“Our Nancy”: The Story of Nancy Astor and Her Gift to the University of Virginia
by Courtney Wilson
The Langhorne Family
The Langhorne family came to Albemarle County at the end of the 19th century. Since that time they have been known as a family of high society and wealth; interestingly, this was not always the case. Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and his wife Nancy Witcher Keene lived in a four-bedroom bungalow in the southern Virginian town of Danville during the first decade after the Civil War. (FX). Stripped from their earlier wealth in the farming industry as a result of the War, the family survived in "utmost poverty." (S 16). Nancy Witcher Langhorne came into the family on May 19th 1879 at a time when Chiswell's work took a turn towards success. Joining the boom with railroads, Chiswell was able to pull his family out of their tiny bungalow to a charming mansion at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (S 22). They called their new home Mirador. Once again the Langhorne family thrived off of more than a comfortable income. The five daughters in the family became known for more than just their wealth, but also their beauty. (FX). They were called the "Gibson Girls" from Irene Langhorne's husband/artist, Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson described Irene, especially, as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her name and face became very famous, along with the other Langhorne sisters. Nancy Langhorne, in awe of her sister's recent marriage to the charming Charles Gibson, longed for her own romance. In 1897, she believed this dream was met by a man named Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw and her became engaged and then married at Mirador in October of 1897. (S 58). The romance unfortunately did not last very long. Shaw had an excessive drinking problem, and finally on February 3, 1903 they were divorced. (S 61). Nancy had had a son with Shaw whom she called, Bobbie. Eventually the two of them and Nancy's sister Phyllis moved to London in 1904. Living the life of a single woman, Nancy had many suitors. Breaking many of the Englishmen's heart's she finally did become engaged with one whom she met with her father in December 1905. (S 79).
The Astor Family
John Jacob Astor born in Germany, taught English in England, and scoring his wealth in America, took a long road to becoming one of the world's richest men (ME 2). Originally traveling to the U.S. with only five guineas in his pocket, John Jacob hoped to make a career as a merchant. (ME 2). Upon his arrival in Baltimore, though, his ears perked up to the idea of joining the fur trade. (ME 3). "Astor caught the bounce and soon set himself up in" the business of selling furs. (ME 3). By 1800 John Jacob had a successful business in New York City. Along with the fur trading and after giving up in fur trading, John Jacob also focused his money on Manhattan real estate. Although John Jacob Astor I made a very comfortable sum , it was John Jacob II that was the first Astor to "use his money so as to live a larger life." (NA 26). Elected part of the New York Assembly in 1877 he served for twenty-nine years. William Waldorf Astor, the son of John Jacob II lived out the same lifestyle, if not more flamboyant, as his father. Moving to England, William Waldorf tried to make more of a worldwide name for the Astor family. He also had become quite unpopular in New York politics and was ready for new faces. Ironically, William Waldorf became very recluse and quiet over in England. Owning one of the most fabulous castles in Europe, Hever Castle, he failed at entertaining the English people. His son Waldorf Astor was quiet and serious like his father, but he had a lot more livelihood and charm to his personality.
The Families Unite
In 1905 on a boat ride from London to the United States Nancy Langhorne met one of these world famous Astor's- Waldorf Astor. Many believe that Nancy and Waldorf truly fell in love with each other and not their family statuses. Waldorf was known to be "a genuine and eminently sensible young man," comforting traits to a lady who had recently divorced a drunken dolt. (NA 31). As a result of their marriage in May 1906, though, they did in fact bring together two of the most influential and wealthy families the world had ever seen. As a magnificent wedding gift, William Astor gave his newly wed son, Clivedon, a beautiful mansion located in Buckinghamshire, England. Clivedon soon developed into an international social center; Nancy became "one of the leading hostesses in England." (NA 34). Her guest book filled with names of famous figures from all over the world. With thirty guest bedrooms, Clivedon was quite capable of housing its frequent visitors. Henry Ford and his family paid a visit soon after their big boom with the Model T. Other guests at Clivedon included Rudyard Kipling, James Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and many more! Always having celebrities around Nancy's children were in constant awe. Nancy brought them up, though, "not to admire celebrities, but people of worth." (NA 79). Nancy wanted her six children to not like someone just because they were famous, but to see if that person was an intelligent man or woman, able and kind to the people around them. In fact, all her children needed to do was look to their mother as an example! Nancy Astor's marriage to Waldorf and move to England had put Nancy in the perfect place to see herself shine. She accomplished great things in her lifetime, and many people didn't realize that her husband stood by her all the way through. Nancy "knew that she could not manage without him;" they were a team "in every aspect of her public life, not only the fighting of elections but her speeches in Parliament and her political entertaining at" all of her homes. (NA 205).
