John Jacob Astor IV

John Jacob Astor IV

Astor in 1895
Born July 13, 1864
Rhinebeck, New York, U.S.
Died April 15, 1912 (aged 47)
RMS Titanic, North Atlantic Ocean
Resting place Trinity Church Cemetery, New York City, New York, U.S.
Education St Paul's School
Alma mater Harvard University
Net worth Increase US $87 million (equivalent to $2.14 billion in 2015)[1]
Political party Republican
Religion Episcopalian
Spouse(s) Ava Lowle Willing
(m. 1891–1910; divorced)
Madeleine Talmage Force
(m. 1911–1912; his death)
Children William Vincent Astor
Ava Alice Muriel Astor
John Jacob Astor VI
Parent(s) William Backhouse Astor, Jr.
Caroline Webster Schermerhorn
Relatives See Astor family

John Jacob "Jack" Astor IV (July 13, 1864 – April 15, 1912) was an American businessman, real estate builder, investor, inventor, writer, lieutenant colonel in the Spanish–American War, and a prominent member of the Astor family.

Astor died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic during the early hours of April 15, 1912. He was among the 1,514 people on board who did not survive.[2] He was the richest passenger aboard the Titanic and was thought to be among the richest people in the world at that time, with a net worth of nearly $87 million when he died (equivalent to $2.14 billion in 2015)[1] [3]

Early life, education, and family

John Jacob Astor IV was born on July 13, 1864 at his parents' country estate Ferncliff in Rhinebeck, New York. He was the youngest of five children and only son of businessman, collector, and race horse breeder/owner William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (1829–1892) and socialite Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn (1830–1908). His four elder sisters were Emily (1854–1881), Helen (1855–1893), Charlotte (1858–1920), and Caroline ("Carrie") (1861–1948). He was a great-grandson of fur-trader John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) and Sarah Cox Todd (1761–1834), whose fortune made the Astor family one of the wealthiest in the United States. John's paternal grandfather William Backhouse Astor, Sr. (1792–1875) was a prominent real estate businessman. Through his paternal grandmother Margaret Alida Rebecca Armstrong (1800–1872), John was also a great-grandson of Senator John Armstrong, Jr. (1758–1843) and Alida Livingston (1761–1822) of the Livingston family. Lina's parents were Rochester mayor Abraham Maus Schermerhorn and socialite Helen Van Courtlandt White. Astor attended St Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire and later attended Harvard University.[4] John was also a nephew of financer/philanthropist John Jacob Astor III (1822–1890) and grandnephew of occasional poet John Jacob Astor, Jr. (1791–1869). His sister Helen's husband was diplomat James Roosevelt "Rosey" Roosevelt (1854–1927), half-brother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) of the Roosevelt family. Another sister, Carrie, a noted philanthropist, was the wife of Marshall Orme Wilson (1860–1926), brother of banker Richard Thornton Wilson, Jr. (1866–1929) and socialite Grace Graham Wilson (1870–1953). John was also a first cousin of William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor (1848–1919).

He went by the name "Jack". His ungainly appearance and the perception that he was an aimless dilettante led one newspaper to give him the name "Jack Ass-tor".[5][6]


John Jacob Astor IV in 1909.
John Jacob Astor as Henry IV of France

On February 17, 1891,[7] Astor married socialite Ava Lowle Willing (1868–1958), a daughter of Edward Shippen Willing and Alice Barton. The couple had two children:

John and Ava divorced in November 1909. Compounding the scandal of their divorce was Astor's announcement that he would remarry.[4] At the age of 47, John married 18-year-old socialite Madeleine Talmage Force (1893–1940), the sister of real estate businesswoman and socialite Katherine Emmons Force (1891–1956). Katherine and Madeleine's parents were William Hurlbut Force and Katherine Arvilla Talmage. John and Madeleine were married in his mother's ballroom at Beechwood, the family's Newport, Rhode Island, mansion. There was also much controversy over their 29-year age difference.[8] His son Vincent despised Madeleine,[9] yet he served as best man at John and Madeleine's wedding.[10] The couple took an extended honeymoon in Europe and Egypt to wait for the gossip to calm down. Among the few Americans who did not spurn him at this time was Margaret Brown, later fictionalized as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She accompanied the Astors to Egypt and France and, by coincidence, was called home to the U.S. at the same time the Astors also found it necessary to abbreviate their touring.[4]


