor declares himself dead in order to read his obituaries. He corrects the information the following day, declaring himself alive
1893 The Waldorf Hotel opens on the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Astor moves to the mansion designed by Richard Morris Hunt at 840 Fifth Avenue
1895 John Jacob Astor IV (a cousin of William Waldorf Astor) demolishes his mother’s brownstone mansion on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue
1897 The Astoria Hotel opens on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue
1908 Mrs. Astor dies
1912 John Jacob Astor IV meets his end aboard the Titanic
1927 Mrs. Astor’s mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue is demolished. The spot is occupied by Congregation Emanu-El of New York.
1929 The Waldorf-Astoria is demolished to make way for The Empire State Building.
1931 The Empire State Building is built. The New Waldorf-Astoria opens at 301 Park Ave as the tallest and largest hotel in the world.
- Stanley Turkel “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi,” AuthorHouse 2013
- Justin Kaplan ” “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age”, Penguin Books; 1st edition (June 1, 2006)
- Greg King “A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York”, Wiley; 1 edition (October 1, 2008)
- Cecelia Tichi “What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age”, NYU Press (November 27, 2018)
- EDWARD SOREL “Astor vs. Astor” “Town & Country”, DEC 20, 2012 https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a912/astor-family-feud/
- Tom Miller “The Ultimate Family Feud — The Lost Astor Houses 5th Avenue and 34th St.” http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2012/02/ultimate-family-feud-lost-astor-houses.html
- Anne de Courcy “Mrs. Astor Invites”, Beyond, The St. Regis Magazine https://magazine.stregis.com/mrs-astor-invites-2/