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American Dynasties

Tycoons have come and gone, but few are the titans that form dynasties. In America, much weighs against the family that seeks to preserve a financial power base for generations.
Jack Bettridge, Bruce Goldman, Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 1)

In the twentieth century, family members began pursuing high-profile interests such as sports and art collecting. They have also maintained a large power base within Delaware, holding public offices and owning newspapers. It wasn't until 1971 that someone other than a Du Pont would chair the company's board.--JB    


On his death bed in 1848, John Jacob Astor, the man who monopolized the fur industry, was asked if he had any regrets. The richest person in America reportedly answered that he lamented not having purchased all of Manhattan.  

The German immigrant, who had redefined the concept of wealth in America, still had the bold acquisitiveness that would make the Astor name synonymous with riches even now.  

In the 1790s, the young instrument maker who had come to America with $20 in his pocket started a fur store and became one of America's leading fur traders, despite having never set a trap. Shrewd dealings with Indian tribes and friendships forged with British officials allowed him to branch out into what was then the frontiers of Canada and the Great Lakes. He owned a network of ships that allowed him to move product faster than the competition and to trade with China. Close to Thomas Jefferson, he was among the first to see the benefits of the Louisiana Purchase. By 1827, Astor had created the country's first trust. In 1834, he left the fur trade to focus on New York City real estate, constructing hundreds of buildings. His will provided $400,000 to found the Astor Library, later consolidated as part of the New York Public Library.  

Astor's son, William Backhouse, continued to buy real estate in New York, more than doubling the family's worth. One of his sons, John Jacob, gave generously to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Trinity Church and the Astor Library. Another son married Caroline Schermerhorn, co-creator of The 400, the number of society's elite that supposedly could be entertained comfortably in her mansion. Located where the Empire State Building now stands, the house was converted into the Astoria Hotel, then connected to adjacent property to become the first Waldorf-Astoria.  

William Waldorf Astor, the son of the second John Jacob, served as a New York legislator and U.S. minister to Italy before moving to London, buying a viscount title and funding conservative causes.  

William Waldorf's elder son, John Jacob, served in Parliament and owned The Times of London. His younger son, Waldorf, served in the House of Commons, succeeded his father as viscount and ran the London Observer. Waldorf's wife, Nancy, became the first woman in Parliament. The couple favored appeasement of Hitler.  

John Jacob IV, son of Caroline, was an inventor and sci-fi novelist, who died on the Titanic. His son, Vincent Astor, helped convert family-owned slums into city housing projects and published Newsweek. James Van Alen, Caroline's great-grandson, founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame and introduced the tiebreaker.--BG    


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