After 1918, Nancy had had her last child, and Clivedon "from being a social and sporting center, was thus acquiring a political status;" it was the perfect time for Nancy to start her move down the political road. (NA 54). Already she knew well the politics of England, and conveniently a spot had just opened up in the House of Commons. This was actually the spot her husband was leaving as he went on to the House of Lords. Lucky for Nancy she had spent many years making a name for herself to her husband's constituents down in Plymouth. They adored her, but as a female, many did not agree with her running for Parliament. Never before had England seen a lady in Parliament. It had only been since February of 1918 that Lord Robert Cecil permitted the bill to pass that allowed women to sit in the House of Commons. On that account, here was Lady Astor, an American born woman, taking the first step for women in England. She ran a hard campaign against two men. During this time Nancy discovered that she had a gift for public speaking and could get on terms with people no matter what class. Being "perfectly natural with everybody," England and especially the press hung on her every word. (NA 50). Her words became known as "Astorisms," for she always had something clever to say. Her expression was "mobile, now laughing, now admonishing, and all the time her wit flashing out." No one ever knew what she was going to say next, but as Lloyd George told her "your voice is your fortune." (NA 82). It was no surprise to many that in 1919 Lady Astor was elected! Lady Astor, now known to England as "Our Nancy," stood as a symbol to women all over the world. She especially gave hope to the women back in her home country; the United States at this time was reluctantly unraveling issues of women's rights at this time. Also, to the women in England, never before had so many of them attended political meetings. Now in Parliament, Lady Astor had set the stage for a lifelong career in politics.
Lady Astor stood for the Conservative Party. Her platform was to curb drinking in England and improve primary education. Many did not agree with her views on alcohol, but she still kept her sense of humor when dealing with her opponents. Back in the United States Prohibition was in full throttle, and so Nancy took a visit. Even with the platform that she had "they were very grateful to her, for her humor helped them to bear their ordeal, the ordeal of living on a dry continent." (NA 125). Lady Astor knew she already stood out as the only female Member of Parliament, and she claimed she strove "to steer a middle course." (NA 78). She did not want to be too independent because she wanted to be able to get things done. It was tough for her to enter such a "man's club," and she writes about her accounts with the men in Parliament in one of her books, Free but not Lawless: `As I see it' , written in 1937. (AD). One of these accounts that she writes about involves a painting done by Charles Sims. Sims had painted a beautiful eighteen-foot oil painting of Lady Astor's introduction into Parliament. Part of the ceremony were Lloyd George and James Arthur Balfour, two men she chose to walk her into the House. Sims depicts these three characters all standing side-by-side. As mentioned before, Parliament considered themselves a "man's club," and they were not pleased with the enormous painting that hung in one of the hallways in the House of Commons. As a result, they took it down and stored it away. The future of this painting is to be discussed further on in the essay. Despite how the men treated her, many admired her tireless energy for she stood very active in Parliament for twenty five year, never showing any "sign that she was losing her ability to hold the House." (NA 175).
During both World Wars she showed England through her persistent public service that she would stand up for her constituents. During the early 1900s she established maternity centers and crèches around Plymouth. For the men, in 1924, she donated 10,000 pounds towards their workmen's dwellings. While Nancy was in Plymouth in 1940 the Germans bombed the city. Lady Astor did not retreat back to Clivedon, but stayed in Plymouth helping out the families that had lost their homes. She "arranged other accommodations for them and saw [that] they were fed." (NA 200). She was fifty-one years old and even so "she seemed to be everywhere and available to everyone." (NA 201). There is another account that occurred in Plymouth that shows Nancy's persistence to clean up the streets. She was walking by an area of Plymouth near Jermyn Street, which was known for its crime and prostitution. Lady Astor "saw a drunken young G.I. and went up to him." (EL). She proceeded to lecture him "saying she could not bear drink and it was scandalous for all these women to get this nice boy." The man was far too drunk to make sense of her lecture, and slurred to her "I want a woman." "She retorted, `Right, you've got one, come with me,' and she dragged him back to her flat and put him in Waldorf's dressing room!" (EL) One can only wonder how Waldorf put up with her.
