I don’t read much history – for some reason I don’t get into it. I do like biography and get most of my “history reading” from it. So – it’s always special when I can get a bunch of biography, history, and – well – CHARACTERS – all in one book.
Amy and I were with our friends Nick and Helen Forster at The Kitchen in Boulder about a month ago. Somehow the topic turned to our families and genealogies. Nick was talking about growing up in this old mansion in upstate New York and eventually suggested that I read The Astor Orphans: A Pride of Lions. Nick’s a fascinating guy that – with Helen – runs etown (a weekly radio show produced in Boulder) – so I figured it’d be fun to find out more about his ancestors, especially a group he referred to as “eight kids who were direct decendents of the Astor’s who lost their parents when the oldest was a teenager and rattled around in this huge house I grew up in.”
What a book. The Astor Orphans are the ten owners of Rokeby who were bequeathed the property by their mother – Margaret Astor Ward Chanler – for them to “share and share alike.” The next year, the children (aged fifteen to three), lost their father John Winthrop Chanler. These kids were direct decendants of John Jacob Astor (the richest man in America at the time). They belonged to America’s social and economic elite (which you can infer from their names – Winthrop, Stuyvesant, Livingston, Astor, Beekman, Armstrong, White, Ward – you get the picture).
The book traces their lives. Several died young, so the main characters were the eight kids who lived to be 50 or older. They accomplished amazing things in their lives, had great adventures, and were hugely entertaining and – in many cases – scandelous characters for the age they lived in.
After I finished, I dropped Nick a note saying “It was fabulous – definitely a different world then the one I grew up in. Now that I have all the relationships / context, tell me how you fit.” Nick wrote back “My great grandfather is Lewis Chanler, the one who was Lieutenant Gov. of New York and one of the brothers who committed Archie to Bloomingdales asylum. He was also the pioneer of Legal Aid, apparently, going down to the Tombs and representing clients for free. The house, Rokeby, is where I lived before I moved to Colorado in ’75. Oddly, the current batch of cousins in Rokeby are equally related (by marriage) to both my mother and father.”
What fun! The Archie that Nick refers to was the oldest (and wildest) brother. His younger brothers decided he was crazy and put him in an insane asylum named Bloomingdales. Given the laws at the time, Archie ended up getting stuck for four years! He eventually escaped to Virginia and was declared sane there, but couldn’t go back to New York for fear of being put back in the asylum. Seventeen years later he was finally declared sane again in New York, after waging a huge legal war on his situation and the “lunacy trust” of the United States. He coined the phrase ‘Who’s Looney Now” and – ironically – turned into a major eccentric as he got older. In a complex, magnanimous gesture, he “forgave” his “ex-brothers and ex-sisters” (as he referred to them) after he was declared sane, saying “let bygones be bygones.”
This book is 300 pages of riotous stories around the history of this incredible group of wealthy and eccentric orphans. As with any biography, there are tedious parts, but precious few, as the flavor and history of the time they grew up in is a fascinating contrast to our always connected email cellphone airplane (eventually teleporting) world.
There are also great lessons, as Nick finished his note to me with “My mother, Clare Chanler, also was raised in England and then came back to NY in the 30’s. She had the full glory of the family fortunes, but it pretty much ran out on her generation, which was fine with me – truly. I went to some good schools and grew up around a lot of beautiful houses, but I could see that the dough was not the secret. I have the benefit and the burden of learning that early and then trying to combine ambition with purpose, a tricky balancing act. ”
May we all be so lucky, talented, and humble as Nick.