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Nancy Astor would have been 145 on 19 May

Blog | By Mark McGinness | May 15, 2024


Nancy Astor would have been 145 on 19 May.

One of the best ways of understanding her is to revisit her great-nephew James Fox’s brilliant collective biography of Nancy and her family, The Langhorne Sisters (1998). He could as easily have used the title of his previous book, White Mischief. Philip Hoare put it cleverly: "Combine the plots of Gone With the Wind and The Remains of the Day, add a dash of Henry James and F Scott Fitzgerald, and you come close to the remarkable mix of family history, political intrigue and high society hauteur that is James Fox's".

A cliche about Nancy Astor was that she was "one of the Langhornes of Virginia". In fact, when she was born her father (“Shilly Langan”) was recovering from penury after the Civil War, acting as travelling salesman, auctioneer, and anything else his ready tongue could be turned to for earning a living. His prosperity came when Nancy was of an age to remember their patched-trouser poverty.

Chillie soon made a fortune from railway construction. He then bought Mirador, a colonnaded colonial red-brick mansion at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Tempestuous, unpretentious and hospitable, Chillie could easily have been the model for Scarlett O'Hara's father; his wife, Nanaire, played the plantation matriarch to perfection. Of eleven children, they had five surviving daughters, Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis, and Nora - and three surviving sons, Elisha, Harry and Buck. With their black servants, Mrs Virgil Homer Brown, Fountain Winston and Aunt Liza Pie, whom they all loved, the picture was complete.

As James Fox puts it, "the combination of their prosperity, Chillie's personality and the fame of Irene's beauty fitted uniquely, if fantastically, into the Northerners' myth of the Old South". Irene was the first to be famous and her father's favourite: tall, full-bosomed, wasp-waisted, with an upturned nose and a dimpled chin, she was the North and the South's ideal of a southern belle. For Irene “the Mason-Dixon line parted like the Red Sea.” She quietly boasted 63proposals before marrying, happily and forever, the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, famous for creating the Gibson Girl, an icon of American beauty. Irene became so like this image that it is difficult to believe she had not inspired it.

Lizzie, the eldest of the sisters, thought the pageantry surrounding Irene was vulgar, perhaps because she had married a good-natured, big-drinking Virginian wastrel, Moncure Perkins, before the family found fame or fortune. She was to remain in Richmond, resented by her sisters for her severity and resentful of their flight and fame. Interestingly, the star of the next generation would be Lizzie’s daughter, another Nancy, and a proud Virginian, who as Nancy Tree, later Lancaster, became one of the most celebrated post-war English country house chatelaines and decorators.

Another big spender and beneficiary of Nancy's was the youngest of the sisters, Nora. Dreamy, childlike, and lovely to look at, she well-and-truly embraced the Langhorne rule "Never let a beau off the hook". “Never to meet a bill she could pay or a man she couldn't love”, she admitted to having a heart like a hotel (a beau added "and every room was full").

Unlike Irene, she always said yes, becoming engaged even while she was married. When her husband, Paul Phipps, returned to England to enlist, she left her two children and ran off with a Yale alumnus and legendary athlete, "Lefty" Flynn. She joined Phipps in England but made his life hell with her profligate spending. According to her brother-in-law, her plundering of the joint account was so reckless that it was like living with a burglar. She eventually divorced Phipps, married Lefty in America, then divorced him, befriended Scott Fitzgerald and, for a short time, took up with a man in his 20s. Somehow Nora produced the other star of the next generation, the actress and comedienne, Joyce Grenfell.

Nancy and later Phyllis, both more like the original Gibson Girl in character than Irene, married very rich Yankees but, like Lizzie, they chose alcoholic idlers who proved to be equally unsatisfactory husbands. Their divorces and escape to England were to have a lasting and disastrous effect on their sons from those first marriages. With their light and resonant Virginian accents - more a chime than a drawl - and their fearless and stylish horsemanship, they had the hunting aristocracy at their feet. Nancy's blazing blue eyes and her ferocious wit and Phyllis's beguiling, melancholy beauty soon had many others on their knees.

