Anderson Cooper on ‘The Astors’

Anderson Cooper grew up within the shadow of nice wealth: His great-great-great grandfather was Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of many richest males in American historical past. His mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, was on the middle of a sensational trial within the Nineteen Thirties when her mom and aunt battled for custody of the little lady and her belief fund — price greater than $80 million in immediately’s {dollars}. Like so many household fortunes, it didn’t final. The Vanderbilt descendants (together with Gloria) frittered most of it away. As an adolescent, Cooper distanced himself from the difficult legacy; as an grownup, the CNN anchor confronted it within the best-selling “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty.”

Now he’s teamed up with historian Katherine Howe for one more guide and one other empire: “Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune.” John Jacob Astor, son of a German butcher, got here to this nation in 1784 and ruthlessly amassed his astounding wealth by promoting North American beaver pelts — a fur so prized the animal was virtually extinct in Europe — after which buying massive parcels of land in Manhattan. He exploited Indigenous fur merchants by introducing alcohol to their tribes and have become New York’s largest slumlord within the nineteenth century, making him America’s first multimillionaire. His descendants constructed magnificent mansions and dominated New York for the following 100 years: Caroline Astor — the “Mrs. Astor” — was the undisputed queen of the Gilded Age; the famed Waldorf-Astoria lodge was created by two Astor cousins. When John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic in 1912, his oldest son, 20-year-old Vincent, inherited $69 million — about $2 billion now.

Review: Anderson Cooper’s ‘Vanderbilt’

The Astors and Vanderbilts competed for energy and status over a long time; the Vanderbilt fortune was so huge that the Astors had been pressured to just accept the nouveau riche interlopers. Cooper met the final “Mrs. Astor”— one other grand dame of New York society — as a younger man, however she failed to acknowledge or acknowledge him when he was working as a waiter at a classy New York restaurant. By then, the Astor fortune was virtually gone. Cooper sat down with The Washington Post to debate cash, energy, historical past and the myths of the American Dream. (The interview has been edited for readability and size.)

Q: Why did you need to write a guide in regards to the Astors?

A: I’m fascinated by these households. I see it as someone who grew up wanting on the Vanderbilt household from a distance via my mother’s eyes with out feeling very a lot involvement with it. I’m very within the pathology of how the fortune is made, the psychology of the one that was so invested in amassing cash that they created this fortune, whether or not it’s Commodore Vanderbilt and definitely John Jacob Astor. And the ripple impact of that mythology over the generations: From afar, they’re known as nice fortunes and nice households, and but nearly each biography that’s ever been written about any Astor male refers to them as morose.

Q: You use the time period “pathology.” Why that phrase?

A: I keep in mind when “Good Will Hunting” got here out. I liked that film, and I’m an enormous fan of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. When that film got here out, there have been all these articles written in regards to the “two regular guys” who made this film. I keep in mind pondering on the time, “Regular guys don’t make movies. Regular guys do regular things and have regular lives.” For Commodore Vanderbilt at age 11 to depart faculty and begin working on his dad’s boat after which, by 16, get his mother to provide him cash so he can purchase his personal boat after which run his dad out of enterprise after which do all of the issues that it took for him to amass this empire: There’s a pathology. He despatched his spouse to the psychological asylum. He despatched his son who might or might not have been homosexual to the identical asylum. At the tip of his life, when he’s being fed by a nurse, he’s nonetheless obsessing about clawing the lease out of some poor outdated woman. And that’s a pathology to me.

Q: Do you suppose that these nice dynasties are doomed to a type of unhappiness, a type of distress?

A: I don’t suppose it’s simply these nice fortunes. Most of the individuals who have achieved uncommon ranges of economic success or renown or fame, I don’t suppose it comes from place. I don’t suppose the issues that make individuals, early on, outliers — focusing on one thing that different individuals round them are usually not focusing on — I don’t suppose that comes from essentially a cheerful place.

Q: Let’s begin with the primary John Jacob Astor. He was not man. He begins out by ripping off the Indigenous individuals, then there’s an extremely profitable run as a slumlord. Everybody needs to consider that the American Dream is about good guys doing good and turning into profitable. That isn’t this story.

A: The founding of the Astor fortune was brutal. The plying of alcohol to Indigenous populations wasn’t simply an occasional factor; it was half and parcel of the enterprise. The U.S. authorities really tried to cease the sale of alcohol, and John Jacob Astor did all the things doable to avoid that. He wasn’t simply ruthless with Indigenous populations; he was with the individuals who labored for him. And the lease construction that John Jacob Astor used and his son continued to nice impact: construct, cram as many immigrants in as doable, divide up rooms, subdivide rooms, a number of households dwelling in a single room, no air flow, and by no means repair up the constructing as a result of it’s going to revert again to the Astors ultimately of the lease. So why repair it up? Vincent Astor, 100 years later, surprised individuals by making an attempt to get out of this slum enterprise.

I believe the view that lots of the household appeared to have, which justified their actions, was that John Jacob Astor got here right here with nothing and labored exhausting and made a fortune. All these different immigrants might do it in the event that they needed to, however they’re simply not prepared to work as exhausting, which is clearly a really restricted approach to see issues.

