Andrew Allentuck

Friday, April 13, 2001

John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire
by Axel Madsen
John Wiley & Sons, 312 pages

John Jacob Astor left Germany in 1783 with the equivalent of a few dollars and seven flutes to use for barter. He learned the fur trade and, within a couple of decades, was the biggest fur merchant in America. He became a baron of a sort in New York, a hotelier who kept the first luxury hotel in the city, and a benefactor to his family. A gift of US$250,000 to his granddaughter on her wedding, worth perhaps US$50 million today.

Wealth, conspicuously displayed, maintained the Astors' public profile, as did tragedy, One Astor, Colonel Jack, went down with the Titanic and another, Vincent, turned out to be a so-so industrialist. The male line of the Astors has become extinct and the Astor family is now just part of the furniture of wealth of society balls in Europe and the United States. Author Madsen, an experienced biographer, weaves the family into the fabric history. The research is strong, the writing charming. It's a great read.