The Best Stuff

Ian Jack

  • David Astor: A Life in Print by Jeremy Lewis
    Cape, 400 pp, £25.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 09090 2

Thanks to my older brother, I was an Observer reader as a schoolboy. On most Sundays in the year or two either side of 1960 he would take the bus six miles to our nearest town and return with a paper that augmented the Sunday Post – delivered to the door that morning by the village newsagent – and its claustrophobic worldview formed fifty years before in Presbyterian Dundee. Where the Observer’s wider and obviously more up-to-date perspective came from I had no idea; the kind of smart remark that said it was a paper ‘written by Central European Jews for Central African blacks’ would have flown straight over my head. I didn’t know that it had championed the decolonisation of Africa or opposed the Suez invasion in a famous editorial that described Britain and France as gangsters. What I remember were the things that made us laugh: the column by Paul Jennings that had a tongue-twister about ‘tuskless rustics eating crustless Ruskets’; the strip cartoon by Jules Feiffer; the witty reviews by Kenneth Tynan of plays that we had next to no chance of seeing; the house adverts by the subversive estate agent Roy Brooks that my brother read aloud (‘The décor is revolting … rain drips sadly onto the oilcloth … sacrifice £3500’).

As Jeremy Lewis observes, it was a remarkably handsome newspaper, much more spacious in its page layouts and crisper in its black/white contrasts than its rival, the Sunday Times, which looked untidy and grey by comparison. Throughout the 1950s it was the dominant ‘quality’ Sunday paper, certainly in its cultural and political influence among the young if not always in terms of its circulation. It belonged to the era of what Lewis calls the ‘benign monopolies of English life’ – the BBC, the NHS, Penguin paperbacks – as yet unconcerned about ‘low-grade competition from upstart rivals’. The Observer published what it considered to be important and interesting, Lewis says, ‘without having to worry too much about the opposition, let alone about colour magazines, women’s pages, consumerism and popular culture’.

It was patrician, humane, cosmopolitan and inspiring, and behind it lay the struggle of a very rich man to do good. In his role as owner-editor, David Astor had more freedom than any other journalist in London, but power made him bashful and uneasy. When, towards the end of Astor’s editing career, the South African journalist Donald Woods proposed a series of interviews with him, Astor suggested that the theme shouldn’t be ‘How did a rich boy come to be so idealistic?’ but ‘How did a cripple come to have some success?’ By ‘cripple’ he meant mental not physical damage. Only many years of psychoanalysis, he believed, had saved him from self-destruction through anxiety and depression. Most mornings, the car that took him from his home in St John’s Wood to the Observer offices near Fleet Street would divert to Sigmund Freud’s old house in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, where Freud’s daughter Anna still saw patients. There, Astor would spend a daily analytic hour on the couch attempting to understand his relationship with the woman who had ‘crippled’ him. This was his mother, the irrepressible Nancy Astor, a nightmare we would all want to be woken from.

Too much money and too much mother; small wonder that Isaiah Berlin decided David Astor was ‘a neurotic, muddled, complicated, politically irresponsible, unhappy adventurer, permanently resentful of somebody or something … a typical poor little American rich boy’. But on the evidence of Lewis’s perceptive and absorbing biography, that verdict falls wide of the mark.


‘Oh my sweet, how glad I am that we are not rich,’ Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, after a visit to Cliveden in 1936, complaining about the ‘ghastly unreality about it all … like living on the stage of the Scala theatre in Milan’. The Nicolsons were hardly impoverished – they’d moved into Sissinghurst Castle a few years before – but the Astors were something else again. As well as Cliveden, a mansion so large that meals proceeded from kitchen to dining room by miniature railway, they owned a London house in St James’s Square, a Highland estate on the island of Jura, and a 16-bedroom seaside ‘cottage’ at Sandwich in Kent. Waldorf and Nancy Astor and their five children somehow found the time to live in all four; worried about the safety of Jura milk, Nancy had her own cow dispatched to the island every season by train and steamer. But it was Cliveden, perched above a bend of the Thames near Maidenhead, that established the Astors’ reputation as society hosts and entertainers. After dinner the histrionic Nancy would put on a wig and insert a pair of theatrical false teeth and do her impersonations, making the fastidious Nicolson wish he were elsewhere.

The Astor fortune had its origins in the fur trade monopoly that John Jacob Astor established in New York after migrating there from Walldorf in the Rhineland in the late 18th century. The profits went into buying up large tracts of Manhattan when it was still mainly farmland and scrub; later, when the fields grew into streets and buildings, many of them held on Astor leases, the investment reaped a prodigious annual return. H.G. Wells said of one of John Jacob’s great-grandchildren, William Waldorf Astor, that he extracted rents ‘as effectively as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit’, though by Wells’s day spending rather than getting had become the most visible Astor occupation. With an exaggerated version of the anglophilia common to his age and class, William Waldorf declared America unfit to be the home of a gentleman and bought Cliveden from the Duke of Westminster for $1.25 million in 1893, later adding Hever Castle in Kent to his country addresses and dividing his London time between a magnificent house in Carlton House Terrace and a fantastical Gothic villa on the Embankment (now a gallery, 2 Temple Place) that he had built as an office.

