and Katherine Howe
Anderson Cooper had a close shave. Spurning the conventional aspirations of his birth class—a life of rentier leisure, if possible; of Wall Street money hustling if not—he pursued a career in broadcast journalism. Had he followed the old WASP ways of stocks and bonds and the Social Register, he might even now be one more aging preppy reliving his golden days in New Haven over martinis at the Racquet Club bar.
Fortunately, Anderson smelled a rat. It took the form of Brooke Astor. In the early 80s, the last WASP duchess had not yet been reduced to the dyed, painted, and overly jeweled figure of a cruel dotage. Even so, what Cooper saw of Brooke in her dowager’s prime was enough to make him think twice “about what kind of person I wanted to be”—and didn’t want to be.
It happened in two installments at Mortimer’s. The teenage Cooper was lunching there in 1981 with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and his older brother Carter when Mrs. Astor “swept” into the room in fur and pearls. She was gracious in her phony way. “Hello, Gloria. Nice to see you. What handsome young men you have here … ”
What Anderson Cooper saw of Brooke Astor in her dowager’s prime was enough to make him think twice “about what kind of person I wanted to be”—and didn’t want to be.
The punch line came later, when Cooper was waiting tables at Mortimer’s for a summer job—a preppy prince in the guise of a waiter. “Hello, Mrs. Astor … “
She “gazed right through me,” Cooper writes. “She may have slightly, almost imperceptibly turned up one corner of her mouth as though to smile when she heard her name,” before she realized “there was no need to smile.”
It was only a waiter.
Evidently something was rotten in WASP-dom, the patrician “world in which Brooke Astor lived, ruled, and reveled,” and after taking his degree at Yale, Cooper got as far from the Upper East Side as he very well could. Seeking his fortune east of Suez, he worked as a journalist in Myanmar and Vietnam and later reported on genocide in Rwanda. In 2001 he joined CNN.
But he did not entirely exorcise the demon, for more recently he has returned to the preppy mortuary and its absorbing morbidities. Going through his mother’s papers after her death, in 2019, he became engrossed in the pathologies of her (and his) Vanderbilt forebears. Together with Katherine Howe, the historian and novelist, he brought out the 2021 best-seller Vanderbilt, a macabre tale of the “greatest American fortune ever squandered.”
In Astor, Cooper and Howe continue their chronicle of upper-crust degeneracy. The Astors are every bit as morbid as the Vanderbilts and a shade more sadistic. Cooper and Howe trace the “very real brutality” of the dynasty to its founder, John Jacob Astor, a clever, boorish émigré from Walldorf in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He arrived in New York in 1784 avid for money in pelts—beaver mostly—and grew rich on a business model that left a trail of ruin, throwing trappers into debt and promoting drunkenness in Indigenous communities. The beavers got hurt, too.
Evidently something was rotten in WASP-dom, the patrician “world in which Brooke Astor lived, ruled, and reveled.”
J.J. used the profits to buy as much of Manhattan as he could, but his immense fortune, Cooper and Howe write, had a “warping influence” on his soul. The subsequent history of the family is grim. William Backhouse Astor II is “shiftless, a drifter and wastrel.” William’s wife, Caroline, is a nitwit. To get away from her, William lets her throw the parties that give the Gilded Age a bad name.
A touchy, cruelly insecure pride (for in a commercial democracy, pre-eminence is brief as a woman’s love) animates a succession of Astor nonentities. William and Caroline’s son John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV, had he not met a tragic end on the Titanic, would be remembered today only as the jackass millionaire who, when everyone else counseled mercy, “insisted on charging a destitute tramp with felony burglary for falling asleep” in one of the Astor houses.
Jack’s cousin, William Waldorf “Will” Astor, ran for Congress on a slumlord ticket, holding his nose with one gloved hand as he pressed the flesh with another. After his defeat, Will prudently expatriated himself to England, where his daughter-in-law, Nancy Astor, successfully stood for a seat in the House of Commons. Nancy was not the crypto-fascist she has been made out to be, but Ribbentrop, her guest at Cliveden (rhymes with “lived-in”), sought her as a character witness at Nuremberg. Nancy declined.
In 2001, Cooper joined CNN. But he did not entirely exorcise the demon, for more recently he has returned to the preppy mortuary and its absorbing morbidities.
For a good preppy such as Cooper, heredity is not destiny—it is therapy. He can always console himself that he didn’t end up like Brooke. When she came into Mortimer’s on that day in 1981, moneyed in fur, Cooper “could tell right away” that his “mom didn’t like” her. Brooke was vulgar.
It was true. Brooke’s great chance in life came when Vincent Astor, in search of a third wife, found that none of the obvious candidates would have him, for the obvious reason that he was, Louis Auchincloss said, “a very disagreeable man.” He tried to persuade Janet Newbold Bush (George H. W. Bush’s aunt) to take him on, but she turned him down flat. “I don’t even like you,” she is supposed to have said. He pointed out that he was old and likely to die soon. “But what if you don’t?”
It was not simply that Gloria Vanderbilt despised all that Brooke Astor lived for—“gala benefits,” “gossip with other ladies and gentlemen who lunched,” “canasta.” Gloria, Cooper writes, was “an artist, a painter and writer” who “preferred to surround herself with creative people”—a blithe spirit who externalized the dream life in charming ways and balked at the moronism of the old WASP aristocracy.
For a good preppy like Cooper, heredity is not destiny—it is therapy.
In another age, Gloria might have composed letters like those of Madame de Sévigné or formed part of the poetic circle that gathered about Sappho. As it was, in a leaner time, she gave the world a new style of blue jeans. She used her maiden name, Vanderbilt, Cooper assures us, “only in professional settings,” for legitimate aesthetic and commercial purposes.
Gloria resembled another Astor rebel, Elizabeth “Bessie” Chanler. The great-granddaughter of William Backhouse Astor I, Bessie married, against much advice, the WASP misfit John Jay Chapman, an oddball genius who spent his life, Edmund Wilson wrote, “beating his head against the gilt of the Gilded Age.” Mad Jack found it a trial to be “socially agreeable” to his fellow New York gentry, and when Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth appeared, he was elated—“so glad,” he said, “to have this social set torn to pieces.”
Such rebellions against WASP caste pride were essentially therapeutic. Henry Adams found a path to sanity by showing that his ancestors established the United States on too shallow a psychological foundation—were architects of institutions that overstimulated one or two of the citizens’ appetites while the rest lay fallow. Making his way through an America rife with the “air and movement of hysteria,” he found the inhabitants in a perpetual state of nervous crisis and consoled himself with the thought that his own antecedents were to blame.
Even so Cooper: his and Howe’s critique of the old ruling class in Astor is in the line of Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign against WASP-dom’s “economic royalists.” In disposing of his own class demons so mercilessly, Cooper becomes much the most interesting character in his book, though he does not connect his defection with those of other WASPs in search of therapeutic absolution.
The most overlooked of these preppy apostates may be the Astor-Roosevelt hybrid James “Taddy” Roosevelt, the son of Franklin Roosevelt’s half-brother James “Rosy” Roosevelt and his wife, Helen Schermerhorn Astor, daughter of the arch-snob Caroline. Franklin was three years younger than his nephew Taddy, and as “Uncle Frank” was much mocked when the two boys were at school together. Uncle Frank spent the rest of his life (successfully) avenging the insult.
Yet the holy fool Taddy may have been the most inspired of the lot. Worth millions, he moved to Queens, where he worked as a car mechanic and lived over the garage.
Michael Knox Beran is the author of several books, including The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and, most recently, WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy