Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Vincent Astor, known as Vincent Astor, grew up as neighbors in New York’s Dutchess County. From an early age, these two heirs to prominent families were destined to forge a friendship that would shape the future of America. Hailing from the upper crust of New York society, replete with wealth, prestige, and fame; the boyhood friends would grow and change the fate of America as the nation struggled through some of the most tumultuous decades in the history of the republic. Astor would grow to be one of America’s greatest businessmen and philanthropists while Roosevelt would become one of the most important political figures in American history.
Their common upbringing, family ties, and life-long friendship would allow these two extraordinary men to view each other as peers, trusted advisers, and close friends. Together, through loyalty to each other, self-sacrifice in the service of America, and visionary leadership, Astor and Roosevelt would maintain the friendship they had always cherished and shepherd America through some of it’s darkest hours. The boyhood friends would utilize every tool at their disposal in the service of America. For Astor that meant using his connections in banking and telecommunications, relying on a lifetime of management experience and even yachting to ensure the defense of New York.
Franklin Roosevelt and Vincent Astor likely met when Vincent was just a baby. In October of 1892, Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR's mother, brought her family north on Old Post Road from Springwood, her Hyde Park home to Ferncliff, the Astor mansion in Rhinebeck. At this time Vincent Astor was less than a year old while the future president was only eight. Due to this difference in age it would be years before the two “Grew to be the same age” despite the intricate social and family ties of the Gilded Age.
The friendship of Vincent Astor and Franklin Roosevelt had been generations in the making. The Astor, Roosevelt, and Delano families all had roots in New York dating back to colonial times. Furthermore there were strong family ties. Franklin Hughes Delano, whom FDR is named after, was married to an Astor and they were given an estate in the Hudson Valley as a wedding present. This marriage would prompt Vincent Astor's grandfather, William Backhouse Astor Jr., to establish Ferncliff in Rhinebeck so that he could visit his mother and breed horses. Decades later, on land which was part of the same estate, Eleanor Roosevelt would be raised by a descendant of the original settlers, the LIvingstons, who had intermarried with both the Delano and Astor family.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's half-brother James “Rosy” Roosevelt Roosevelt, would be a close friend of Vincent Astor's father, John Jacob Astor IV and would even marry his sister, Vincent's aunt Helen. This union prompted John Jacob IV to name Vincent's Uncle Rosy an executor of the Astor Estate. The Astor Estate was one of America's great fortunes which had been established by America's first multi-millionaire and passed down for generations.
FDR's parents even rented an apartment from the Astors, who had made their fortune in New York real estate and were known as the “Land Lords of New York.”
The generations long history of these families would be instrumental in forming the unique bond that would define the friendship of Vincent Astor and Franklin Roosevelt.
Despite being the heir to one of America's great fortunes, many of Vincent Astor's contemporaries found his company to be very unpleasant; including all three of his wives. He was quick to anger, tone-deaf, lanky, and quite socially awkward. He would oscillate between being a recluse and an immature prankster. Throughout his childhood Vincent would trip over his own overly-large feet and often be sent away from his mother’s company for being unsightly. These flaws combined with a difficult family life, a terrifying and abusive mother, chronically poor health, and lack of social interaction as a child would prevent Vincent from truly being accepted by New York’s gentlemanly high society.
The exception to this rule were the few men whom Astor could truly view as peers and friends. Especially his Dutchess County neighbor, Franklin Roosevelt. Their similar backgrounds, upbringing, shared interests, and social prominence allowed them to treat each other as equals; their physical flaws and perpetual struggles with them would help the two emphasize with one another while their love of a good time, pretty women, and yachting would further cement their friendship. Finally, their devotion to their nation and the prosperity of the American people, not just the wealthy, would provide Astor and Roosevelt with a greater purpose. Throughout the difficult years of two World Wars, a great depression, disintegrating marriages, and immensely stressful duties the two friends would remain loyal and trusted friends. Until President Roosevelt's death, the relationship between Astor and FDR would be an amazing blend of boyish jokes and deadly serious leadership.
The friendship between Astor and Roosevelt did not only grow along the banks of the Hudson. As boys, FDR and Astor would vacation at Lake St. Regis in the Adirondack Mountains where Vincent's “Uncle Rosy” would regularly lease Camp Elsinore and bring his own children Taddy and Helen.
Vincent's father would later name the opulent Hotel St. Regis in Manhattan after the lake where Vincent would vacation with other prominent New Yorker's such as J.P. Morgan, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the Vanderbilts. In this closely knit society of American aristocracy, Astor and Roosevelt formed their personal identities and laid the foundation of a friendship that would unite the two for the rest of their lives.
As adults, the two childhood friends would continue the tradition of vacationing together. Astor would sail to Campobello, FDR's summer home in New Brunswick and President Roosevelt would take several long cruises aboard Astor's luxurious yacht Nourmahal.
When FDR left the Hudson Valley to attend Groton School and Astor left to attend St. Georges School, the two young men grew apart. It wasn't until the death of Vincent's father aboard the H.M.S. Titanic that John Jacob Astor IV, that the two would have ample opportunity to rekindle their friendship.
The death of Vincent's father meant that the twenty year old Harvard freshman would inherit a nearly incomprehensible fortune in New York real-estate, business interests, and a large trust fund. Vincent's inheritance of the legendary Astor Estate, which had been established by the first multi-millionaire in America made him one of the wealthiest men alive and prompted the newspapers to dub him “The Boy Millionaire” and catapulted the already famous heir into the highest ranks of stardom.