Phyllis took some time to extract herself from her own first husband but in 1917 she married Bob Brand, Oxford scholar, economic expert, and intellectual, known since he was a young imperial civil servant as "The Wisest Man in the Empire." He was James Fox’s grandfather.

In 1906, Nancy married Waldorf Astor, a naturalised Englishman and the fourth richest man in the world. Extraordinarily, they were born on the same day.

In 1893, Waldorf’s austere, reclusive widowed father, William Waldorf, had bought Cliveden, aPalladian/Cinquecento palace on a bluff above Maidenhead with unrivalled views of the Thames. Queen Victoria had enjoyed visiting previous owners, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, and was “grieved to think of it falling into these hands”. In 1906 William Waldorf went to live at Hever Castle in Kent (where he furnished one bedroom - his own - so he could receive no guests) and gave Cliveden to Waldorf and Nancy Shaw as a wedding present. With Waldorf came a 55-carat diamond; with Cliveden a staff of over 100.

She appreciated her father-in-law's largess: ''He has given Waldorf the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for a birthday present! It sounds like a joke, but it's a jolly good one -- about £40,000 more a year. Did you ever hear such a thing in yr. life!'' She said of her own wealth, ''I didn't marry an Astor to spend my own money''. And yet she could be impulsively generous. One day just before World War One she came across a “lady tramp” in the Buckinghamshire countryside and despite the woman’s protestations, took her home to Cliveden, where she was happily ensconced in a cottage for the rest of her life.

William Waldorf accepted a hereditary barony in 1916, which was elevated to a Viscountcy in 1917. (Kipling suggested the title Lord Dis Astor). On William Waldorf’s death in 1919, Waldorf, as his heir, was obliged to assume >span class="s9"> viscountcy and leave the House of Commons, to which he had been elected in 1910 and loved.

Nancy was encouraged to take his place as the Member for Plymouth Sutton. She was meant to be a stop-gap while Waldorf continued his (fruitless) fight to disclaim his unwanted title. Having campaigned for Waldorf for a decade she proved formidable; but she needed little practice. She loved hecklers and always had an answer. “Would I like to live on £2 a week? No, but would you work as hard as me if you had what I had?”

In 1919 she won handsomely, making history as the first woman to take her seat in the British parliament (Constance Markiewicz was the first elected, in December 1918, but as a member of Sinn Fein, she would not take the Oath and could not the take her seat)

Here, in the face of male hostility, her wit was her weapon. Intelligent, intuitive if badly informed and with no respect for procedure, she became the most famous Anglo-American of her time. As Miranda Seymour observed, “Lady Astor was never a match for the admirable Duchess of Atholl, who joined her in 1923, but Nancy had paved the way. Short of Margaret Thatcher, it is hard to imagine another woman who could have held her own with such certainty.”

Within a few months, her most recent biographer, Adrian Fort (Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor, 2013) writes, “she had fallen into the habit of maintaining a more or less audible running commentary when others were on their feet: a newspaper report of a typical day soon after she had taken her seat told of her interrupting 15 speeches, and breaking off in the middle of her own to shout comments at other members.” When one MP mused to the chamber "When I was walking in my garden, this is the question I asked myself..." Nancy chimed in, "And I bet you got a silly answer." As time went on, she became still more confident, frequently shouting, “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!”

Her great nephew James summed her up well in observing, “Nancy was gifted with the attributes of an anarchic, radical comedian: lack of caution, deadly mimicry, comic timing, an uncanny intuition for hitting the weak nerve, for "divining your inmost thought," as Bob Brand wrote of her. She was gifted, too, with a rare social fearlessness unknown in Edwardian England.” He added, “She could be prejudiced, bullying, deliberately tactless; she could act, as one of her relations described it, with the instincts of a gangster.”

One guiding star was her Faith as a Christian Scientist, which she had embraced with her close friend, Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian). Waldorf would also later convert. In 1923, Nancy bemused the Queen Mother with a copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s textbook of Christian Science as a wedding present. In 1931, she even tried to convert Stalin.

