John Jacob Astor

First Class

John Jacob Astor IV was born at the family estate, “Ferncliff”, in Rhinebeck, New York on July 13, 1864.  His grandfather had emigrated to New York from Waldorf, Germany, and amassed a fortune in the fur trade and other businesses.  John Jacob Astor IV attended the best schools and after Harvard traveled abroad extensively.  He returned in 1891 and married Ava Lowle Willing of Philadelphia. They had two children, Vincent born in 1891 and Ava Alice Muriel in 1902.  The marriage was not a happy one, with Astor and Ava living relatively separate lives.

Astor managed the family real estate fortune from his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Although business-oriented, Astor was inclined towards art, scientific invention and literature.  He helped to develop a turbine engine, invented a bicycle brake, and authored a science fiction novel, A Journey to Other Worlds. In 1897, he built the Astoria Hotel next to the Waldorf Hotel built by his cousin, William Waldorf Astor.  The two merged into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel which because the site for the American Inquiry into the sinking of Titanic.  In 1898, he was named lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army volunteer after outfitting a mountain battery and offering the assistance of his yacht to help fight the Spanish-American War (April – August 1898). 

In 1909, Ava Astor filed for divorce which was granted in 1910.  The following year, 47-year old John Jacob Astor married 18-year-old debutante Madeleine Talmadge Force on September 9, 1911.  The scandal of divorce plus the disparity between their ages led to intensive public gossip and commentary.  The newlyweds soon departed for an extended honeymoon to Europe and Egypt in order to let the gossip die down at home. Upon learning that Madeleine was pregnant, the couple decided to return to America as first-class passengers on Titanic.

It is reported that when Titanic hit the iceberg, the couple spent some time assessing the situation sitting on mechanical horses in the gymnasium.  Eventually, Astor placed Madeleine in Lifeboat 4 along with her maid and nurse.  Astor asked if he could accompany his wife, but was refused by the officer in charge. 

John Jacon Astor’s partially crushed body – it is believed he was hit by a funnel as it crashed into the ocean – was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett and returned to his family.  He was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery.  His son, John Jacob Astor V, was born on August 14, 1912, four months after the tragic collision of Titanic with the iceberg.

Colonel John Astor is best known as one of the founders of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, the landmark hotel in New York City, which he built in cooperation with his cousin, who was named Waldorf Astor. He is also fairly widely known for his drowning in the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, when he was only 48 years old, while on a honeymoon with his second wife, the 18 year old Madeleine Talmadge Force.