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John Jacob Astor IV

John Jacob Astor IV was born July 13, 1864 in Rhinebeck. The only son of William Backhouse Astor and Caroline nee Schermerhorn. John Jacob was one of five children; he had four sisters, his eldest sister, Emily, who was the first born, sadly died in 1881.

These are some official details from John Jacob Astor’s birth and baptism records;


Child: John Jacob Reference ID: 1258

Birth Date: 13 Jul 1864

Bapt. Date: 3 Sep 1864

Parents: Wm. Astor; Caroline W.

Sponsors: Wm. B. Astor; John Jacob Astor; Mary A. Carey

Comment: recorded at Church of the Messiah, Rhinebeck

Source: Baptismal Record of Eight Episcopal Congregations of Old Rhinebeck: 1816-1899

Old Rhinebeck - Eight Episcopal Congregations: 1816-1899

Location: Towns of Red Hook & Rhinebeck, Dutchess County --- Denomination: Episcopal

William Backhouse Astor was born July 12, 1830. He was the second grandson of the original John Jacob Astor, the founder of the American Astor fortunes.

He married Miss Caroline Schermerhorn on September 23, 1853.

It is said that John Jacob IV father, William Backhouse, was not as keen a business man as his eldest brother, the previous family heir also known as John Jacob. The family estate being largely left in the hands of William’s lawyer.

William was a man who rarely sought the limelight but can not be exactly described as boring. He took a very keen interest in athletic sports as well as Yachting and horse racing. He also was a breeder of very fine race horses.

Travelling around Europe was something he indulged in over the years, while the estate was, as has been mentioned already, largely in the hands of his lawyer. No harm seems to have come to the Astor millions though as John Jacob IV clearly inherited a massive fortune.

William is reported to have spent $20,000,000 during his lifetime, a vast amount even compared to these days. Much of this huge sum is said to have gone to charity, something that just a few of his close friends knew.

Apparently he was usually of good health and his death at the age of only 62 was a shock. He had been suffering from "congestion of the lungs" but it had not been deemed critical.

His mother was born Caroline Schermerhorn on September 22, 1830. Only slightly younger than her husband to be, William Backhouse.

Contemporary accounts say that she was a socialite, it seems in contrast to her husband. She is also said to be unhappy to mix with those she felt were not to her tastes. Apparently she considered herself to be ‘The’ Mrs. Astor, which as her husband William Backhouse was eventually the Astor family head, seems fair to me.

Caroline died on October 30, 1908, four years before her only son, John Jacob IV.

As can be seen, John Jacob grew up in a wealthy family. A family whose parents kept themselves occupied with a number of interests. I think it fair to say that his parents were a contrast to each other.

He attended St Paul's, a well known academy in Concord, New Hampshire. In the early 1880's he then attended Harvard.

From an early age he showed a very keen interest in things of a mechanical and scientific nature. It was said that he wanted to become an inventor. This proved to be true. Among a number of other inventions, John Jacob dreamed up the following: a patent bicycle brake, a pneumatic road scraper, a patent turbine and several other practical inventions.

He was also one of three who took a local interest in the "Keeley motor." Designed and built by one John Keeley in answer to the need for powerful engines for various industries. The Keeley motor was deeply controversial but despite cries for him to come clean over how it worked, Keeley came out with statements such as this: (it is) "a device which disintegrates the etheric (sic) force that controls the atomic constitution of matter." He eventually took its secrets to his grave.

Young John Jacob Astor IV was particularly interested in railroads, something that he carried into his manhood.

An interesting story tells of how young John Jacob persuaded his father, William, to allow him to take a journey on the North Pacific Railroad, at that time still under construction. When the train reached the end of the line, so far completed, John found out that the railroad was going to be continued over the Idaho and Montana mountains. He decided that he was going to find out exactly where it was going. So the young boy hired a stage coach, the only way to travel at that time, and took a journey through dangerous country, well known for bandits.

On hearing of the trip, John’s father was said to be greatly worried, although he never scolded him. It seems William admired what his young son had done, maybe he thought it boded well for the future of the Astor family.

John Jacob Astor IV was an enthusiastic sportsman, maybe something he picked up from his father. Other pastimes of which he was fond were hunting large game, yachting and the driving and owning of automobiles. In fact he was once credited with the ownership of 20 automobiles at one time.

On April 25 1898 after a long running dispute with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines, America found itself at war with Spain, in what became to be known as the Spanish-American war. Although disputes with Spain dragged on for some time, the war itself lasted until only a short time. Spain’s capitulation to the United States was signed on August 14, 1898.