Owning a newspaper brought a newcomer influence and attention. William Waldorf bought the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892 – firing the editor when he refused to publish his contributions – and then in 1911 paid £5000 to take the Observer off Lord Northcliffe's hands, Northcliffe having fallen out with the paper’s bright-spark editor, James Louis Garvin, over the question of imperial trade preference. Buying the Observer had really been the idea of William Waldorf’s son, also called Waldorf (the Astors had a confusing paucity of first names), and four years later he made him the owner, one of a series of paternal gifts that included the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York (a birthday present) and Cliveden itself (a wedding present when he married Nancy Langhorne in 1906). Waldorf had been put through Eton and Oxford to become an English gentleman, ‘modest, selfless, wise, prompting quietly in the wings rather than acting on the stage’ in the description of the political contacts-man and Astor consigliere Tom Jones, using words of the sort that later stuck like labels to Waldorf’s son David wherever he went.

Waldorf’s wife, whom he met on an Atlantic crossing, was the opposite. Variously compared to a gnat, a grasshopper and a Chinese cracker, Nancy Langhorne was the small and domineering daughter of a hard-drinking Virginian, who made his fortune in railroad construction. David was the third of their five children, born in 1912 the month before the Titanic sank, drowning one of his American relatives, the fourth John Jacob Astor, the ship’s richest passenger and one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Waldorf was by now Tory MP for Plymouth and had high hopes of political advancement, but these came crashing down when in 1916 Lloyd George’s coalition offered his father a peerage to reward his philanthropy and his newspapers’ longstanding support of the Conservative cause. Waldorf was furious when his father accepted, because he would have to succeed him as the second Baron Astor, which would mean resigning from the Commons and ending his political career. Father and son never spoke to each other again in the three years William Waldorf had left to live.

The episode had important consequences for the family and added a footnote to political history. By changing his will in favour of his grandchildren rather than his son, William Waldorf made his grandson David rich when he was still very young; even as a student he was giving money to good causes. And Nancy, by contesting and winning the Plymouth constituency that her husband had had to forfeit, became the first woman to take her seat in Parliament.

Bolstered by a public role that made her more than just a châtelaine, she made her Cliveden house parties into starry events. All sorts of people turned up for the weekend; the guest list in the interwar years included George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, H.G. Wells, Mary Pickford, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin – even Gandhi. David’s prolonged exposure to celebrities in his childhood meant that they held no fear for him as an adult. Sometimes, when Nancy got unusually loud or agitated, her husband would squeeze the back of her neck and murmur ‘Easy, steady,’ a calming movement that Lewis compares to the action of ‘a groom with a recalcitrant mare’. David found his mother ‘the funniest and most compelling entertainer’ in the Astor family, but others’ judgments were less generous. Chips Channon, an American social climber who knew another when he saw one, found her ‘dynamic, unbalanced and foolish’. In the opinion of her biographer, John Grigg, she lacked ‘the two qualities most desirable in a parent … calm and the readiness to praise’. In David’s life, she seems to have been at first too absent and then far too present.

He was a pretty boy, ‘an extraordinarily attractive little creature’ according to his prep school headmaster, but not scholarly or perceptibly clever. He preferred talking to reading – an Astor trait – and kept a beagle pack and a polo pony. In his last year at Eton winning the hurdles was his only distinction, and he dropped out of Balliol after two years of PPE. Overwhelmed by the combination of recrimination and possessiveness that became the hallmark of his mother’s correspondence, he developed what he later described as ‘a kind of self-contempt’ which he supposed came out of the struggle between his desire to be loyal and loving and his need to get away. ‘I wish you’d been born an ugly girl, then you couldn’t leave me,’ Nancy told him. They quarrelled about the Christian Science that she and then Waldorf had adopted and which David was the first of her children to renounce. (‘He thinks Christian Science has failed him,’ Nancy said. ‘Needless to say, it never occurs to him that he has failed Christian Science.’) In a torment of loneliness and suicidal depression, he wrote dozens of letters – sometimes twenty or thirty a day – to his close friends and family, until some relief arrived in the form of an early encounter with psychoanalysis. Lewis suggests that analysis filled the vacuum that Christian Science had left – as a belief system that offered explanation and comfort. Certainly he never stopped believing in it or proselytising its good effects, either by personal testimony or in the funding of charities or clinics – a psychiatric unit at Guy’s Hospital was one.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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