John Jacob Astor IV was born on July 13, 1864 in New York into one of the wealthiest families in the world.
The Astor family dates back to the early 1700s when the first John Jacob Astor (pictured) came to the Americas from a small village in Germany to make a name for himself. He started making money in the fur trade businesses, but his real fortune began when he entered the real estate world. One of his first big purchases was land in the middle of Manhattan, now Times Square. Soon, Astor purchased land all around Manhattan, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world and creating a dynasty.
When John Jacob Astor IV was born to William Astor and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn in 1864, the Astor name was already highly respected in high society and the family fortune was one of the largest in the world.
As heir to the family fortune, John Jacob Astor IV received an education in the best schools in the United States.
He first attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, then went to Harvard University, but there is no record of his degree. After his studies, Astor went abroad for a few years before returning to New York to take over the family business: real estate.
In 1897, Astor used his fortune to build the Astoria Hotel in New York.
In 1893, William Waldorf Astor built the Waldorf Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. Apparently he built the hotel to spite his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV. In retaliation, Astor built a competing hotel in 1897 on the adjacent corner and named it Astoria Hotel. When the cousins were finally convinced that joining the two hotels would be a smart business move, a 300-foot marble hallway was built between them. The famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel was born.
Over the following decades, the hotel became a symbol of luxury, wealth and class in New York. It was considered one of the best hotels in the country and even in the world.
The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel closed in 1928 and was demolished, making way for the Empire State Building. The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was built higher up in town in 1931, long after Astor’s death.
Astor also built another flagship New York hotel: the St. Regis.
In 1904, Astor opened the St. Regis, which The New York Times called “America’s finest hotel” at the time. Astor aimed to make the hotel technologically advanced, ensuring that every room had a telephone. Some historians call the Astor Hotel “the greatest achievement,” according to Biography.com. The St. Regis is still open today.
While developing some of New York’s finest hotels, Astor still had time for hobbies, like writing.
In 1894, Astor published his first and only science fiction novel, “Journey in Other Worlds”.
“A ‘Journey through the races of Otherworlds well ahead of the 19th century to imagine what life would be like in the year 2000,” reads Amazon’s synopsis. “At the start of the 21st century, Earth is effectively a corporate technocracy, with big corporations using incredible scientific advances to improve life on the planet as a whole. Searching for other habitable planets for the growing human population, the Callisto spacecraft, propelled by an antigravitational force known as apergy, embarks on a memorable tour of the solar system.
Astor was also an accomplished inventor.
In 1898, he patented a bicycle brake, invented a vibratory disintegrator and created a pneumatic sprayer. He also participated in the invention of a turbine engine.
As for his personal life, Astor married Ava Lowle Willing in 1891, but they divorced in 1909.
Ava Lowle Willing and Astor had two children together, Vincent and Alice. Although they seemed like the perfect upper-class family, the marriage was largely unhappy. The couple divorced in 1909, setting Astor up for one of the biggest family scandals.
At 47, Astor met Madeleine Talmage Force, who was 18, and they fell in love.
When Astor and Madeleine Talmage Force married in 1911, it became a scandal – back then divorce was rare and remarriage even more so. Astor and his new wife decided to spend the winter in Europe in the hope that the conversation would die down in their absence.
The controversy over their relationship even made its way onto screens decades later. In the 1997 Oscar-winning film “Titanic”, Rose points out Astor and his pregnant wife to Jack.
“His little wife over there, Madeleine, is my age and in a delicate condition. See how she’s trying to hide it? Quite a scandal,” she said.
When Madeleine became pregnant in 1912, they decided to return to New York, so Astor booked them a room on the Titanic.
At the time, Astor was one of the richest men in the world, and he was certainly the richest aboard the Titanic. It is reported that he had a fortune worth between $90 million and $150 million when he boarded the fateful ship. Today it would be worth between $2.6 billion and $4.5 billion after adjusting for inflation.
After the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, Astor calmly brought his wife, Madeleine, to the penultimate lifeboat.
According to Biography.com, Astor was among the first people to know the ship was sinking. He woke up his sleeping pregnant wife and told her to dress in her warmest clothes. He put all the jewelry on her, took her to the deck and put her in a lifeboat. She clung to her husband and wanted to stay with him, but he reportedly said, “The seas are calm. Everything will be fine. You’re in good hands. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Astor was last seen on the bridge. He wore a tuxedo and held a personalized pocket watch.
Nearly two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, The New York Times reported that Astor’s body had been found by a search party from Halifax, Canada.
Astor’s was among 306 bodies recovered by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett in the weeks following the tragedy. He would have been identified by the initials sewn on his jacket. His pocket also contained a solid gold watch engraved with the initials JJA, according to the New York Times.
Due to a lack of embalming fluid on the Mackay-Bennett, 116 of the recovered bodies were buried at sea, while the rest were returned to Halifax. Many were buried in a city cemetery (pictured), but Astor’s son Vincent traveled to Halifax to claim his father’s body, and he was returned to New York
Astor’s wife, Madeleine, survived the sinking and gave birth to their son, naming him John Jacob. But most of his fortune went to his son from his first marriage, Vincent.
Had Astor arrived in the United States, it is reported that he would have made his and Madeleine’s unborn child the heir to his fortune. But most of his money went to his first son, Vincent (pictured), from his first marriage. John Jacob Astor VI received only a small portion of his father’s fortune, but Vincent continued to donate a large sum of money from his father and became a philanthropist in New York.