For generations, the Astor Estate had been the embodiment of the American dream. The fortune was established by a semi-literate, immigrant, son of a butcher who would become a powerful businessman and die the wealthiest person in the country.
The connections between Vincent Astor and FDR were so close that FDR acted as an attorney for other Astor family members following the 1912 death of John Jacob Astor IV.
“Uncle Rosy” would be a trustee of the estate, responsible for the equivalent of several billions of dollars.
After inheriting a nearly incomprehensible fortune, Vincent Astor quickly became involved in philanthropic and scientific activities while remaining prominent in the Dutchess County gentry of the Gilded Age. Vincent Astor quietly began transforming the Astor holdings, funding scientific expeditions, increasing wages, cooperating with labor unions, donating land for parks and hospitals, replacing slums with modern apartments, and even joining a volunteer fire brigade.
Vincent Astor’s interest in the era’s every-man was further demonstrated by some of his parties, which were not reserved for the elite. 4th of July at Ferncliff, the Astor manor on the Hudson River near Rhinebeck, was celebrated with average people. Here the famous and powerful Astor’s would dance and make merry with servants and local farmers, entertainment would be provided for all and incredible firework displays would delight the entire community. This is a far cry from the exclusive “Astor 400” of New York society which had been dominated by Vincent’s grandmother Caroline Schermerhorn Astor who was addressed as “The Mrs. Astor” in order to demonstrate her social pre-eminence. Astor’s care for the average American was as radical a break from his wealthy peers as Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Astor intended to devote himself and his farm at Ferncliff to agricultural science and later made it the largest apple farm in the state. Both Vincent and FDR had a keen interest in environmental conservation and the preservation of the natural beauty of the Hudson River Valley.
At the turn of the twentieth century, John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV, was experimenting at Ferncliff when he invented a mechanism which converted peat moss into fuel for farm equipment. Jack Astor declared that his invention would be free to use and that he would not benefit financially from the patent. Vincent would follow in his father's footsteps and make a similar pronouncement declaring that any of his discoveries would be available for the general benefit of all mankind.
This burst of philanthropic passion caused then N.Y. Governor William Sulzer to proclaim that “The idle rich have had their day and Mr. Astor is on the right track to prove himself a worthy citizen.” Astor’s long-term friendship with liberal thinkers such as Raymond Moley and Upton Sinclair further emphasize his break from the traditional wealthy elite who had shunned the awkward socialite. During his lifetime, Vincent never took credit for his good deeds, often citing his charitable endeavors simply as “Good business.”
This is not to say that Vincent did not enjoy his fabulous wealth. In March of 1915, he sailed his steam-yacht Noma through the newly constructed Panama Canal on a trip which was aided by a letter of introduction from his old friend, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a member of the New York Yacht Club and later served as Commodore, organized a transatlantic race to Spain, and registered nine different ships with the Club. Astor held officer positions in a variety of social groups and had a prominent role in several major business and cultural organizations such as Western Union Telegraph Company, the Great Northern Railroad, Chase National Bank, and the New York Public Library. Astor lived the life of a wealthy socialite, attending the opera and social functions, sponsoring the Astor Cup yacht races, flying his personal seaplane from Ferncliff on the Hudson River to his Newport mansion, and gathering exotic pets ranging from apes to penguins. He socialized with politicians, European royalty, and captains of industry. When his sister Ava married a Russian Prince, he presented them with a new mansion on the banks of the Hudson. Having been raised to be comfortable around royalty, Vincent Astor would personally host to both the Queen of Rumania and Prince Albert Edward of England.
Astor found great pleasure in racing cars, horses, and yachts. He built Ferry Reach, a stunning estate in Bermuda, and Cloverly Manor in Long Island, which was designed by the firm Delano & Aldrich. Astor’s several mansions, yachts, and immense wealth provided him with every luxury that could be conceived of in his lifetime. With electricity on yachts, central air-conditioning in apartments and hotels, and even a heated swimming pool, Astor had luxuries that many Americans could not even conceive of at the time.
Throughout his lifetime FDR would enjoy Astor’s generous hospitality, in Astor’s heated indoor swimming pool in Rhinebeck, on yachting cruises and other events. Vincent’s hotels; Hotel Astor, the St. Regis, and Waldorf-Astoria would all host parties thrown by FDR, including birthday parties and one particularly boisterous party to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. Eleanor Roosevelt even had her debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria, then owned by Vincent’s father. Franklin would return the favor as often as he could with Astor staying at the White House dozens of times.
Astor was also involved in the attempt to hide FDR’s paralysis from the American public. Roosevelt had a private subway stop near New York’s Grand Central Station, which featured a private elevator into the Waldorf-Astoria and afforded the President a way to move from his personal train into the hotel far from the eyes of the American public and the cameras of the press.
In 1914, Vincent wed Helen Dinnsmore Huntington, a childhood acquaintance from Dutchess County. Helen, like her husband would be involved in a variety of charitable endeavors and became a patroness of the arts, particularly music and the opera. Only a few short years later, both Helen and Vincent would travel to France to aid the U.S. during the First World War. Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, would provide support to the couple and even met with both Helen and Vincent while he made a tour of France in 1918.
