Inside the Astor family, one of America’s wealthiest Gilded Age dynasties whose descendants are friends with British royals

    The Waldorf-Astoria.

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    John Jacob Astor built his fortune in the fur business and New York real estate.
    John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor Jr. cofounded the Waldorf-Astoria after a feud.
    Modern Astor descendants have been politicians, philanthropists, and British royal associates.

    Astoria, Queens. Astor Place. The Waldorf-Astoria. Even if you’re not a New Yorker, you’ve heard of these iconic places. You also probably know they’re named for one very powerful family: the Astors.

    To this day, the Astors’ money and influence still make waves in society.

    So how do you build a dynasty like this one, with money that lasts for generations? Take a look at how the Astors made their fortune.

    This story was originally published in April 2012. It was updated in July 2024.

    The Astors came from nothing.American fur trader and financier John Jacob Astor.

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    Johann Jacob Astor worked as a butcher in Walldorf, southeastern Germany, Elizabeth Louisa Gebhard wrote in “The Life and Ventures of the Original John Jacob Astor.” His ancestors are said to have been French Huguenots who’d fled to Germany after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted protection to Protestants.

    His son, John Jacob Astor, was born in Walldorf in 1763.

    As a youngster, he worked for his father as a dairy salesman. He had three brothers, the eldest of whom, George, left home to work for an uncle in London who made musical instruments. Astor met up with him there after his 16th birthday.

    John Jacob Astor built his fortune in the fur business and through buying and selling New York real estate.A painting of John Jacob Astor.

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    After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, he immigrated to New York and took a job with a fur trader. By 1800, he’d built up his own fur business and was worth $250,000, or about $6.2 million in 2024, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

    Astor also bought and sold acres upon acres of land in and around New York City, including what is now Times Square. 

    In 1785, he married Sarah Todd. They had three children: Magdalena, John Jacob II, and William.

    He was one of the wealthiest men in the US upon his death in 1848, according to the Library of Congress.

    William Backhouse Astor continued his father’s real-estate ventures and philanthropy.William Backhouse Astor.

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    He continued to invest in real estate by building over 700 stores and residences in New York City, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

    He also bequeathed thousands of dollars to St. Luke’s Hospital on the Upper West Side and the Astor Library, which eventually became the New York Public Library.

    William and his wife, Margaret, had seven children, the most prominent of which became John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor Jr.John Jacob Astor III.

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    William Jr. had some success as a developer in Florida. John Jacob Astor III, along with his wife Charlotte Gibbs, was a major philanthropist who founded the Children’s Aid Society.

    The iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City was the result of a family feud between John III and William Jr.’s descendants.Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 34th Street entrance.

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    John III’s son, William Waldorf Astor, built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel in 1893 on 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue.

    Waldorf Astor’s cousin and rival, John Jacob Astor IV, built a taller hotel next door four years later to outdo him.

    Eventually, the two hotels were joined together with a marble corridor, resulting in the first Waldorf-Astoria.

    The simmering tensions prompted William Waldorf Astor to move to London in 1891.William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor.

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    There, he bought and restored the 125-acre Hever Castle in 1903, purchased the British newspaper The Observer in 1911, and obtained the rank of Viscount in 1917.

    John IV perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.John Jacob Astor IV.

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    His body was identified two weeks later by the initials stitched into his suit and his gold pocket watch. The watch sold at auction for $1.5 million in April.

    Still, the Astors remained a force. In 1931, the modern Waldorf Astoria opened on Park Avenue and became legendary for its service.The entrance to the Waldorf Astoria.

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    The Waldorf Astoria has hosted US presidents, dignitaries, and countless celebrities.

    In 2014, the historic hotel was purchased by Chinese insurance group Anbang for $1.95 billion. In 2017, it closed for renovations to convert 375 rooms into luxury condominiums called The Towers of the Waldorf Astoria. The hotel is expected to reopen in 2025, GlobeSt reported.

    Known for her charity work, Brooke Astor emerged as the matriarch of the American Astors.Brooke Astor receives a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in recognition of her philanthropy.

    Susan Biddle/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

    Astor was the great-great granddaughter, by marriage, of John Jacob Astor.

    She donated over $195 million to hospitals, cultural institutions, and community service programs in New York City through the Vincent Astor Foundation, according to The New York Community Trust. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her philanthropy in 1998.

    Brooke Astor died in 2007 at age 105 and was the subject of a four-page obituary in The New York Times.

    Her son Anthony Marshall, was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from her in 2009 and sentenced to prison.

    The British side of the Astor family continued to hold positions of power, as well.Nancy Astor.

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    Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, who was married to Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor, became the first woman in the House of Commons in the chamber’s history in 1919.

    Her son, David Astor, rose to prominence as the longtime editor of The Observer and an anti-apartheid activist, the Los Angeles Times reported.

    Modern members of the Astor family remain influential figures.Prince William and Kate Middleton on their wedding day in 2011. Grace van Cutsem, left, was unamused by the loud crowds.

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    William Astor, 4th Viscount of Astor, is a member of the House of Lords and the stepfather of Samantha Cameron, the former British first lady married to David Cameron.

    John Jacob Astor, 3rd Baron Astor of Hever, also sat in the House of Lords from 1986 until his retirement in 2022, according to the UK Parliament‘s official website.

    William Waldorf Astor’s great-great-granddaughter, Rose Astor, married Prince William’s close friend, Hugh van Cutsem, in 2005. Their daughter, Grace van Cutsem, is perhaps best known as the young bridesmaid who appeared grumpy at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, pictured above on the left.

    Another great-great-grandchild of William Waldorf Astor, Harry Lopes, married Queen Camilla’s daughter, Laura Parker-Bowles, in 2006.

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