At the beginning of the war John Jacob Astor IV was taken from "civil life" and received the rank of Colonel through being put on the staff of Governor Morton. Astor actually equipped a mounted battery at his own expense and presented it to the government. It was known as the Astor battery. He also volunteered to be, and was made, assistant inspector general of volunteers and served as an aid of General Shafter's staff.

On June 4, 1898 Colonel Astor and General Breckinridge carried out an inspection of the Third army corps, at Chickamauga National Military Park, Chattanooga.

Both Colonel Astor and General Breckinridge declared themselves pleased with how the men showed themselves during the exercises.

At about 2 pm on June 28, General Shafter, in charge of the invasion forces, arrived at Jaragua, Cuba, to inspect troops and find out first hand, how things were unfolding. Among his officers was Colonel John Jacob Astor.

July 6:- Colonel Astor was directly involved in an exchange of prisoners with the Spanish. The exchange took place near Santiago under a tree between the Spanish and American lines.

Colonel Astor and Lieutenant Miley, accompanied by an interpreter, were in charge of the prisoners to be exchanged. The Spanish prisoners were taken through the American lines mounted and blindfolded.

The meeting between Colonel Astor and the Spanish Major Irles was "extremely courteous, but very formal" neither person attempted to discuss anything other than the business at hand.

After Major Irles had taken his pick of those men he wished to take back with him he turned to Colonel Astor and, in a tone of courteousness but none the less defiant, said:

"Our understanding is, Gentlemen, that this truce comes to an end at 5 o’clock,"

Colonel Astor looked at his watch, bowed to the Spanish officer, without making a reply, and then started back slowly to the American lines, with Hobson and his companions following.

The so called Astor battery also took its part in the war. Indeed during the occupation of Manila, along with other American forces, it came under heavy fire and a number of men were lost.

After hostilities had ceased a war investigation commission investigated, among other things, the effectiveness of the new officers, among them Colonel John Jacob.

One of those called before the commission was General Shafter, who had been in charge of the invasion forces in Cuba.

Commission member, Governor Woodbury, asked General Shafter how the staff officers appointed from civil life had turned out and received the following reply:

"They were men as a rule who had no previous military experience and might not have been much use in executing a military manoeuvre. But I had three of them on my staff, and for carrying orders, distributing rations to the refugees and a thousand things, they were invaluable. Beginning with Colonel John Jacob Astor, who was perhaps the most inexperienced, they were splendid fellows, and did what they had to do. Astor fell in with the work, ate his beans and did his duty as cheerfully and expeditiously as though he had not a dollar."

The final word regarding the war I leave to the, North Adams Evening Transcript, dated, Thursday November 25, 1898. Note that John Jacob is described as Lieutenant Colonel, not the first time I have seen that title used. As for the rest of the article I think I sense a touch of sourness in its writer:

"The honourable discharge of Lieutenant Colonel John Jacob Astor from the army will force that gentleman to rely entirely for support upon his income from $100,000,000 worth of real estate and personal property."

On 17 February 1891, John married Ava Lowle Willing, of Philadelphia. Ava was born September 15, 1868 in Philadelphia. Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Shippen Willing. Her family was also reputed to be wealthy and of good stock. Indeed it appears that the Willings were able to claim links with the French kings, Philip I, II and III, and Louis VI, VII and VIII.

Ava Lowle Willing was considered to be a beautiful woman, with a round face and a oval chin with a dimple in it. Her hair was very dark, almost black and she had deep violet-blue eyes which were decorated with long dark lashes. She had a very sweet manner.

They were married at her father's house in Philadelphia. The New York Times gave a report of the wedding, which mentions the bridegroom wearing dark grey striped trousers, a long black frock coat, a full white silk cravat and pearl coloured gloves. He also wore a white orchid, Ava's favourite flower.
The brides gown was made in Paris. It was of a rich, heavy, creamy duchesse satin, with an immense train. The petticoat was edged with deep flowing point lace, caught up in festoons by small clusters of orange blossoms. The veil was of lace and long. Her bouquet was of white orchids edged with lilies of the valley. On the left of her corsage she wore a big cluster of diamonds.

It is said that the couple knelt down during part of the ceremony, as was usual in protestant Episcopal churches. The ring was not a heavy one, but the inside was inscribed with the bride and groom's names.

The wedding present from John Jacob's parents was that of a furnished house on Fifth Avenue, New York and a collection of magnificent diamonds. This was indeed, a wealthy family.

According to a contemporary news paper account the so called Bridal presents were estimated to be worth $2,000,000.

In the evening, the newlyweds arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. They occupied the bridal apartments at the Hotel Rennert. They left the following day.

