Available in the museum bookstore
Justin Kaplan is the type of writer of whom one wonders, “What will he do next?” His projects are intriguing and his biographical narratives are something of a playground for the National Portrait Gallery collection; it is no surprise that he has a lot of fans among the NPG staffers. His works include the Pulitzer Prize winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain and Walt Whitman: A Life, which won the National Book award.
NPG historian David Ward said of Kaplan, “Justin Kaplan is a clear and limpid writer specializing in biography, who is able to express the complexities of human life in a way that disguises the equally complex pattern of his thoughts. His Whitman work is structured in such a way that the reader is barely aware that he is not reading a straight narrative.”
Since it might be an odd practice to review a book that has been on the shelves for several years, it seems more appropriate simply to extol the virtues of Kaplan’s 2007 work, When the Astors Owned New York. Of the number of praiseworthy parts of this book, perhaps it is Kaplan’s discussion of the gilded opulence of the period that is the most exciting. He describes the Waldorf-Astoria, completed and opened in 1897, as almost a Disneyland for the elite:
Pleasure dome and social force, theatre and theme park, the Astors’ great hotel, the most expensive of its kind, was a place of artistic, mechanical, and sybaritic wonders. Its splendor legitimized the open existence of an American leisure class… The Waldorf-Astoria declared that New York was now a world capital with a place in history like Athens, Rome, and London. Loosely described as German (or “Dutch”) Renaissance in style, the Waldorf-Astoria was topped with an eye-catching array of turrets, chimneys, and red-tiled gables, all producing an effect that was both quaint and homely. Internally even more than externally, the massive building showed that superfluity and sometimes giantism (as exemplified by native strawberries and oysters) were themselves attractive goals. The ninety-five-foot-long ballroom, for example, was three stories high.
The Astor family’s roots in America were so much more humble than all this, however. Kaplan’s family history records that the origin of the Astor wealth was the hard work and sound real estate investments of John Jacob Astor (the first) who was born in 1763. Astor arrived in New York in 1784 and owned a fur trading business within a couple of years. He built his business and simultaneously began investing in property on Manhattan; Astor’s success was a symbol of America’s growth, certainly, and more specifically, Manhattan’s rise to the skies.
Over the next generations, the Astor family would continue to own and to manage property in New York City, amassing a voluptuous bank account. The coda to Kaplan’s work is the decline of the Astor family’s magnitude with the deaths of John Jacob Astor IV—who perished as a gentleman, staying aboard the Titanic as it sank—and the expatriate William Waldorf Astor, who lived in England from 1891 until his death in 1919.
--Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
John Jacob Astor/ Carlo de Fornaro / Relief print on paper, 1902 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
John Jacob Astor / John Wesley Jarvis / Oil on canvas, 1825 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Susan Mary Alsop
Kaplan, Justin. When the Astors Owned New York. New York: Penguin, 2006.