Class and Leisureat America's First ResortNewport, Rhode Island1870-1914

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor

Caroline Schermerhorn AstorCaroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908), also known as "The Mrs. Astor," was the matron of New York and Newport society.

Mrs. Astor was born Caroline Webster Schermerhorn in New York City. Mrs. Astor was from a wealthy merchant family whose ancestors were among New York's first Dutch settlers. Mrs. Astor married William Backhouse Astor Jr. in 1853.

With her advisor, Samuel Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor created "the Four Hundred," a social list comprised of a carefully selected group of upper-class families. An invitation to one of Mrs. Astor's events solidified one's status as a member of upper-class society.

Mrs. Astor shunned anyone who was not a member of the Four Hundred. But she did make one exception. In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt organized a masquerade ball in New York during the winter season but did not invite the Astors' daughter Caroline. Mrs. Astor acquiesced and called on the Vanderbilts in return for an invitation to the Vanderbilt ball. In so doing, Mrs. Astor allowed the newly monied Vanderbilts into the upper echelon of society.

The Astors purchased Beechwood in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1881. They hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to oversee a $2 million renovation project.

Beechwood became the center of Newport social life during the Astors' eight-week summer season. Mrs. Astor held an annual summer ball as well as exclusive dinner parties to which only certain guests were invited. Guests were attended by servants in blue livery.

The Astors had five children. Their only son, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912.

Mrs. Astor led New York and Newport society until the turn of the twentieth century. She spent her remaining days at Beechwood and died in 1908.

Beechwood is now a living-history museum.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001