As the United States entered the First World War, Vincent, again took a page from his father’s book; Colonel John Jacob “Jack” Astor had financed an entire battery of artillery, offered the use of his yacht, and personally fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Vincent, following in his father’s footsteps donated his yacht, the Noma to the Navy and was commissioned in the New York Naval Militia, which later transferred him to active duty with the U.S. Navy.
Vincent was first stationed in New York City and assigned to the defense New York’s bridges from enemy sabotage. In 1917, Vincent purchased and donated one of the two seaplanes available to the N.Y. Naval Militia and would command the aviation section of the 2nd Battalion. His flights elicited friendly jealousy from his old friend Franklin Roosevelt.
While Vincent sailed to France to serve his country, his yacht the Noma, valued at $250,000 in 1917 dollars, was designated S.P. 131 and outfitted with depth-charges, deck guns, stripped of luxury items, and manned by a military crew.
On 10 May 1917 she was commissioned in the U.S. Navy, captained by Lieutenant Commander Lamar R. Leahy and named the flagship of Captain William B. Fletcher who lead all U.S. naval patrols in European waters. This territory including the dangerous U-boat infested area off the west coast of France. The yacht, which Vincent inherited from his father, would be among the first American ships sent overseas in World War I. The Noma was given the duty of guarding allied convoys and hunting German submarines.
“As soon as they spotted us, the U-boat’s deck gun crew began firing. We exchanged shots for a minute, then the U-boat submerged. As we raced to attack, someone shouted “torpedo ahead!” The helmsman quickly spun the wheel to port. We barely avoided the missile, but by the time we turned back, the German had disappeared.”
-Yeoman Elmandorf Carr aboard the Noma S.P. 131
The Noma, sighted and engaged several other U-boats and narrowly avoided destruction at the hands of German torpedoes on numerous occasions. On November 20, 1917 Astor’s steam yacht, along with two other convoy escorts engaged and likely severely damaged one submarine while chasing a second off; this action earned a Navy Cross for Captain Leahy, Commanding Officer of the Noma.
“I am armed with letters to everybody everywhere and can only hope that I can be of real use when I get there” Helen Astor wrote to FDR in June of 1918 after a day spent in Washington. At FDR’s suggestion, Helen would travel to France and volunteer with the YMCA. She worked at a canteen for U.S. servicemen near the front and was likely able to visit her husband as well. Both Helen and Vincent were visited by FDR on his tour of France in August of 1918. The day after enjoying a lunch with Vincent, who was then the Port Officer of Royon, FDR got his chance to go for a flight in a seaplane similar to the one Vincent had purchased.
After the allies were victorious in the First World War, Vincent returned triumphantly to New York aboard U-117, a captured German submarine. He then resumed his duties as a wealthy businessman, managing a vast empire of real estate in Manhattan, founding journalistic publications like Today (which later merged with Newsweek), yachting, and attending social events with his beautiful wife Helen.
In the 1920s, when FDR withdrew from politics and the public scene following his affliction with polio, he and Astor remained business associates and friends. The two would exchange friendly letters, discuss agricultural and conservation efforts in their beloved Dutchess County, and cross paths at social engagements. Vincent offered FDR the use of his indoor heated pool at Astor Courts in Rhinebeck, part of the Ferncliff estate and Roosevelt raved to Vincent about the swimming at his new hydrotherapy retreat of Warm Springs, Georgia. Astor and Roosevelt were both intimately involved with financing and supporting the Arctic and Antarctic expeditions of famed explorer Richard E. Byrd with whom both became quite friendly. During a 1929 expedition Byrd even named a mountain in Antarctica after Astor and later named a sea after Roosevelt.
When Roosevelt fully returned to politics and ran for the Governorship of New York in 1928, Astor lent him his full support. Donating generously to Roosevelt’s campaign, Astor broke from the traditional mold of wealthy multi-millionaires, particularly in Republican Dutchess County.
During Roosevelt’s tenure as Governor of New York, Vincent and Helen Astor maintained a strong relationship with their neighbor. Both the Roosevelt’s and Astor’s had increasingly busy lives, but made every attempt to meet socially, Helen even had to reject a request to serve on a committee for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics; though she said that she would have gladly served on any committee to eliminate billboards from the picturesque Hudson Valley.
The 1932 presidential election propelled the friendship between Franklin and Vincent to new heights. During the tumultuous years of Roosevelt’s Presidency, the two childhood pals would maintain a somewhat boyish friendship, complete with talks of pretty girls and late nights, while working closely together to address the crises of the Great Depression and The Second World War.
In February 1933, shortly after promising a “New Deal” to the American people and winning the 1932 election, President Elect Roosevelt went on a cruise with his old friend aboard his palatial yacht Nourmahal. Built in 1928, the Nourmahal was one of the finest vessels afloat and genuinely appreciated by both lifelong yachtsmen. It was the largest private vessel built up to that time, it could sail around the world twice, carry supplies for an entire year, and was equipped with air conditioning, refrigeration, auto-pilot, and every state-of-the-art device it's owner could conceive of. With ten bedrooms, an 18 person dining room, a library, and a crew of nearly 50, the Nourmahal was easily the most luxurious yacht of the era.
While FDR and Astor were certainly friends, this cruise would also serve a political purpose; how could Roosevelt, who had promised a redistribution of wealth, truly pose a threat to America’s richest individuals while vacationing with “The Landlord of New York” who was the archetype for inherited wealth? FDR would join Astor for five cruises aboard the Nourmahal, accompanied by close friends and relatives from New York society.
