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Anderson Cooper on the Rise and Fall of the Astors

His new book ‘Astor’ explores how greed and misery marked a family whose fortune was born in blood

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Harper / John Nowak

Anderson Cooper begins his new book Astor (Sept. 19), cowritten with Katherine Howe, with an anecdote about dining at Mortimer’s in Manhattan as a child with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, where he met Brooke Astor and politely shook her white-gloved hand. Years later, Cooper was working as a waiter at Mortimer’s when he crossed paths with her again. He said, “Hello, Mrs. Astor," and, as he recalls, she glanced at him — or, rather, through him — and walked silently past.

It was a seminal moment, Cooper, 56, says, “that got me thinking about what kind of person did I want to be? What side of the table did I want to be on, if I wanted to be at that table at all?”

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That table, of course, is reserved for the elite — the absurdly rich, the 1 percenters, the inheritors of vast fortunes. He and Howe explored his own family’s place at that rather unpleasant (in Cooper’s view) table in their bestselling 2021 book, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

The pair now turn to the Astors in Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune, offering a fascinating, frank and extremely critical portrayal of a clan prone to both greed and miserliness, in the unhappy grip of a fortune that was created with “very real brutality.”

It all began with John Jacob Astor, the son of a German butcher, who came to America in the 18th century and grew rich in the beaver fur trade, then New York City real estate. Subsequent generations would go on to manage and be defined by that obscene wealth — in part by acting as slumlords — before their empire diminished in a sad soap opera of infighting and scandal. (Brooke Astor’s son Anthony Marshall, you may recall, was convicted of larceny, among other things, in 2009 for looting his mother’s fortune while she was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease.)

We talked to Cooper about the new book, being a Vanderbilt and more.

You write in the book that it was Katherine’s idea to tackle the Astors after you wrapped up Vanderbilt. What was your reaction to the idea?

I just knew I wanted to do another book with her — I loved the experience with Vanderbilt — and I didn't have another idea. Then once I started reading and learning about [the Astors], it became much clearer to me that this made absolute sense. But [as with Vanderbilt], I was less interested in the business side and more interested in the human stories and the pathology of the moneymaking and its ripple effects over the generations.

What was your cowriting process like?

Katherine does most of the initial historical research, then we divide up time periods — which chapters each of us will write separately. And we write on Google Docs, which is the greatest invention in the world because it allows you to constantly see what the other person is doing.

The Astors, according to your book, were not nice people. Is that safe to say?

It was a ruthless fortune. You know, Commodore Vanderbilt [Cornelius Vanderbilt, Cooper’s great-great-great grandfather] was cunning and ruthless in business, but not in the way that John Jacob Astor was. There was a lot of blood behind the Astor fortune — literally beaver blood, but also using alcohol with indigenous populations as part of his business strategy. … [Astor “had a pitiless willingness to supply liquor at hugely inflated prices to addicted Indigenous people,” according to the book.] The effect it had on those populations was devastating. And then the family's lease structure that resulted in the building of all these slums and tenements. … There’s a lot of pain there.

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What do you think readers might find most surprising about the Astors?

You know, we think of these families with money and think, Oh, they could have done anything they wanted to do, like they had endless opportunities. But just about every biography that’s been written about the Astors describes the men in the family as morose. It’s just generations of, it seems, people who have had their dreams kind of crushed early on and are just doing the bidding of this bloody business of getting the rents and making money.

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And it sounds like there was a little bit of rivalry between the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Oh, more than a little bit! Basically, [in the late 19th century] Caroline Astor had created American society, which was New York society, really, with the help of this guy, Ward McAllister, who tutored her in the ways of French cooking and French art. He helped her define an American’s idea of society — [including the idea that those] admitted should be three generations removed from the making of the money. And the Vanderbilts came and challenged that. Alva Vanderbilt famously threw this party that broke the back of Mrs. Astor’s hold over New York society. This party took on such legendary proportions that Caroline Astor — who had a great disdain for the uncouth Vanderbilts — essentially had to bow to Alva so that she and her daughter could go to this party. That allowed the nouveau riche Vanderbilts to dominate New York society from then on.  

You noted Cornelius Vanderbilt’s pathological obsession with making money and, how it “infected successive generations.” Have you consciously tried to avoid that kind of focus?

I grew up with my mom, and she was not somebody who thought about money or talked about money. She was very interested in creating and working and trying to achieve something in her own right, without the baggage of the Vanderbilt name. I chose to view myself as a Cooper, from my dad’s side, who were farmers from Mississippi. That made more sense to me as a practical, wise move. Like, why focus on these Vanderbilts, who don’t exist anymore and in many ways didn’t seem very happy?

You write about how Brooke Astor ignored you when you were waiting tables at Mortimer’s. What was the significance of that to you?

Her looking straight through me was really fascinating to me. I mean, I certainly was aware of people treating me differently when I was with my mom. That’s something I learned very early on and was very wary of, always. But it really did make me think, as I write in the book, about what side of the table did I want to be on? ... And, obviously, my answer was that I didn’t really want to be at the table. I wanted to be somewhere else, doing other things.

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