Among Astor's accomplishments was A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), a science fiction novel about life in the year 2000 on the planets Saturn and Jupiter.[11] He also patented several inventions, including a bicycle brake in 1898, a "vibratory disintegrator" used to produce gas from peat moss, and a pneumatic road-improver, and he helped develop a turbine engine. Astor made millions in real estate. In 1897, Astor built the Astoria Hotel, "the world's most luxurious hotel",[12] in New York City, adjoining the Waldorf Hotel owned by Astor's cousin and rival, William. The complex became known as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, coincidentally becoming the host location to the U.S. inquiries into the sinking of the RMS Titanic, on which Colonel Astor died.[4]

Military service

From 1894 to 1896, he was a colonel on the military staff of New York Governor Levi P. Morton.[13] Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in 1898, Astor personally financed a volunteer artillery unit known as the "Astor Battery", which saw service in the Philippines. In May 1898, Astor was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Volunteers and served as an officer on the staff of Major General William Shafter in Cuba, during the Santiago Campaign. He was later given a brevet (honorary promotion) to colonel in recognition of his services. He was mustered out of the Volunteer Army in November 1898.[14]

During the war, he allowed his yacht, the Nourmahal, to be used by the U.S. government. He appeared in the films President McKinley's Inspection of Camp Wikoff (1898) and Col. John Jacob Astor, Staff and Veterans of the Spanish–American War (1899).[4] As a result of his military service, Astor was entitled to the Spanish Campaign Medal. After the war, Astor was often referred to as "Colonel Astor".

Astor and his second wife Madeleine Talmage Force.

Astor was a member of several military and hereditary societies. He was an early member of the New York Society of Colonial Wars and was assigned membership number 138. He was also a member of the Military Order of Foreign Wars, Society of the Army of Santiago de Cuba, and the Society of the American Wars of the United States.


Le Court de Tennis intérieur.

Astor's estate "Ferncliff", north of the town center of Rhinebeck, New York, with a mile and a half of Hudson River frontage in the picturesque Lower Hudson River Valley, had been purchased piecemeal by his father in the mid-19th century; Astor was born there.[15] His father's Italianate house of 1864 was partly rebuilt in 1904 to designs by Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White, retaining its conservative exterior, and a sports pavilion in Louis XVI style was added.[16] The "Casino" or "Astor Courts" reportedly housed the first residential indoor swimming pool in the U.S., an indoor tennis court with vaulting of Guastavino tile, and guest bedrooms; in the lower level were a bowling alley and a shooting range.[17] The estate, reduced to 50 acres (200,000 m2) and renamed "Astor Courts", eventually became a wedding venue. Chelsea Clinton was wed there on July 31, 2010.


While traveling, Madeleine became pregnant, and wanting the child born in the U.S., the Astors boarded the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York. They embarked in Cherbourg, France, in first class and were the wealthiest passengers aboard. Accompanying the Astors were Astor's valet, Victor Robbins; Madeleine's maid, Rosalie Bidois; and her nurse, Caroline Louise Endres. They also took their pet Airedale, Kitty. The Astors were deeply fond of their dog and had come close to losing her on a previous trip when she went missing in Egypt. Kitty did not survive the sinking.[18][19] A short while after the Titanic hit the iceberg that caused her to sink, Astor informed his wife of the collision but told her the damage did not appear to be serious. Some time later, as the ship's lifeboats for first class were being manned, Colonel Astor remained unperturbed; he and his family played with the mechanical horses in the gymnasium. At some point Astor is thought to have sliced the lining of an extra lifebelt with a pen knife to show his wife its contents, either to prove they were not of use or to reassure her that they were.