Aboard the Nourmahal, the hard drinking, adventurous, ardent republican Kermit Roosevelt and his fifth cousin Franklin were able to mend the rift that had opened between the Democratic and Republican branches of the Roosevelt family due to their mutual friend, Vincent Astor. FDR had been a focal point of this family schism due to his support of Al Smith over Teddy Roosevelt Jr. in the 1924 N.Y. Gubernatorial election. President Teddy Roosevelt’s children had famously told the newspapers that they wouldn’t vote for FDR as President and would continue to support the Republican party. Kermit became a regular guest of FDR’s at the White House and remained very close with Vincent Astor.
During all five Nourmahal cruises FDR, Astor, and the rest of the “Nourmahal Gang” would shed the formality of the gentlemanly elite of the era. Aboard the Nourmahal, Roosevelt and Astor were not the titans of American society that they were at home, instead they behaved much more like the boyhood friends who would camp at Lake St. Regis. Everyday spent fishing would see wagers on who would catch the first fish, who would catch the most fish, and who would catch the largest. Intensely competitive games of poker and backgammon would occupy the evenings, often accompanied by generous libations. The combination of friendly trash-talk, drinks, and competitive gaming would bring out the President’s temper when things weren’t going his way, which only brought on more friendly mockery from his companions. Far from the judgmental eyes of high society and the cameras of the press, the Nourmahal Gang would thoroughly enjoy their vacations in a way that they couldn’t at home. Aboard the Nourmahal Astor would refer to FDR simply as Franklin and not as Mr. President, as he would in all other situations. Jokes, pranks, and drinks were the norm and remarkably little work was accomplished. Astor was even tasked reading the messages sent to FDR and told only to pass on the most important pieces of correspondence.
The President, in particular, was a notorious prankster on these cruises. The luxury yacht would publish a short newspaper every day so that the vacationers could maintain some contact with the outside world and Roosevelt made the most of the opportunity. He would regularly have false stories published in the on board newspapers.
During one Nourmahal cruise, FDR’s sons Elliot and James would accompany their father and in a particularly well publicized event, Elliot told the press that FDR wasn’t catching nearly as many fish as he had claimed. This prompted a mock investigation by the press to settle the matter of Elliot’s “Fish libel.” During the ensuing investigation, President Roosevelt jokingly claimed to have hooked and landed a sperm whale on a 3 oz. hook while Astor reported that the President and his son Jimmy caught 190 fish in an afternoon.
Upon returning from his first Nourmahal cruise, the President Elect debarked in Florida and was scheduled to give an address to the American Legion in Miami’s Bayfront Park. Raymond Moley made a prophetic statement to Astor as their car tailed Roosevelt’s, “These types of things scare me to death. The possibility of presidential assassination is very great.” He feared that the large crowd and the pops of camera flashbulbs would be the perfect cover for an assassination attempt. Only moments later, Roosevelt concluded his speech ahead of schedule and Giuseppe Zangara a 5 foot tall anarchist climbed onto a wobbly metal folding chair, drew an $8.00 pistol which he had purchased from a pawn shop and fired five shots at FDR. Saved by the quick reaction of another spectator Lillian Cross who struck Zangara in the arm, FDR was not hit, but all five bullets tore through human flesh, one of which fatally wounded Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.
Chaos erupted in the crowd, Astor, only fifteen feet away did not know what was going on. He watched in amazement as a Secret Service Agent punched a bewildered spectator in the nose and Anton Cermak staggered between his car and Roosevelt’s with a dark brown stain spreading across his shirt. Roosevelt’s car door was thrown open as Cermak was pulled into the car as the vehicle sped away. During the chaos, police officers began pounding on the back of Astor’s vehicle, unknown to the passengers, the would-be assassin was pinned down and handcuffed to the back of their car with secret service agents and police officers piling on top of him. Astor, in the following vehicle with Raymond Moley, Kermit Roosevelt, and a driver, likewise grabbed a staggering, bleeding victim, laid him on Astor’s lap and shouted at the driver: “Follow the President’s car as fast as you can and don’t lose it!” The car quickly accelerated and violently crashed into one of the posts supporting an exit gate, losing sight of Roosevelt’s vehicle. After restarting the car and getting underway again, Astor’s car sped toward the nearest hospital. Terrified voices from the crowd screamed that Roosevelt was dead. Everyone in the car feared the worst. Arriving at the hospital, the first person that Astor saw was FDR, unharmed and completely calm. After breathing a sigh of relief, Astor suggested that Roosevelt issue a statement to the press and to his wife, to which FDR calmly replied “Your mind, Vincent, works very slowly, I did that three minutes ago.” That night, the friends would retreat again to the Nourmahal to relax and recover.
Undaunted, Roosevelt, Astor, and the “Nourmahal Gang” would continue to regularly vacation on the yacht. Other cruises included notable events such as hosting a luncheon for King George’s youngest brother the Duke of Kent and his wife, FDR performing Easter morning religious services aboard the ship, the first time that the Presidential flag was flown over a civilian vessel, as well as intense family poker games when FDR’s sons Elliott and James would come aboard. Franklin’s eldest son James later recounted that the Nourmahal would be the site of the only time that he ever saw his father lose his temper in front of anyone outside of the immediate family. This speaks to Roosevelt’s comfort aboard the ship and his closeness with Astor.