Back at Clivedon during World War I, Lady Astor set up a Canadian hospital on the eastern edge of the estate. The hospital held over 24,000 men by the end of the War, and Lady Astor was observed to have visited the soldiers at least once a day. It is said that we do not actually know the extent of Lady Astor's charity work because "they were for the most part unknown." (NA 127). Only from stories in the press or from random people can one get a taste of Nancy's devoted service to the public. A prime example portraying Lady Astor's selflessness involves a woman who was just walking down the road near Clivedon. Nancy was driving by her and stopped the car to ask the woman if she needed a job. The woman ignored Nancy at first, but persistent as Nancy was she offered the woman a job at Clivedon. Ever since that moment the woman worked at Nancy's home for fifty years! (NA 129).
Unfortunately as seen many times in politics the press does not always favor the politicians. One would have thought the English press always adored Nancy, but the editor of The Week named Claud Cockburn put a temporary end to Nancy's popularity. (CC 7). He portrayed Nancy as an advocator for appeasement politics towards Germany, and further accused her of holding meetings to plot the "advancement of Germany in British foreign policy." (CC 7). Like fire this story flashed through every newspaper in England, even finding its way to America. In December of 1937 a comic was made of Nancy in the Evening Standard depicting her "scandal." People now felt that she was pro-Nazi and that she was conspiring with German generals inside of Clivedon. It appeared foreign policy was "no longer settled by Cabinet in Downing Street but at the country home of Lady Astor at Clivedon." (NA 185). As one would expect, the rumors of "Clivedon Set" dissipated as their Nancy reminded them of her devotion to England. Nancy addressed "Clivedon Set" in a newspaper article called "Lady Astor interviews herself." (PM). She said all of the statements were untrue, especially about the supposed weekend conspiracy party in October. She claims that Lord Astor and herself were not even at Clivedon during the accused dates, they were actually in Florida! Her political world seemed like it must have consumed her, but Nancy still found time to involve herself with things outside of politics, even things back home in Virginia.
Virginia Connection and the Astor Collection
Lady Astor never forgot her Virginia roots, "her love for Virginia was real and deep." (EL). She visited the U.S. as often as she could, and along with many of her visits she gave many gifts to the community in which she was raised. It is interesting to note that even in the depths of Clivedon Set and the early stages of World War II, Lady Astor had her mind on Virginia, specifically the University of Virginia. As the U.V.A. rector and visitor minutes show, Nancy many times gave contributions to the school. For example, she donated $500 for the "establishment of an Institute of Public Affairs." (VM). Also in March 12, 1937 the Cavalier Daily discusses "Lady Astor and allowances for married officers." (EL). One of Lady Astor's biggest gifts was the Astor Squash and Handball Courts. (VM). These courts until very recently were known the University community as the "Lady Astor Courts."
As mentioned earlier, there was a painting done by Charles Sims of Lady Astor. It is said to have traveled its way to the University of Virginia. The Daily Progess on May 13 th 1979 wrote an article about the painting and there is a picture of it with Nancy's godson, John Griggs, helping to move the painting out of the basement of the Bayly. (PP). The article says that David Astor gave the painting to the University, and it was originally unveiled in 1923.
The Virginia connection seems to be quite explicit. Nancy was born in Virginia, lived in Danville, Richmond, and then spent most of her childhood and early womanhood in Albemarle County. Also, her brother-in-law, Mr. Donald Bruce MacLeod Eyster was an alum to the University of Virginia. (PP). So strongly rooted in Virginia the University was very lucky for all that Lady Astor and her husband gave.
