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The Astor family once epitomized the American dream, dominated New York City, and wielded immense social power; However, this once influential name has since fallen from grace. CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper and historic novelist Katherine Howe recently published “Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune,” tracing the family from the 1780s to modern days, or from German immigrant John Jacob Astor to socialite Brooke Astor. This nonfiction work successfully incorporates historic accounts with archival details and secondary commentaries, bringing its characters to life and unraveling the intergenerational metamorphosis of the Astor family.
“Astor” is the second collaboration between Cooper and Howe, the first being “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” published in 2021. While Cooper is notably the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, he distanced himself from his celebrated ancestry until his writing of “Vanderbilt,” in which he used to his advantage his status as an insider of one of America's most storied families. “Astor” likewise reflects the dichotomy of Cooper’s journalistic view and personal view. The introduction of the book begins with Cooper meeting Brooke Astor in 1981 with Gloria Vanderbilt, revealing an intimate and private interaction between the two famous families and allowing this family saga to unfold both through objective investigation and personal narratives.
From the very beginning of the book, Cooper and Howe establish that the story of the Astor family was not a lighthearted tale of success but one of costs and consequences. The book opens by discussing the slaughtering of beavers in the bloom of the North American beaver trade. Through this bloody, unglamorous, yet highly profitable business, John Jacob Astor began accumulating the family’s wealth in a way that Cooper and Howe describe as almost inhumane. “Profit was all John Jacob cared about,” they write. “He had no qualms about getting his hands dirty.”
John Jacob Astor did not stop at the fur trade. After establishing himself as a successful local fur trader, he set his eyes upon expanding trade internationally, remaking the Manhattan landscape, and above all, creating the empire of “Astoria.” The rise of the Astor family is based upon this ugly trade with a jarring amount of luck and ambition intertwined. As told by Cooper and Howe, luck and ambition combined to facilitate the expansion of John Jacob Astor’s business empire, bringing enormous wealth and power to his family.
The authors of “Astor” successfully create a fast-moving, detailed, and immersive historic narrative. However, the mixture of added descriptions, secondary commentaries, and archival accounts place the book in an odd position in terms of its genre. “Astor” includes too much narrative and emotion to be neutral historic nonfiction, making it difficult for the readers to tell which details are added biases and which are the historic facts.
Additionally, “Astor” compresses a narrative involving multiple generations into less than 300 pages, rendering the transition between each generation especially harsh. For the majority of the book, each chapter concentrates on one member of the family. Perhaps to catch the readers’ eye, Cooper and Howe often begin a chapter with paragraphs about a minor character or anecdote: For example, the chapter on Mrs. Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor begins with four pages about how journalist Rebecca Insley arrived to interview Mrs. Astor, while the following chapter on William Waldorf “Will” Astor runs on another four pages about a burglary incident before even mentioning Will Astor himself. While these anecdotes provide an external view on the Astor family, they frequentlyread as more distracting than attractive.
The stories of each member of the family, furthermore, are loosely connected. The authors rarely develop any casual relationship between successive stories.
“Astor” is a lively portrayal of the Astor family and the ever-evolving New York City that the family helped to build. The book is a riveting tale about wealth and power, but it also acknowledges the alarming consequences of ambition and misuse of that power. “Astor” is a great introduction to the history of the family, but it may not be appropriate for readers who wish to read an unbiased account of their rise to fame and fortune. Nonetheless, the riveting inside stories of an American dynasty that Cooper and Howe are able to reconstruct from historical sources successfully drive the development of their book.
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