While the Nourmahal was certainly amongst the most modern and luxurious yachts in the world, Astor used it for more than months-long pleasure cruises. The ship would host at least six scientific expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, which were the first to successfully obtain specimens of rare tortoises, tropical fish, penguins and made significant contributions to several zoological societies, aquariums and the general knowledge of biology. These expeditions would lead to Astor receiving accolades from the government of Ecuador and America’s scientific community.
Vincent Astor and Kermit Roosevelt would later combine their vacations with national service. The two friends would sail the pacific in 1938 on an intelligence gathering cruise with the consent of FDR and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Their mission: To obtain information concerning the Japanese mandated Marshall Islands and investigate rumors of Japanese fortifications throughout the Pacific. No better cover for an investigative cruise could be found than one that saw the wealthy Commodore of the New York Yacht Club sailing his personal yacht across the ocean for months. Despite the Nourmahal being barred from entering the Marshall Islands by the Imperial Japanese Navy, Astor and Kermit did meet with members of British Intelligence, who provided them with some useful insights, notably that the Japanese had not fortified the islands. The Nourmahal’s state-of-the-art radar direction finder, also provided more specific information on Japan's military deployment.
Other efforts to secure America’s defense were performed on Astor’s yacht as well. In May of 1941, Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews would use the Nourmahal, along with movie stars such as Katherine Hepburn and other particularly attractive women, to entertain the Naval Missions of South and Central American countries. These efforts would help cement the relationships between the U.S. and the other nations of the Western Hemisphere.
As much as both Astor and FDR would have liked, their relationship wasn’t all fishing trips and lavish yachts. Early in Roosevelt’s presidency, Vincent Astor would regularly act as an informal advisor to the President. Several meetings during FDR’s first year in office took place between FDR, Vincent Astor, and New Deal architect Raymond Moley. The reality that America’s most prominent businessman and the driving force behind the New Deal’s redistribution of wealth were meeting in the White House at a pivotal moment in the history of the New Deal demonstrates how unique the President’s relationship with his old friend had become.
Their friendship and familial ties, remained prominent in their private lives. FDR along with Eleanor Roosevelt continued to meet socially with Vincent and Helen Astor, and after Astor’s 1940 divorce with Astor’s second wife and James Roosevelt’s sister-in-law Mary “Minnie” Cushing Astor. They exchanged Christmas gifts and despite the incredibly demanding duties of both Vincent and Franklin they made every attempt to see each other.
One particularly interesting example of their friendship is found in correspondence between Eleanor and Vincent. It is known that Astor Courts in Rhinebeck had an indoor shooting range and that Eleanor had asked Vincent for advice in constructing a similar range in the White House basement. While the range never came to fruition this does speak to the likelihood that both Eleanor and Franklin would make use of Ferncliff’s legendary ability to entertain.
It was in Rhinebeck that Astor would go to escape his busy life as a businessman, where he had an entire building devoted to entertainment with squash courts, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, the pool which FDR made use of, and a private miniature railroad. Helen Astor and later Vincent’s second wife Mary would also maintain friendly relationships with both Franklin and Eleanor. Helen was known to lunch with FDR at the White House and following a 1934 vacation to Germany, she met with Roosevelt to discuss her observations of Nazi Germany in the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship. Both families wrote each other concerning patronage for their friends during the Great Depression. Helen served with the Warm Springs Foundation and Vincent even provided shops for Eleanor’s Val-Kill Industries. During the 1939 Royal visit of the King and Queen of England, FDR offered the use of Ferncliff to members of the royal entourage.
The time consuming duties of business, pleasure, and travel often interfered with the time available for the old neighbors to socialize. Astor had a vast business empire to manage, while the Office of the President required the majority of FDR’s attention, yet each continued to grow in their oft overlooked private life and their Dutchess County estates changed as well. FDR oversaw the expansion of his boyhood home of Springwood, the construction of Val-kill and Top Cottage along with the disintegration of his relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Astor’s nearby Ferncliff Estate and his relationships also underwent tumultuous changes. Vincent built a mansion, Marienhuh, at Ferncliff and presented it to his sister Alice to celebrate her wedding to Russian Prince Obelensky in 1926. Vincent also supplemented Astor Courts, his 1904 Sanford White playhouse, with the addition of a miniature railroad which used the entertaining pavilion as a train station. Astor purchased a large estate in Bermuda as well as a home in Long Island.
In September of 1940, Helen Huntington Astor divorced Vincent for “Mental cruelty” only days after he informed her that he wanted a divorce. This allowed him to marry his mistress Mary “Minnie” Cushing. Helen would almost immediately marry Astor’s longtime friend and Nourmahal Gang member, Lytle Hull. Mary, like many of the Astor wives before her, came to loathe the mansion at Ferncliff. It was the country refuge of Astor men for nearly a century and was far from the culture and art of Manhattan. At Minnie’s urging, the main house at Ferncliff was demolished by fire and the play house of Astor Courts was converted into a more suitable residence though additional renovations would be undertaken by Vincent's third wife Brooke.
The demolition of the house in which his father had been born only contributed to Vincent’s anti-social behavior and depression. With the advent of World War II, Vincent spent a great deal of his time in New York City and away from his country refuge, In 1948, at Minnie’s insistence a very fine tea-house was constructed overlooking the Hudson at Ferncliff. By this time, Minnie practically refused to go out with her husband due to his poor temperament and the unending arguments that Astor would get himself into.