Good, constant, modest and public-spirited, Waldorfendured his wife’s gaffes and rudeness. Told by one Cliveden dinner guest that he was keeping very quiet, Waldorf responded, “Wouldn’t you?” He said in 1944, “When I married Nancy I hitched my wagon to a star … In 1919 when she got into the House I found I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V2 rocket.”

Where his father collected art, Waldorf collected people. The drawing room at their townhouse in St James’s Square was always full. As was Rest Harrow, at Sandwich, their summer ‘cottage’ (with fourteen bedrooms). To weekends at Cliveden came Henry James, Kipling, Curzon, and Churchill (although from the sound of the legendary, stinging, still-quoted exchanges he and Nancy parried, one is amazed that Winston was ever invited - or that he accepted).

Nancy too had a passion for meeting people, and it was this cheek and directness that enabled her to connect instantly with people she wanted to get on terms with those she called her "betters”. She had long and loyal friendships with Arthur Balfour, the last of the great aristocratic prime ministers; with the Irish communist, Sean O'Casey, with whom she corresponded for four decades; with T. E. Lawrence; and with George Bernard Shaw, who “agreed to have his beard trimmed and washed by Nancy's hairdresser, but did not cut his political opinions to suit hers.'' Shaw described a stay with Nancy as like Sunday with a volcano and “Cliveden as one of his plays come to life”. Her table talk is described as "the prototype of Dame Edna Everage's audience strikes".

Reviewing an earlier biographer by Christopher Sykes (Nancy, 1972) for The Times, William Haley pointed out, while Nancy was a redoubtable political hostess she was not as influential as Lady Londonderry. Nor was she the mistress of a salon, like Lady Cunard or Lady Colefax.

A passionate believer in temperance, borne of a puritan streak, she managed to raise the age at which alcohol could be bought (from 14 to 18), yet she served the best brandies and wine to her guests. O”

A lasting blight on Waldorf and Nancy - and Cliveden was the so-called Cliveden Set, a cabal whipped up by the journalist, and Communist, Claud Cockburn: Bob Brand, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, and the aristocratic politicians, Lord Lothian, Lord Halifax and the Duke of Manchester - were determined to avoid the bloodbath of the Great War and were early and ardent advocates of appeasement. Joachim von Ribbentrop, did little for their reputations. He dubbed themAstorgruppe. But Nancy remained Nancy and when von Rippentrop once gave the Nazi salute, she shouted back “Now that’s enough of that nonsense”.

Norman Rose's elegant and incisive account (The Cliveden Set, 2001) shows how inaccurate it has always been to depict them as Nazi sympathisers, for all the erratic Nancy’s tendency to make rude remarks about Jews. She was much ruder about Roman Catholics; and the French.Of course, once war was inevitable and declared, she swung into action - turning Cliveden into a hospital and raising morale in Plymouth.

With a special interest in poverty and children’s welfare, especially nurseries, her neglect of and distance from her own children was almost criminally culpable. When someone protested that she should be looking after her own children she said: “Well, I want to help you look after yours.”

By the 1940s, she began to lose her edge. The diplomat, MP and diarist, Harold Nicolson, complained that talking to her was like playing squash with scrambled eggs Before she lost her seat the family, in June 1945, forced her to retire. She never forgave them; but mercifully she reconciled with Waldorf before he died in September 1952.

She lived to see her eldest son and Waldorf’s heir, Bill, the 3rd

Viscount, embroiled in the Profumo Affair, which involved John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet Naval Attaché, both of whom were sleeping with a model, Christine Keeler. Bill was accused of sleeping with another member of the party, the unsinkable Mandy Rice-Davies. They had all met by and in the pool at Cliveden. Nancy, who sometimes had an unerring sixth sense, had always said “I never trust people in pools.”

Her last years were sad ones. Apart from Phyllis, the person she was fondest of was her eldest, non-Astor, son, Bobbie Shaw. In 1964 he attempted suicide and Nancy was taken to his bedside. Although she was told he had had a stroke, the sight of Bobbie lying unconscious, attached to wires and tubes, was too much. The following weekend Nancy suffered a stroke, and died a few weeks later – on 2 May 1964. She was 84.

She was a one-off wonder.