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

William Backhouse Astor Jr.

William Backhouse Astor Jr.William Backhouse Astor Jr. (1830-1892) was the son of William Backhouse Astor and the grandson of John Jacob Astor, founder of the family's fur trade and real estate empire. Astor and his younger brother, John Jacob Astor III, were heirs to the family fortune.

Astor's wife, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, was known as "The Mrs. Astor." She presided over New York and Newport society. 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.

Like many upper-class men of the Gilded Age, Astor did not participate in the rigorous social rituals adopted by his wife and other society women. He preferred the company of other businessmen at local clubs; sailing on the family yacht, Ambassadress; or horseback riding at Ferncliff, his estate in the Hudson River Valley.

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.

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

Beechwood is now a living-history museum.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001