As early as 1927, Astor, along with several members of New York’s gentry organized a group of individuals who shared the common interest of national defense, a robust economy, a strong naval and air force, and most importantly a safe and prosperous New York City. Informally named “The Room” and later “The Club” this secret society of amateur intelligence operatives would meet monthly in a non-descript apartment at 34 East Sixty-Second Street in Manhattan to discuss the international social, military, and economic matters of the day. Members included Will Stewart, Judge Kernochan, Astor, and Kermit Roosevelt, all members of the “Nourmahal Gang” as well as publishers such as Nelson Doubleday, Wall Street executives J.P. Morgan and Winthrop Aldrich, and other well-to-do New Yorkers. Later, special guests such as Richard Byrd, William Donovan, and former British Intelligence officer Somerset Maugham, would be invited to speak at the informal secret society. With Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency in 1933, this group of individuals who all knew FDR intimately would funnel economic and political intelligence directly to the President.
It was Vincent Astor and The Room, not any of America’s official intelligence agencies that made contact with the British Passport Control Office, which was the cover for Britain’s spies in the Western Hemisphere. Contacting foreign agents and leaking privileged information was almost certainly illegal and at the very least immoral, but the mighty captains of industry and business in New York had little worry of any potential consequences that may come from their actions.
In 1940, several members of “The Club” were approached by German businessman Dr. Gerhard Alois Westrick, who worked with the Nazi government in an attempt to secure support for the Nazi’s as business and trade partners following the presumptive Axis victory in Europe. Only days later FDR received letters from The Club detailing Westrick’s activities and those of his associates.
Astor’s status as an incredibly well-connected international businessman provided him with access to information that no one else could attain. As Germany rearmed, the Japanese Empire expanded and the world was once again on the brink of war, Astor and his cohorts would be instrumental in keeping FDR appraised of world events with insider information. Throughout the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration was restricted in their ability to prepare for an upcoming conflict by an ardently neutral public and a series of neutrality laws. Astor’s informal espionage ring offered a means for the President to circumvent these restrictions.
The two finest examples of Astor leveraging his business connections for intelligence activities came through his prominent role in Chase National Bank and Western Union Telegraph Company. Chase gave Astor, and thus Roosevelt, access to the financial activities of the AMTORG Corporation, which was a front for the Soviet Government. Working closely with the British, Astor used his connections in telecommunications and his Bermuda estate to illegally access diplomatic messages being sent between the Western Hemisphere and Europe. These messages included correspondence from South American governments to their European embassies and official communications from European nations to their envoys in the Western Hemisphere.
Astor was involved in National Security matters outside of The Room as well. In May of 1940, he was instrumental in the attempt to protect “The most confidential military instrument now under development that this country has” the Norden Bombsight. This device promised to greatly increase the accuracy of U.S. bombers during the war. In the days before the Manhattan Project, it was considered America’s secret weapon. It would allow flight crews to deliver their payload accurately even when bombing “blind” at night. The boast among the Army Air Corps was that Norden’s device allowed them to drop a bomb onto a pickle barrel.
The issue was that Mr. Carl Norden, a Dutch citizen and the genius inventor of the device had family in Europe and was planning to travel there, along with some sketches of the bombsight. He refused to return to the U.S. without his wife, mother-in-law, and daughter. The FBI had been following Mr. Norden, ostensibly for his protection, and learned that he had purchased a ticket to Europe on the S.S. Washington. It was Astor who gave FBI director J. Edgar Hoover permission to send his agent W.C. Spears abroad on the Washington despite the fact that he had no formal authority to do this and despite the likelihood that such an action would anger the State Department. The night before Norden’s ship passed through Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, Agent Spears, in the presence of the Captain of the Washington, tore up all correspondence and official documents, tossing them into the Atlantic in an attempt to protect both himself and Norden from an international incident and the possibility that the British would board the ship and arrest Norden in order to acquire the bombsight for themselves. Protecting Norden and his bombsight was so important that Astor wrote to Missy LeHand, FDR’s personal secretary, imploring her to do everything in her power to provide the Norden family with the necessary paperwork to enter the U.S. “If it’s illegal, or contrary to red tape, it’s got to be done anyway. Until Norden is aboard ship, returning we shall not be safe” Astor wrote. In this event, Astor was instrumental in the safe return of Mr. Norden, his family, and the bombsight. The cost of his service would be the ire of America’s bureaucracy.
“Maybe I shall need you to protect me from a firing squad!” Astor wrote, jokingly to President Roosevelt, after a bureaucratic squabble arose relating to Astor’s amateur intelligence activities. Astor was still a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, and the Office of Naval Intelligence expected him to follow protocol instead of reporting directly to the President. Several other federal agencies with active intelligence operations in New York also began to take issue with Vincent Astor’s intelligence work. The generals in the Military Intelligence Division, the Diplomats in the State Department, the Admirals in the Office of Naval Intelligence, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and soon to be founding father of the C.I.A. William Donovan all had to contend with overlapping responsibilities, changing intelligence activities and the restrictions of an isolationist Congress while Astor’s informal, unaccountable, and borderline illicit activities made a mockery of Congressional oversight and further muddied the waters. In 1940, Roosevelt was writing memorandum in support of Astor’s activities, but by February 1941 he agreed to formalize Astor’s operations by creating the new and unique position of Area Controller of Intelligence for New York and appointing Astor to the post.
