Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

The first 400

On the site of New York’s Empire State Building once stood mansions owned by the Astor families. William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) owned one of two family mansions that stood side by side. He was a fourth generation Astor and heir to one of America’s first great fortunes amassed by his great grandfather John Jacob Astor.  The other mansion was owned by his aunt, Caroline Astor (1830-1908), the widow of William Backhouse Astor Jr (1829-1892).

Caroline Astor’s brownstone mansion was famous for hosting annual balls for four hundred of New York’s cream of society. As the patriarchal head of the Astor family, William Waldorf was incensed that his aunt was assuming the title of “the Mrs Astor” as queen of New York’s society. In a mark of retribution, he chose to construct the first Waldorf Hotel next to his aunt’s mansion, rendering hers uninhabitable[1].

William Waldorf’s cousin John Jacob IV, who would die the richest man on the maiden sea voyage of The Titanic, demolished his mother’s mansion and built the Astoria Hotel next door. Business being business, the two hotels were joined and became the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The English and American branches of the family did not re-join.

The construction of the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel put an end to Mrs Astor’s gala balls. At that time the New York Tribune published the names of some four thousand millionaires in America, of which over one hundred had fortunes exceeding $10 million. To have been worth $1 million was “respectable poverty” according to the organiser of Mrs Astor’s gala balls[2]. Heading the Tribune list would have been the grandchildren of “the Commodore”, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who inherited their wealth on the passing of William Backhouse, in 1892.

At the beginning of the 1890s, when the first Waldorf-Astoria opened, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife expanded their Fifth Avenue mansion to cover an entire block. Both monuments to wealth attracted social criticism. It was the beginning of the “Progressive Era” in America; that would end with a booming economy: “profits leaping” the farmer enjoying the best times they had ever known; the stock market making fortunes in Wall Street.”[3]

Lasting up until the 1920s, Populism had sought to redress monopolization, industrialization, urbanization, and political corruption through increased regulation. The era spawned “muckraker” journalism and the Progressive era. The chief muckraker of the time was Ida Tarbell whose published articles in McClure’s Magazine provided impetus for the dismantling of J D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust. J D Rockefeller, a solemn Baptist, wasn’t one for parties.

Caroline Astor’s husband, William Backhouse Jr., preferred to spend his leisure time aboard Ambassadress, which was the largest private yacht of its time, instead of attending one of his wife’s gala balls. On the site of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s much decried mansion now stands the less architecturally inspiring Bergdorf Goodman department store purveying some of the world’s most exclusive consumer brands. A second Waldorf Astoria (without the hyphen) resides on Park Avenue.

To make it onto the Forbes 400 list in 2020 you would need a “respectably poor,” as the organizer of Mrs Astor’s gala balls would have said, minimum worth of US$2.1 billion.


[1] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: the fall of the House of Vanderbilt (New York, Morrow, 2013), 247.

[2] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (New York, Morrow, 2013), 94.

[3] 2. Frederick L. Allen, The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent, ed. Mark C. Miller (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2017), 171.