Nine months later on 15 November, 1891 they became the parents of a strong, healthy ten pound baby, William Vincent Astor, who became known to all as Vincent. According to reports of the birth, John Jacob was too ill with a fever to be told of the arrival.

William Vincent’s birth took place at the mansion of his grandfather, on Fifth Avenue Thirty fourth Street, New York, which is where the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was eventually built.

Although Vincent was described as delicate during his boyhood this does not seem to have stopped him having a full life and of taking his duties seriously. Vincent was to take responsibility of the family estate on the death of his father, John Jacob, at the age of only 20. So serious was he about managing things properly he ended his studies in order to devote enough time to family business matters.


Vincent was educated at Eaton and Harvard, where he progressed well in his studies. During his life he took a special interest in social movements and politics along with lighter things such as enjoying musical comedies.

A moderate cigar smoker and infrequent drinker he may have been, but he had a passion for cars, just like his father. I have to say that his driving was not moderate, he was repeatedly involved in motor crashes.

Also, like his father and his father’s father, he took a keen interest in sports. He kindly donated prizes for the boys of New York public schools who took part in athletic events.

He married Helen Dinsmore Huntington on 20 April, 1914, a fraction over two years after his father’s death.

In February 1902, a daughter, Ava Alice Muriel Astor was born to John Jacob and Ava. Ava Alice Muriel became the subject of a custody battle during the divorce of her parents.

Ava Alice had only just turned 10 when her father died. She was left $5,000,000 in her father’s will, to be held in trust until she attained the age of 21.

Sadly the year 1909 saw the end of the marriage of John Jacob IV and Ava Lowle.

The reasons for the end of the marriage are, at the moment, unclear to me. However,

I have, in the course of researching for this article, come across a number of accounts that state Ava only married John Jacob because of his status. These accounts also state that she actually found him repulsive. As I have not, as yet, been able to satisfactorily check the statements made, I only wish to allude to them. It is also said that Ava was a domineering woman, prone to speaking down to John. Whatever the cause or causes, for someone to have sought divorce, particularly of John Jacob Astor’s standing, in those days, there must have been very strong reason or reasons.

On November 9 1909 Ava Lowle won an interlocutory, or interim, divorce. It is said to have taken one minute for Justice Mills, of New York, to grant, and the papers were then sealed thus denying public knowledge of details unless those affected were to disclose them. Ava then had six months in which to request the divorce be made final, which she duly did. It was said at the time that Ava had been granted custody of their daughter Ava Muriel, while John Jacob took charge of Vincent.

March 5 1910 saw the granting of the Decree absolute in favour of Mrs Astor.

She is said to have been awarded the sum of $10,000,000, to be paid in one lump, either in cash or securities. John Jacob was also instructed to pay his former wife the sum of $300,000 per annum. This time, apparently, the papers were not sealed.

At the time the divorce settlement was the largest the world had seen. It is unclear what John Jacob’s position was over his daughter, but either way his, now former, wife was granted custody, little Ava Muriel was just eight years old. John took custody of Vincent.

As was usual Ava Lowle was free to resume her maiden name and re-marry should she wish, but John Jacob was forbidden to legally re-marry in New York.

It would seem that whatever the reasons for the divorce, Ava Lowle had received a sympathetic hearing from the decision makers.

Sometime in 1910 Miss Madeleine Talmadge Force appeared in John Jacob’s life.

She was eighteen years old. By all accounts and judging by photographs, Madeleine was indeed a beautiful young woman.

Madeleine was born on June 19, 1893 to Mr. William H. Force and Mrs. Katherine Talmadge Force.

Mr. William H. Force was said to be an active business man. He arrived early and worked ten hour days. He managed and directed the forwarding firm of W. H. Force & co. of Newport, Rhode Island.

On August 3, 1911 in Newport, Rhode Island, Madeleine and John announced their engagement. Madeleine was introduced to John Jacob’s friends and, according to a contemporary news paper account, "She was formally received today at Newport, the social mecca of America".

The same newspaper also records the following;

"Although practically unknown to the Newport set the future Mrs. Astor was assured an enthusiastic welcome when Mrs. Ogden Mills, social arbiter of the sea side colony, openly expressed her warm approval of the engagement".

Mrs. Mills was later to say "I have met her and she is a lovely girl. When she arrives you will all like her as I do". This is seen as total acceptance of young Madeleine into Newport society.

It was also said that shortly before the announcement Colonel Astor and Miss Force took their first un-chaperoned luncheon together at the Hotel St. Regis. The lovers had dined there often, but up until that time, Madeleine’s mother, her sister, Katherine or Colonel Astor’s son, Vincent, had been present also.

