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Address to the German Society

April 22, 1981 – The German Society, New York City



When Marcus Clary asked me to speak before the German Society, I accepted, not only because of Marcus, but also because I have the privilege of having known and admired Marcus’ wonderful parents. However, I had not the faintest idea in my head what I could talk about that might interest you. As you know, I finally found the subject: “From The Founder To The Foundation.” So here I am.

I found that I had certain credentials for this subject. By my marriage to Vincent I bear the name of a truly remarkable man: John Jacob Astor, founder in this country of my husband’s family who, incidentally, was President of the German Society in 1837; and in his will, which he signed in 1836, he left the German Society $30,000 to be invested, and I quote, “…in bonds and mortgages of land. The income from which was to be used in maintaining an office where advice and information should be given gratuitously to German immigrants.” He was, of course, thinking back to the year 1783 when, aged twenty, he arrived in New York with five pounds in his pocket. One good suit and seven flutes.

John Jacob Astor was born in 1763 in Waldorf, a hamlet lying between Heidelberg and the Rhine. He was the fifth child and fourth son of Jacob Astor, a butcher. Jacob Astor was described as a “worthy man,” a cautious and wise father who did not deprive his son of good advice and set him a good example. His first wife died in 1767 and in 1769 he re-married and started a new family. This arrangement did not make John Jacob happy at home–even though when his schooling ended at fourteen he became his father’s assistant in the butcher shop. He decided then that this life of chopping up meat and carting it about did not appeal to him at all–he started to plan on how he could escape. An older brother, Peter, was in London where he had been originally employed by a firm of piano makers; and had then, on his own, become a manufacturer of musical instruments. (There is an Astor piano today in the Metropolitan Museum, and two in England belonging to the Astor family). Another brother had immigrated to New York where he was following his father’s trade as a successful butcher. John Jacob, at sixteen, decided it was time to leave home, but to which brother should he go? He chose England because it was nearer, and so, with a bundle over his shoulders and a crown of two in his pocket, he set off to walk to the Rhine and find his way from there on to London. He spoke no English but he wished to learn the language and also to make enough money to pay his way to America.

He stayed in London until 1783, waiting wisely for the war between Britain and America to end. He had saved fifteen pounds by this time and was ready to pay ten pounds for his steerage passage over, thus leaving only five pounds in his pocket. The money thus paid out guaranteed him not only the passage, but salt beef and biscuit for the voyage. Finally, after four months on board, he arrived in Baltimore and from there went on to New York to join his brother.

It was a stroke of luck for him that his brother Henry had just married and had no room for him at his home, so he was sent to a friend named George Dieterich who also came from Waldorf and who was a baker. He set young John Jacob to work peddling doughnuts, cakes and cookies to small shops in the neighborhood. It was in this way that John Jacob Astor became acquainted with the city and was able to meet people. But he soon got tired of this rather uninspiring work and left Dieterich to sell his flutes which he still owned and started buying furs to sell, on a small scale. He soon (rather miraculously, I think) had enough money to go to England with furs and return with more musical instruments.

He was, at this time, working for a man called Robert Bowne, who was actively engaged in the fur trade and may have engaged young Astor on a commission basis. He was paying him a retaining salary of $2.00 a week. So John Jacob Astor not only traded furs in England, but became a sort of Bum Boat Man–selling cheap jewelry, beads, etc. on board ships in port.

Things must have begun looking up because in 1785, at the age of twenty-two, he married Sarah Todd in the German Reformed Church. Sarah’s family were quite a cut above Astor. She was connected by marriage with several sea captains, and also Henry Brevoort who was a man of standing and influence in New York. My husband, Vincent, used to say that one of the reasons for the various Astors success was that they always married above themselves! It became a family tradition he said, as later on they married with the Schermerhorns and Willings and Beekmans. Sarah Todd was not only well born, but she was also rich, as she brought $300 with her as a dowry.

