Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nancy Astor

In 1919 Nancy Astor took her seat in the House of Commons as the first woman to serve as an MP. In the 90 years since then, many more women have entered the hallowed walls of the Houses of Parliament, there's even been a woman Prime Minister, following in the footsteps of this remarkable woman. But not many people today know her name or her achievements. So here are a few facts about Nancy Astor.

1. Nancy Langhorne came into the world on May 19, 1879 in Danville Virginia, one of 11 children born to Chillie and Nanaire Langhorne. The Langhornes were not rich; the growing family lived in near poverty in a four room house in Danville. Chillie worked as an auctioneer and later with the railroads. By the time Nancy was 11, Chillie had enough money to move his family to Richmond to a grand house called Mirador.

2. Nancy wasn't the only Langhorne to make her mark on the world. Her oldest sister Irene was the first southerner to open the Patriarchs Ball in New York since the Civil War. She later married the artist Charles Dana Gibson who was known for his illustrations of the Gibson Girl. Her oldest sister Lizzie's daughter, also named Nancy, became the celebrated interior decorator Nancy Lancaster. And her youngest sister Nora's daughter became the noted British comedienne, actress, and singer-songwriter Joyce Grenfell.

3. At the age of 18, Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw, the nephew of Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The marriage was a disaster from the start. Although handsome and charming, Shaw was also an alcoholic and an adulterer. Nancy left him two weeks after they married but she was convinced to return by his family. They had a son Bobbie in 1898 and Nancy tried to stick out. She finally left him but wouldn't countenance a divorce until she discovered he had entered into a bigamous marriage with his mistress.

4. An Anglophile since childhood, in 1904, Nancy made the first of several trips to England for the hunting season, one of her great passions. From her first trip, she was a great success. Edwardian Society was fascinated by Nancy. On the one hand, she was witty and saucy in conversation, but on the other, she was devout and almost prudish in behavior. This confused particularly the men who had thought that she would be easy game. Nancy was once asked by an English woman, "Have you come to get our husbands?" Her unexpected response, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine."

5. Nancy’s first male conquest in England was John Baring, Lord Revelstoke head of Barings Bank, the oldest merchant bank in London until its collapse in 1995. However, Lord Revelstoke was 16 years older than her, and had been involved in a long-term love affair with a married woman. Although he was extremely rich, Nancy found banking boring. And like many Englishmen, he was inarticulate in his feelings, only able to tell Nancy on paper how he felt.

6. Instead Nancy married Waldorf Astor. The son of William Waldorf Astor, his father had moved the family to England when Waldorf was twelve and raised his children as English. They met onboard ship on one of Nancy's return trips to England in 1905. James Fox in his wonderful biography about his great aunt Nancy believes that Waldorf had his heart set on wooing Nancy and arranged to be on the same ship as she was. He used his time wisely on board spending time charming Nancy's father Chillie who put in a good word for him. However, Waldorf was only one of Nancy's many suitors.. Waldorf was also extremely rich, but he was a gentleman of leisure. He was also born on the same day as Nancy. Although he often suffered from ill-health, he balanced out Nancy's outgoingness, with a sweet and gentle nature. In other words, Nancy could manage him to her heart's content.

7. Nancy suffered bouts of ill-health until her conversion to Christian Science. Most of her illnesses were psychosomatic in origin. Although naturally gregarious and competitive by nature, the constant rounds of parties and social duties eventually took their toll. It was her sister Phyllis who gave her Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health. From then on it and the bible were her only reading material. The idea of mind over matter greatly appealed to a control freak like Nancy. She succeeded in converting her friend Philip Kerr, Marquess of Lothian, Waldorf, and several other relatives to the cause. Like a born-again Christian, Nancy constantly proselytized her new found religion to anyone who would listen, probably to the point of boredom. Unfortunately her religion had serious reprecussions when her daughter Wissie suffered an accident to her back. Instead of calling for a medical doctor, Nancy and Waldorf called for a Christian Science practicioner. By the time an orthopedic surgeon was called in, the damage was done. Wissie suffered from back pain for the rest of her life.

8. Nancy soon gave birth to five Astor children over the next twelve years of her marriage starting with Bill, followed by Wissie, David, Michael and Jakie. Her relationship with all her children was tempestuous. Her favorite child was her eldest Bobbie Shaw; they had were so co-dependent that Freud would have given his left arm to get the two of them on the couch. Neither one of them could be happy with or without the other. While Nancy loved all her children, she was not demonstrative. Instead she was combative and possessive,sort of an affectionate bully, not wanting the boys to get married and have lives of their own. She would tell them that they were ‘Conceived without pleasure and born without pain.” She took it for granted that they would just love her no matter what. A psychoanalyst would probably say that Nancy was verbally and emotionally abusive towards her children. Bobbie and Jakie were the two children who could dish it out as well as they could take it. Still her children loved her despite her shortcomings as a mother.

9. While Nancy could be an affectionate bully, she could also be incredibly generous. She gave freely to her sisters Irene and Phyllis. She supported other family members and others in need over the years without question. However with her sister Lizzie, Nancy insisted that any money she gave her be accounted for.