When Second Officer Charles Lightoller later arrived on A Deck to finish loading Lifeboat 4, Astor helped his wife, with her maid and nurse, into it. He then asked if he might join his wife because she was in "a delicate condition"; however, Lightoller told him men were not to be allowed to board until all the women and children had been loaded. According to Titanic passenger Archibald Gracie IV, "She was lifted up through the window, and her husband helped her on the other side, and when she got in, her husband was on one side of this window and I was on the other side, at the next window. I heard Mr Astor ask the second officer whether he would not be allowed to go aboard this boat to protect his wife. He said, "No, sir, no man is allowed on this boat or any of the boats until the ladies are off." Mr Astor then said, "Well, tell me what is the number of this boat so I may find her afterwards," or words to that effect. The answer came back, "Number 4."[20] According to child survivor Betty, as quoted on Children on the Titanic (2014) that Astor was boarding the final lifeboat with his pregnant wife when he saw two children on deck scared and stepped aside giving his place to them. A conflicting news article posted in the Chicago Record Herald tells of Astor placing his wife into the final lifeboat then ordering Ida Sophia Hippach and her 17-year-old daughter Jean Gertrude to take the final two places before the boat set sail.[21]

After Lifeboat 4 was lowered at 1:55 am, Astor is said to have stood alone while others tried to free the remaining collapsible boats;[4] he was last seen alive on the starboard bridge wing, smoking a cigarette with Jacques Futrelle. A mere half hour later, the ship disappeared beneath the ocean. Madeleine, her nurse, and her maid survived. Colonel Astor, his valet, Victor Robbins, and Futrelle did not.

In the aftermath, ships were sent out to retrieve the bodies from the site of the sinking; of the 1,517 passengers and crew who perished in the sinking, only 333 bodies were ever recovered. Colonel Astor's body was recovered on April 22 by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett.[4] Astor was identified by the initials sewn on the label of his jacket. Among the items found on him was a gold pocket watch which his son Vincent claimed and wore the rest of his life.[22]

CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with "A.V."; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; "J.J.A." on back of collar.
EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.

Astor was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City. Four months after the Titanic sank, Madeleine Astor gave birth to his second son, socialite John Jacob "Jakey" Astor VI (1912–1992).[4][23]

Many researchers had expressed the belief that Astor was crushed to death by one of the ship's falling funnels,[24] this opinion being based on the claim that his body was recovered in a mangled state and covered in black soot, but all who examined his body maintained that it was in perfect condition with no bruising.[4][25] Survivor Philip Mock claimed to have seen Astor in the water clinging to a raft with William Thomas Stead. "Their feet became frozen," said Mock, "and they were forced to release their hold. Both were drowned."[26]


Astor left $69 million of his $85-million estate (equivalent to approximately $1,694,782,759 in 2016 dollars)[1] to Vincent.[27] This value included his estate in Rhinebeck and his yacht, the Noma. To Madeleine, he left $100,000 as an outright bequest as well as a $5-million trust fund from which she was provided an income. Additionally she was given the use of his New York City mansion at 65th Street & Fifth Avenue and all its furnishings, his Newport mansion Beechwood and all its furnishings, pick of whichever luxury limousine she wanted from his collection, and five of his prized horses—as long as she did not remarry. His daughter Ava (who lived with her mother, also named Ava) received a $10-million trust fund. Upon turning 21, Jakey inherited the $3 million trust fund Colonel Astor had set aside for him.[28]


Astor's prominence led to the creation of many exaggerated and unsubstantiated accounts about his actions during the sinking of the Titanic. One story alleges that he opened the ship's kennel and released the dogs; in another, he placed a woman's hat on a boy to make sure the child was able to get into a lifeboat. Another legend claims that after the ship hit the iceberg, he quipped, "I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous." These stories appeared in newspapers, magazines, and even books about the sinking. In reality, none of the claims about Astor's actions were substantiated, as nobody who recognized him survived other than the women who boarded lifeboats relatively early on.[29] Wade wrote that the ice joke is almost certainly apocryphal, as Astor was not known for making jokes, and that the story about the hat (like many other "survivor stories" published shortly after the sinking) may have been invented by the reporter.[29]


Astor's fame has made him a frequent character in films about the Titanic. German actor Karl Schönböck played Astor in the 1943 Nazi propaganda film Titanic. William Johnstone played Astor in the 1953 film Titanic, and in the 1997 version of Titanic he was played by Eric Braeden. In the 1996 miniseries, he was played by Scott Hylands. Astor was also portrayed by David Janssen in the 1979 film S.O.S. Titanic. Perennially, in the town of Astoria, Oregon (so named for Astor's patrilineal great-grandfather), he is portrayed by a local amateur actor in street corner vignettes. He was played by Miles Richardson in the 2012 Titanic miniseries. In April 2012, Colonel Astor was portrayed by his great-grandson Gregory Todd Astor in "Titanic the Musical".[30]