Soon after his marriage, John Jacob opened a music store, selling pianos, guitars, clarinets, hautboys, flutes and violins and, of course, music books. With a wife to help mind the store, Astor became more involved in the fur trade. At first going up to Albany on foot to buy furs, later, sailing up the Hudson on a sloop. He also started, at this time, visits to Canada and in five years, after arriving in New York, he had made enough money to enable him to go into the real estate business. He started by buying two lots in the Bowery, then two more by the docks and gradually accumulating more and more. He was able to pay 812 pounds for one choice lot, which gives one an idea of how rapidly he had amassed money in the first five years–in fact, he was able to put out in all 2,359 pounds 108 shillings.

Thus he had in a very short time changed his situation from baker’s boy and furrier’s clerk and peddler to be a man of substance, a recognized merchant intent in the sale of furs and musical instruments and owner of quite a bit of property and a pretty wife connected with many of the upper class families of New York City.

To us today, his life seems almost like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp. His interests were so wide and varied and he was making money out of them all! The fur trade was, of course, the most exotic and fascinating because it brought him into contact with so many lands and people–starting out with the Northeast and Canada. His interests became so far flung that it was not long before he was selling not only to Western Europe but to Russia; and then on to the Pacific and China. He had his own fleet of ships which, supposedly by 1816, comprised a flotilla of 240 boats containing two traders and from four to six hands. They sailed the Atlantic as well as the Pacific and carried other consignments apart from their own cargo.

One little side adventure which became a lucrative monopoly was the Sandalwood trade. This came about because one of his ships with a particularly trusted captain in command put into port in Hawaii and while there struck a deal with the King, who got Sandalwood from the various island chiefs as a sort of tax. As the wood cost the King nothing, he was willing to buy enormous quantities of expensive goods at a price in Sandalwood which, when reduced to dollars, was extremely high. The Sandalwood was then sold in Canton which offered a ready market, as the wood was used as incense in Josh Houses.

The story of the battles his ships had with pirates, and his fur trappers with Indians, or his rather sly dealings with the British during the War of 1812, his friendships with Aaron Burr and Presidents Madison and Monroe, and, of course, his great literary friendship with Washington Irving, who he commissioned to write “Astoria” (the story of his dream of western conquest, which failed)–all of these men would not have befriended Astor if he had not had some intellectual qualities. He was, of course, the founder of the New York Public Library, to which he left his very considerable collection of fine books and $500,000. There would be no public library in New York today if it was not for John Jacob Astor. His story makes for marvelous reading–particularly as he never learned to write English properly and, I believe, spoke always with a strong accent.

You and I have not the time tonight to study the character and the extraordinary sense of adventure and enterprise and imagination and fortitude that made this man. There is just one more thing that I want to say about him before I start making my own Astor connection. It is that in spite of the fact that one always hears of John Jacob Astor making his money in the fur trade and the busy beaver was his logo–still, the main base of his fortune was Manhattan Island real estate. There were many rich men alive in 1847, when he died, but he was the only colossally rich man. He left twenty million dollars, which in those days was fantastic, particularly when one reads that the men in wealth closest to him were the Goelts and the Alexander Stewarts, who were only worth about two million each.

In a book by Kenneth Higgins Porter, written about John Jacob Astor for the Harvard Business School, he says–and I quote:

“If we are to accept big business and the metropolitan economy as great gains made by modern society then we must allot to Astor a high place in the field of social achievement. In the growth of New York City, first as a commercial, and later as a financial centre, Astor played a part as vital as it was early. It may prove to be a valid judgement that he did more than any other single man in the early days to prepare the way for New York’s hegemony.”

This, then, is the man who made the Astor fortune five generations ago. Now, alas, most of those who bear his name live in England, and he would indeed be proud of them. Two peers of the realm and all of them involved in the activities of their country and all of them extremely well off.

Over here, I, who am not an Astor, am the only one carrying on the tradition of involvement in New York City, through being President of the Vincent Astor Foundation. I am now not only spending the income but some of the principal as well. I am afraid that to John Jacob Astor spending principal would seem like dancing naked in the streets, but each year I am more convinced that as the money was made here it should be spent here. I feel that if the Ford Foundation had confined itself to Detroit it would have made an enormous advantage to the city. When the Renaissance Towers were built, it was, in my mind, too late. It was love among the ruins!


Source: From a transcript sent to Gifts of Speech by Brooke Astor’s secretary, Linda Gillies, of the Vincent Astor Foundation.

Copyright 1981 by the Vincent Astor Foundation. All rights reserved.