Astor’s role as Area Controller was, in essence, a prototype for America’s modern intelligence apparatus. The uniqueness of this position, coupled with Astor’s lack of formal intelligence experience would continue to fuel the rivalry between Astor, Donovan, and the nation’s other civilian and military intelligence agencies. Astor, still technically an inactive member of the Naval Reserve, would act as the Chairman of the Board for American intelligence in New York. He would no longer go on spy missions personally, but would coordinate and streamline the activities of thousands of individuals regardless of which agency they worked for. This position put Astor in charge of coordinating the efforts of the FBI, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and the State Department.
To Roosevelt, few could be trusted like his old friend and fewer still had the administrative expertise and personality to manage such a large undertaking. It was no easy task to coordinate the strong personalities leading each of these federal fiefdoms but Astor would make the most of his unique position. He would help identify Nazi agents, act as a clearing house for all intelligence in the city through which the majority of Lend-Lease aid passed through on it’s way to England, make significant contributions to the defense of the Eastern seaboard and even provided a residence in the St. Regis Hotel to the head of British Intelligence in the U.S.
During the winter of 1940-1941, in the Newsweek building at 152 West 42nd Street, on the 6th floor in rooms 627 and 628, William Sebold, a German-American who had been blackmailed by the Abwehr into spying for the Nazis, rented office space for the fictitious “Diesel Research Corporation.” Unfortunately for the Nazi’s, the Newsweek building belonged to Vincent Astor, and Sebold was a double-agent working with the FBI. In room 629 of that same building, the FBI had established a command post, through which they could wire-tap, and film, meetings between Sebold and 32 Nazi operatives which included Fritz Duquesne, the Nazi's head operative in North America. Astor had rooms 627 and 628 equipped with special light fixtures and brightly painted walls to ensure that the film and photographic evidence of these meetings was of the finest quality. Furthermore the “Diesel Research Corporation” opened a bank account at the Chase National Bank, where Astor served on the Board of Directors and could monitor the flow of funds. The 81 meetings between Sebold and Nazi spies which occurred in the Newsweek building from 10 December 1940 and 25 June 1941 were all observed and recorded by the FBI, and the evidence collected would lead to the arrest and conviction of 33 Nazi secret agents. This devastating blow would cripple the Axis’s ability to perform espionage and sabotage operations in the Western Hemisphere only months before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war.
“America’s war with Japan has made us free to act and now we shall see what our U-boats may achieve” proclaimed German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in the early months of 1942. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany’s subsequent declaration of war against the United States, the Nazi’s were no longer restricted in their efforts to prevent war materials from reaching the British Isles. This meant that America’s entire Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and Caribbean would be threatened by the menace of Germany’s deadly submarine wolf packs. Within weeks of Hitler's declaration, reports of Axis warships in American waters began to flood the Oval Office.
Astor put into motion plans that he and FDR had discussed since the end of the First World War. January 26, of 1942 saw one of Astor’s most famous ideas come to fruition. The “Ships Observer’s Scheme” equipped civilian vessels and fishing ships with radio equipment to report sightings of Nazi submarines. The most famous of these ships was Ernest Hemmingway’s 38 foot yacht Pilar, which patrolled the Caribbean for U-boats. The advanced warning provided by these lookouts would help keep naval commanders appraised of the situation in the Atlantic theater and allow them to steer allied vessels clear of danger.
Astor was also instrumental in the creation of the Civil Air Patrol, which was lead by N.Y. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. These “scarecrow forces” were generally not fit for combat, but often either scared off Nazi threats or called in military reinforcements to engage the enemy.
Vincent Astor, now a Captain in the Naval Reserves, would use his experience as a yachtsman to coordinate convoys and steer them clear of enemy threats as the U.S. went to war in Europe. In these duties, Astor was not limited to New York, he coordinated efforts and logistics from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic.
Even before Pearl Harbor, Astor was prepared to sacrifice his personal luxury for the defense of America. In the summer of 1940, Astor contacted Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and Admiral Andrews of the Third Naval District to discuss the possibility of his personal ships serving in the military. As he had done in the First World War, Astor loaned the use of his yacht to the defense of his nation. This time, it was the Nourmahal, that marvelous craft which entertained Royalty, foreign envoys and President Roosevelt. The yacht, which would cost well over $12,000,000 in 2016 dollars was leased to the Navy at the rate of $1.00 a year and became a floating weather station which helped coordinate the movement of ships, troops, and supplies from the U.S. to Europe and North Africa. Astor later leased the Little Nourmahal to the Navy as well. Like Vincent’s first wife Helen, Mary Astor would do her utmost to care for America’s servicemen. She was the woman’s chair of the Navy Relief Society where she would advocate on behalf of the medical treatment of naval personnel.
The special friendship between Franklin and Vincent would play a role in Astor’s duties. Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, member of The Room and The Nourmahal Gang, as well as FDR’s distant cousin was prone to scandalous activity. In one particular instance during the summer of 1941, he had been drinking excessively while on active duty and went A.W.O.L. with a young lady. The young lady, of course, was not his wife and Kermit could not be found. It fell to Vincent, who collaborated closely with F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, to locate Kermit, get him medical treatment, and protect the President from scandal. One could easily imagine the sensationalism if the President’s own family was willing to abandon their posts and failed to defend the country.
