Excesses of the Rich and Wealthy Mrs. Astor

About the excesses of the rich Mrs. Astor, biography and history of her extravagent spending.


MRS. ASTOR (1830-1908)

No chronicle of the rich is complete without mention of Mrs. William Backhouse (Caroline) Astor, who married a third-generation Astor, then pompously dropped her forenames and her husband's and was known simply as Mrs. Astor. With social director Ward McAllister as her formidable right hand, she waged war against all other hostesses of the time and won, emerging as the queen bee of society. The most vicious of the battles took place between Caroline and her nephew's wife, Mary Astor, who dared covet the title of the Mrs. Astor. Caroline won and so incensed her nephew, William Waldorf Astor, that he and his wife moved to England, stating, "America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live." Before he left, however, William took revenge on his aunt. He tore down the stately mansion he had inherited from his father, John Jacob Astor III, which stood on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street in New York City, and constructed the 13-story Waldorf Hotel in its place. Since Caroline's mansion was on the southwest corner of Fifth and Thirty-fourth, the heavy traffic the hotel drew disturbed her peace and forced her to move uptown.

Mrs. Astor threw expensive, boring parties with dinners served on a $75,000 gold service. (After her death, it was discovered that the service was only gold-plated.) Following dinner, Mrs. Astor received her guests from a red silk divan placed on a raised dais, which was simply a modified throne. Mr. Astor rarely attended these parties, escaping instead to his magnificent yacht, the Nourmahal.

When Mrs. Astor desired yet another mansion, her husband was mildly irritated by the cost--$1,500,000 for the house, plus $750,000 for the furnishings--but he acquiesced. He died shortly before the structure was completed in 1895, perhaps in an ultimate attempt to avoid his wife's parties.

Mrs. Astor's greatest extravagance was her jewelry collection. She wore emeralds, a diamond necklace worth $60,000 and another worth $80,000, white satin dresses embroidered with pearls and silver, a diamond tiara, and a diamond stomacher that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. Mrs. Astor's impeccable posture was due to the fact that she even wore jewelry down to the waist across her back, which made it painful for her to sit back in her chair.

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