It was apparent to many that John Jacob and Madeleine force where very much in love. The following is from the Syracuse Herald, dated August 3, 1911;

"Those who daily watched the party noted the fact that Colonel Astor was always on hand early and displayed great pleasure upon the arrival of his charming young sweetheart. These watchers now declare that he showed every symptom of being deeply smitten with the sweet-faced young girl."

I have noticed in a number of accounts, that acknowledgement was made of the affection and love shown by the couple to each other. Bearing in mind the nature of the times and that they were often frowned upon for their relationship, I was pleasantly surprised to find some well balanced and supportive articles.

As well as being extremely happy that he was engaged to his new, soon to be, wife, John Jacob had another reason to feel pleased.

For he had recently received the seal of approval from his future father in law, Mr. William H. Force. A reporter from the Syracuse Herald asked Mr. Force about his thoughts on the match. The following are the reporters questions and William’s replies. I think you will agree that his answers are very clear.

Reporter: "Do you consider Colonel Astor a young man?"

Mr. Force: "Young?, why of course he’s young, young in years, young in spirit"

Reporter: "Is that the reason your daughter decided to marry him?"

The article goes on to remark that, a faint smile played over the rather grim features of Mr. Force. He remarked good humouredly: "I will take this opportunity to state that my daughter is marrying Mr. Astor first, last and all the time because she loves him. She compares him to some of the other shallow minded, so called society men she has met, and need I say that the comparison is entirely to the benefit of Mr. Astor". Mr. Force is also stated as making it clear that he emphatically denies the rumour that he was opposed to the match, or that Colonel Astor was not willing to announce the engagement at this time. Adding: "Mr. Astor is perfectly acceptable to me. Because he is an American gentleman, a man every inch of him and not a manikin".

Plans for the wedding were well in hand. But because he was divorced John Jacob found it very hard to find an official to marry him. In the end two were persuaded, one as a standby. Also because Colonel Astor was forbidden to re-marry in New York the family home of Beechwood, Newport, Rhode Island was chosen, in great secrecy, as the marriage venue.

So, on the 9 September, 1911, Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and Miss Madeleine Talmadge Force became husband and wife.

The following extracts from the Syracuse Herald of September 10, 1911 give a very clear idea of the wedding and some of the surrounding events.

Special to the Syracuse Herald.

Newport, Sept. 9.--Miss Madeleine Talmage Force of New York became the bride of Col. John Jacob Astor, head of the famous American family of his name a few minutes after 9 o’clock this morning.

Although the ceremony was performed at Newport in the midst of the famed society leaders not one was present at the service. The marriage was performed in the beautiful white and gold ball room of Beechwood, the famous Astor show place.

The secrecy which marked the courtship and subsequent pre-nuptial arrangements of Miss Force and Col. Astor reached it’s climax in the carrying out of the wedding plans.

Extra "chapel" engaged.

So carefully were the "inside" plans made that a room had even been engaged in an obscure hotel, where the ceremony would have been performed, if by some chance the Beechwood arrangements been revealed.

The clergyman who dared public opinion and displayed his independence by performing the ceremony is the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lambert, pastor of the Elmwood Temple Congregational Church, Providence. R. I.

Seemed devoted lovers.

The wedding scene impressed the witnesses with the belief that Colonel Astor and Madeleine Force were a pair of devoted lovers. As they met in front of the beautiful white marble fire place of the grand ball-room Miss Force was attended by her father, and Colonel Astor by his son Vincent. Her fiance fairly jumped to take her hand and they turned to face the minister, who stood there upon a huge red rug and underneath a great cutglass chandelier.

As Dr. Lambert began the ceremony, Colonel Astor dropped to his knees, gently drawing Miss Force with him. And in that posture they remained during the brief service.

Clasps bride tightly.

As Colonel Astor slipped the ring upon the finger of his new wife he lost his composure, slipped his arm about the girlish figure at his side and then clasped her tightly and kissed her.

Following the marriage the brides father made the following statement, carefully weighing each word as it was spoken and pleading that he be quoted exactly:

"In this marriage only the happiness of my daughter was considered. She and Colonel Astor are and have been very much in love. If they were not in love this marriage would not have occurred."

Immediately after the ceremony Colonel and Mrs. Astor boarded the Noma which quickly sailed.

Reserve clergy not needed.

The Rev. Edward S. Straight, known as the "carpenter preacher" was on hand, ready to act if required, but he was sent away just after the Rev. Mr. Lambert reached Beechwood. Another clergyman was also in reserve, the Rev. Mr. Roberts.

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