They University should also be very grateful that one of Virginia's Langhorne's married into the Astor family. If this had never occurred one of the most exciting gift's Lady Astor gave would have never found its way to U.V.A. This was the donation of a collection of Native American artifacts that the Astors gave in 1937. The collection, also known as the Astor Collection, had once been displayed in the Hotel Astor in New York City, New York. The Hotel Astor, located in the heart of the theatre district, was created by Mr. William Muschenheim and Mr. William Waldorf Astor. (HA). There was an American Indian Hall in the Grill Room of the hotel, and it is here that he Astor Collection first stood. The mission of the display was to "define the present in terms of a uniquely American past, independent of the Old World." (R 8). Unfortunately, "the collection was gathered largely without documentation. (R 25). Some have concluded that most of the artifacts came from the Hyde Exploration Company and Benham Trading Company, and were collected between 1880-1910. In 1937, Mr. Frederic A. Muschenheim, brother to William Muschenheim, took the display down. After many months of correspondence between Lady Astor and the University of Virginia, the collection was bound for U.V.A. in the spring of 1937.
Mr. Newcomb was the University of Virginia's president when Lady Astor and offered to donate the Astor Collection. The correspondence between Lady Astor and the Hotel Astor is unknown to Virginia right now, but what the University does have are the countless letters written between President Newcomb, Lady Astor, and the Hotel Astor. In total there are fifteen letters, all discussing the details of the Collection getting over to Charlottesville. (PF). Most of the correspondence was between Mr. Arthur F. Davies and President Newcomb. The first letter was written by Newcomb to Mr. Davies on February 20, 1937. In it Newcomb writes about how he saw a letter to Mr. W.H. Langhorne of Warren, Virginia, written by Mr. Davies himself. Newcomb wanted to inquire about the Indian Art Collection that apparently Lord Astor and Lady Astor wanted to give to the University. Newcomb expresses that he doesn't know if U.V.A. had the space to display such a collection, but still he wants to meet Mr. Davies in New York on Saturday, February 27 t ". (PF). Newcomb then receives a letter from Mr. Davies written on February 23 rd , 1937 that encourages Newcomb to come on by the Hotel Astor at ten o'clock. (PF). There are many more letters between the men, as well as, with Mr. Muschenheim. Also, there are four letters written between Lady Astor and Newcomb. They are dated in April and May, and in every one Lady Astor writes she strongly emphasizes that she does not want the collection split up for any reason. (PF). She understands the University might not have the space for the collection right now, and this is all right to her as long as her request is granted. Also, Lady Astor makes mention of the handball and squash courts she donated to the school and makes another request. She asks Newcomb to please have her brother Buck be the one who conducts the opening ceremony for the courts in the Fall. (PF). With each request Newcomb receives from Nancy Astor he graciously awards both of them. Lastly, there was a letter Nancy wrote to Newcomb on April 19t h , 1937 saying how happy she was to have the collection at the University, for she says "its home is in Virginia." (PF).
(AD) Additional Papers of Elizabeth Langhorne 7942-h. Folder: "Research Material for Elizabeth Langhorne's Nancy Astor and her Friends . 1920-1966, 1975. (1 of 2)."
(WA) Allen, Charles B. We Americans: celebrating a nation, its people, and its past . Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 1999.
(ME) Brands, H.W. Masters of Enterprise . New York, New York: The Free Press, 1999.
(NA) Collis, Maurice. Nancy Astor: an informal biography . New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1960.
(FX) Fox, James. Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
(HA) Hotel Astor Catalogue
(R) Home, Brian A. "Reservations at the Hotel Astor: Making Room for Native Americans Under Times Square.”
(EL) Langhorne Family Collection. No. 10758. Essays on members of the Langhorne Family by Nancy Lancaster. Box 1.
(PM) Langhorne Family Collection. No. 10758. Folder: "Printed Material re Lady Astor. 1907-1959. (1 of 3)."
(PP) Langhorne Family Collection. No. 10758. Folder: "Printed Material re Lady Astor. 1960-1984. (2 of 3)."
(CC) Thornton, Martin. Nancy Astor's Canadian Correspondence. 1912-1997 . Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
(PF) President's Papers. General Records. Subseries III. 1937-1938. Box 2. Folder: "General Records Art- Department of Bayly Museum."
(VM) U.V.A rector and visitor minutes Vol. X 1928-1947 and Vol. IX 1919-1927.
(S) Sykes, Christopher. Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor . London: William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1972.