Q: Let’s speak about revenue inequality. You make comparisons to the historic Gilded Age and our present Gilded Age — the identical fascination with the wealthy, the identical resentments.

A: What I discover so fascinating about simply being alive in historical past is all of us suppose we’re the primary to expertise issues: “Oh, my God, there’s never been an Elon Musk before or a Jeff Bezos.” [Bezos owns The Washington Post.] Obviously, they’re doing extraordinary issues they usually’ve created extraordinary corporations and all of that. But I do know there was an Elon Musk earlier than and there was a Jeff Bezos earlier than. It was Cornelius Vanderbilt and it was John Jacob Astor and an entire bunch of different individuals.

It’s very attention-grabbing how we have a look at these individuals now: We examine them, we see their yachts, we think about what their lives are like. I see it in another way. I view it via the lens of those previous households, and what is going to the ripple results be of their lives and their households’ lives? I’m fascinated by the cycles of historical past — we’ve all been right here earlier than, and there was a model of you right here earlier than and there’s been a model of me.

Q: We stay within the heightened current of now, the rapid with all its rapid calls for. But historical past could be very instructive, and we will see sample in all these cycles.

A: To me, it’s comforting to know that we’re on a street that has been well-traveled. I’ve mentioned this about grief, this concept that we’re not alone in that we’re terrified in regards to the future. Well, all people was terrified in regards to the future again in John Jacob Astor’s day, and with good cause.

Q: You write about Caroline Astor, who seems as a personality within the HBO present “The Gilded Age,” and created “the 400” listing — the individuals she believed had been refined and rich sufficient to be a part of New York society. She was self-appointed royalty who held large energy for many years.

A: It was information to me after I wrote the Vanderbilt guide. I had not realized that the individuals like Caroline Astor and Ward McAllister and the individuals doing these quadrilles considered the constructing of those homes, the creation of society, as a form of a nationwide American enterprise — doing one thing for the nation to determine America on par with the outdated international locations of Europe. With Ward McAllister, it was simply borrowing all the things from France — French chef, French meals, French work, French decor. I really purchased a guide of William Vanderbilt’s home, the artwork assortment in his home. I paid like $40 for it on-line; nobody else actually needed it. And they had been the ugliest work you possibly can probably think about. I imply, they’re these treacly, terrible work.

Q: One of the conclusions within the guide is that cash was the final word energy, extra so than style, extra so than schooling. It all the time appears to come back all the way down to the cash.

A: Money was clearly the value of entry. There was a time when it was these outdated Dutch households making an attempt to maintain maintain of New York and arrange the obstacles to entry. That actually broke with the Vanderbilts; there have been different individuals who tried to do it and had been shunned. But the opposite revelation, which I had not realized, was the arrival of accommodations and these public areas that instantly allowed the democratization of entry into society. I imply, who thinks about society like New York society now? That simply appears useless to me. I’m certain there are society events, however that concept appears so antiquated and archaic. Now it’s all about cash and expertise.

Q: Issues of sophistication are all the time going to exist in some type — the place you reside, the place you went to high school — however with sufficient cash and sufficient drive, you possibly can overcome a whole lot of these issues.

A: Absolutely. By the way in which, a whole lot of Caroline Astor’s pearls had been faux. And her home was in all probability actually dusty and these work weren’t really all that invaluable. So, once more, whenever you scratch away …

Q: There’s a whole lot of theater?

A: I do know that firsthand.

Q: In 1912, Vincent Astor inherits his father’s fortune after poor Jack goes down on the Titanic: $69 million at the moment, $2 billion immediately.

A: One of the issues that’s beautiful in regards to the Astors is simply the sheer quantity of contemporary cash that was coming in yearly from the rents on these slums. There are a whole lot of households whose cash was made a very long time in the past; the Vanderbilts stopped getting cash, they stopped the enterprises and have become so top-heavy that it simply imploded.

Q: From a enterprise perspective, you possibly can argue that Vincent made a horrible mistake by promoting off among the most useful actual property on the planet.

A: He clearly was not all for doing what each era of male Astor had accomplished beforehand. Look, there are a whole lot of nice books which have been written about varied features of the Astor household. And we rely on a whole lot of different books and have footnoted that. What I like about this guide is that it’s a broad view from John Jacob Astor to Brooke Astor. And additionally this concept of the identify Astor: What it means and the way it got here to evolve together with the Astor Hotel bar scene. [The hotel — especially in the 1940s — held one of New York’s best known but discreet gay bars.] I attempted to trace down the precise Astor Bar. There’s an amazing man in New York who is aware of the place all the things is, and he couldn’t discover it.

Q: What is your takeaway from this guide?

A: It’s very simple to think about this as a narrative a couple of rich household and their enterprise. And there’s a whole lot of that on this. But my takeaway is simply form of the human value of all of this. As unrelatable because the life the Astors led is, there are all these very human moments and human frailties and the way that performs out underneath the burden of and with the advantage of all this cash.

The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune

By Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

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