10. Nancy was not the first woman to be elected to Parliament. That distinction belongs to Constance Markiewicz, who along with the other members of the Sinn Fein party refused to take the oath. If she had, she would have been the first woman to actually take her seat. Her husband, Waldorf had been elected to Parliament from Plymouth and was well on his way to a brilliant career when his father shocked the couple by accepting a peerage, making him Viscount Astor. When his father died, Waldorf succeeded to the title, which meant that he was kicked upstairs to the House of Lords. The seat was now vacant, and it was decided that Nancy would run in the next election to take his place. Nancy took to the British method of politicking like a duck to water. Her quick wit meant that she could deal with the hecklers without losing her ladylike demeanor. Nancy won her seat by more than 5,000 votes over the other candidates.

11. In later life, Nancy told one of her sons that if she had known what being the first woman to bridge the all male club of the Houses of Parliament was going to be like, she would never have done it. The male members were not pleased to have a woman in their midst. They would debate the most disgusting subjects possible such as venereal disease, complete with graphic photos, they would refuse to give her the corner seat forcing her to climb over their legs, and direct her to the furthest bathroom possible. But Nancy stuck it out. Her saving grace was her total disregard for the rules. She interrupted when she should have been quiet, listened intently no matter what the topic, and disarmed the men with her charm. Among her early political friends were the female MPs who followed her, by the late twenties, there were at least 15 women in Parliament. Nancy later proposed creating a "Women’s Party", but the female Labour MPs thought it was a ridiculous idea because at that time their party had power. While Nancy gave in, her closeness with teh other female MPs dissipated over time.

12. Nancy had a gift for being able to mix people of different backgrounds and social classes. It was not uncommon to find members of the Tory party alongside members of the Liberal party. She was able to make everyone feel welcome and at home, keeping up a constant stream of activities and games to entertain people. Her southern charm, and wit made intimates of many of the men who graced the table at Cliveden, including Hilaire Belloc, T.E. Lawrence, and George Bernard Shaw.

13. In the late twenties, Nancy took a trip to the Soviet Union with George Bernard Shaw, where she lectured Stalin for two hours, claiming that he was acting as autocratically as the Tsars that the communists deposed. At first, her questions were not being translated into Russian until Shaw insisted that Stalin should hear what she was saying. She took a huge risk, criticizing Stalin so openly to his face. To his credit, Stalin answered her questions, although it must have galled him to be questioned that way by a woman.

14. One of Nancy’s most famous feuds were with Winston Churchill. She once said at a dinner party, “If I were your wife, I would poison your coffee,” while Churchill replied, “If I were your husband, I would drink it.” Ironically, Nancy and Waldorf had been friends with Winston and his wife Clementine in her early years in England. However, Churchill had never favored women’s suffrage, and once Nancy became MP, the relationship cooled. The relationship got downright frosty in the 1930’s when Nancy and Waldorf favored appeasement, while Churchill among others felt that Hitler was a threat. During the War, Winston and his wife went down to Plymouth to see the damage. When he wept, Nancy said, “It’s all very well to cry, Winston, but you’ve got to do something.” This did not endear Nancy to him but it got things done.

15. Nancy’s political career began to suffer in the 1930’s during the long march towards war. Because of Nancy’s antipathy towards the French who she considered immoral as well as Catholic, her sympathies lay more with Germany who was considered industrious and mainly Protestant. However, a journalist with communist leanings named Claud Cockburn wrote an article for a newsletter called The Week calling the politicians who favored appeasement with Germany, ‘The Cliveden Set.’ The idea was that the so-called ‘Cliveden Set’ spent weekends engineering a plot to sell-out to the Nazi’s to stem the real threat, which was communism. While several of Nancy and Waldorf’s friends favored appeasement, many of them didn’t. However the name stuck.

16. In 1945, Waldorf insisted that it was time for Nancy to step down as MP and not run again for re-election. Times had changed now that the war was over, and he was afraid that if she ran, she would be defeated. Nancy resented it; she wanted to run but agreed to accede to Waldorf’s wishes. The decision caused a rift in their marriage that lasted almost to his death in 1952.

17. Nancy was a life-long teetotaller. Her first husband was a drinker, as well as her brothers. While Nancy didn't mind others drinking, she herself abstained. She was completely for Prohibition in the States. Her temperance stance didn't hinder her political career, which is ironic given that she lived in a country where drinking can be a national pasttime.

Nancy died on May 2, 1964 just before her 85th birthday. She was cremated and her ashes reside with Waldorf’s at Cliveden in an 18th century Octagon Temple, just below the great lawn. A confederate flag was buried with her. Her son Bobby passed away 6 years later in 1970 from an overdose; he is buried in the temple alongside his mother.


Nancy Astor - John Griggs, Hamlyn Paperbacks, 1982
The Langhorne Sisters - James Fox, Granta Books, 1998


Evangeline said...

Have you read the memoirs written by Nancy's lady's maid? Needless to say, Nancy Astor was, in Regency-speak, a tartar. I find it hard to be completely repulsed by her personality because she's just so tenacious and mesmerizing--part of her appeal back in the Edwardian era, lol. Great post!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I haven't read her maid's memoirs yet but from the description of the relationship in James Fox's book, I'm surprised that the woman didn't quit over the years. I find Nancy but compelling and repulsive as well. I'm not sure that I could be friends with her, but it also seems as if most of her close friends were male apart from her sisters.

mellyhamilton said...

This is a great post - a very controversial lady yet compelling to read about! The maids memoirs sound a great read too, and Ive recently heard an audio on her life by the Amazing People Club which you may enjoy,
Thanks for the post!