  1. 1 2 3 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved October 21, 2016.
  2. "Noted Men On The Lost Titanic. Col. Jacob Astor, with His Wife. Isidor Straus and Wife, and Benj. Guggenheim Aboard.". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. April 16, 1912. Retrieved 2013-12-10. Following are sketches of a few of the well-known persons among the 1,300 passengers on the lost Titanic. The fate of most of them at this time is, of course, not known. Col. John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Astor, Isidor Straus and Mrs. Straus, J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line: Benjamin Guggenheim, and Frank D. Millet, the artist, are perhaps the most widely known of the passengers.....
  3. "Col. John Jacob Astor left estate worth $86,966,611". Spartanburg Herald. South Carolina. Associated Press. June 14, 1913. p. 1.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "John Jacob Astor IV". Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 2010-10-27. Colonel John Jacob Astor IV was born in Rhinebeck, New York on July 13th, 1864 the son of William Astor and great-grandson of John Jacob Astor the fur trader. Astor was educated at St. Paul's School, Concord and later went to Harvard. After a period of travelling abroad (1888–91) he returned to the United States to manage the family fortune. He had homes at 840 Fifth Avenue, New York and at Ferncliff, Rhinebeck, New York.....
  5. "An Age of Splendor, and Hotel One-Upmanship". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. June 18, 2006. His younger cousin, known as Jack, enrolled in Harvard, left without a degree, traveled and joined 'about two dozen clubs.' He tinkered with inventions, married unwisely and, inspired by Jules Verne, wrote a work of science fiction. Often ridiculed in the press, he bore the sobriquet 'Jack Ass.'
  6. William Alan Morrison, Waldorf Astoria, Arcadia Publishing - 2014, page 29
  7. "Colonel John Jacob Astor IV". Titanic History Website.
  8. "Titanic Survivor Stories - Madeleine Talmage Force Astor". Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  9. "Part II: Vincent, the Astor Who Gave Away the Money". NewYorkSocialDaily. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  10. "COL. ASTOR WEDS MADELEINE FORCE :: New York Times". encyclopedia titanica. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  11. Foster, John Wilson (2002). The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents in Anglo-American Culture.
  12. Turkel, Stanley (4 April 2007). "The Original Waldorf/Astoria Hotel".
  13.  Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Astor, John Jacob. An American capitalist, inventor, and soldier". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  14. The New York Times (April 16, 1912).
  15. Automobile Club of America (November 12, 1910). "Little Journeys to the Homes of Members: Ferncliff". The Club Journal (2). p. 1002ff.
  16. Goldberger, Paul (1985). A Monograph of the works of McKim, Mead & White, 1879–1915.
  17. "About". Retrieved September 10, 2011.
  18. "Fate of the pets who sailed on the Titanic". October 2, 2010. Retrieved September 10, 2011.
  19. "John Jacob Astor IV". Retrieved February 16, 2012.
  20. "Online reference". United States Senate Inquiry into the Titanic.
  21. "Chicagoans saved by Astor - Chicago Record Herald". Encyclopedia Titanica. 22 April 1912. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  22. Belcher, David (28 November 2013). "Tracing a Precious Relic of the Titanic". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  23. "Son for Mrs. Astor. Named for Father. Both Mother and Baby Said to be Very Well, the Child Strong and Well Formed.". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. August 15, 1912. Retrieved June 22, 2008. Baby is the Sixth John Jacob Astor. Mrs. Madeleine Force Astor, survivor of the Titanic.....
  24. National Geographic, December 1985, Vol. 168, No.6 page 712
  25. "The Two Deaths of John Jacob Astor -George Behe's "Titanic" Tidbits".
  26. "Stead and Astor cling to Raft". Worcester Telegram. April 20, 1912.
  27. "Astor Bequests Have All Been Paid". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  28. "Astor Estate Goes To Son". The Evening News. 7 May 1912.
  29. 1 2 Wade, Wyn Craig (1979, 1986 (revised)). Titanic: End of a Dream. New York City: Penguin Books. pp. 70–73. ISBN 978-0140166910. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  30. Hallenbeck, Brent (March 20, 2012). "Born to Play the Role". The Burlington Free Press.
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