Another example of Astor’s close connection with Roosevelt’s family centered on the grandchildren of the President. In the winter of 1941 and 1942, James Roosevelt’s wife and her children Sara and Kate Roosevelt were living in a Manhattan apartment at 530 East 86th St in a building owned by Vincent Astor. The issue is that suspicious German-born employees, some of whom had connections to the German military and the German-American Bund, were working in the building and could potentially have access to the President’s favorite daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The threat of kidnapping was determined to be all too real. We do not know if a plot was genuinely afoot, nor what additional steps were taken to safeguard the president’s family, but we do know that Astor, the Secret Service and the F.B.I. were all involved.
On the afternoon of February 9th of 1942 at pier 88 in New York Harbor, an inferno erupted on the U.S.S. Lafayette, and many New Yorker’s thought that their worst fear had come to fruition. They believed that the Axis fifth column had begun sabotaging America’s war effort in New York City. The ship, formerly the French luxury liner Normandie, had been assigned a U.S. Coast Guard crew and was being outfitted for war. Vincent Astor, the Area Controller of New York and one time volunteer fire fighter, rushed to the docks and manned a fire hose within ten minutes of the fire breaking out. For the next twelve hours, Astor would remain on the docks until the ship capsized. While later investigations would reveal that careless handling of a welding torch on the part of shipyard worker Clement Derrick had caused the blaze, hysteria had already begun to spread as New Yorkers recalled the German sabotage attacks of the First World War.
As the war progressed and allied control of the seas was established, the need for an Area Controller for New York slowly decreased. Astor’s position was even revealed in a newspaper article published by the Journal American. No one knows who leaked the information to the newspaper and Astor had the story stricken from the evening editions, but historians speculate that the source of the leak was almost certainly one of Astor’s rivals in America’s intelligence community. He would serve out the rest of the war in the Navy Reserve, still transferring insider information to the Whitehouse. His transfer of Soviet financial information to the U.S. government would continue into the Cold War.
FDR’s declining health and the demands of business and leadership on both men would gradually reduce their ability to meet socially. Vincent in particular began to withdraw from society more and more. He sold his Long Island home, rarely traveled to his Bermuda Estate and even tried to sell Ferncliff, which had been a refuge for the men of his family for generations. Astor had his real estate agent contact Roosevelt, who expressed his sorrow at the thought of losing his lifelong neighbor on the Hudson, but suggested that the U.S. government could not purchase the land, which likely would have been preserved as a national park. And what a park it would have been with the scenic Hudson in the background, Astor’s private miniature railroad, the gaming house of Astor Courts, and the immaculately manicured landscape.
Astor Courts, John Jacob Astor's playhouse, would carry on the regal traditions of Ferncliff and play host to the wedding of Anne Goodrich to Polish Prince Edmond Poniatowski in 1952 and the wedding of Chelsea Clinton in 2010.
With the death of FDR in April of 1945, a friendship which had profoundly shaped a president, American business and America’s most prominent businessman of the era came to an end. Astor, in his typically fashion, would remain relatively quiet and behind the scenes until his death in 1959. He avoided credit for all of his good deeds and his national service. Nearly nothing was known of his intelligence activities until the 1980s when many of the relevant documents became declassified. He maintained his ties with the government, funneling insider information for the good of the nation, but never received any true notoriety.
The loss of his lifelong friend pushed Astor further from society as he became increasingly anti-social. In 1953, Vincent and Minnie Cushing would be divorced, but not until Minnie had found a suitable replacement as a wife for the difficult, ill, and aging millionaire. Vincent’s personality became a major point of contention for potential matches despite Astor’s claim that he would not likely live longer than three years. One potential suitor reportedly claimed “I don’t even like you” to which Astor informed her of his ill health and imminent demise which elicited the response of “But what if you don’t die?” and a refusal to marry. The seriousness of this issue is only heightened when one realizes that a 1957 survey from Fortune magazine estimated Astor’s wealth between $100 and $200 million dollars, a tremendous increase from the fortune he inherited in 1912.
At the age of 61, the ailing Vincent Astor would wed the once divorced and recently widowed Roberta Brooke Russell Marshall, who later claimed that in six years of marriage the couple only went out a handful of times. Brooke would further renovate Astor Courts, removing the squash courts and installing a library near the pool, though at his advanced age and in increasingly poor health Vincent was far less likely to make use of the athletic facilities of the home. During Vincent’s final marriage, the couple would move between four homes, but each one was typically barred from visitors as the suspicious and depressed Vincent even forbade Brooke from maintaining a relationship with her son from an earlier marriage. In the final years of his life, Vincent, who continued to excessively drink and smoke, would see a near constant parade of doctors as his chronically poor health lead to a fatal heart attack in his Manhattan apartment on February 3, 1959. He would leave no heir.
In 1948, Vincent would establish the Vincent Astor Foundation which was devoted to “Alleviating human misery.” The foundation would award grants to libraries, hospitals, museums, schools, homes, civic and community groups. With Vincent’s death in 1959, the Foundation would pass on to his third wife, Brooke Russell Astor, who would serve as president until it’s dissolution in 1997. Donating over $200,000,000, the Vincent Astor Foundation would be one of the most important philanthropic organizations in the history of New York City and would continue the generosity that Vincent displayed as early as 1912. The philanthropic activities of the Vincent Astor Foundation and of Brooke Astor would lead to her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Curator — William Villano
Organization — Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library