In the year 2012 it seemed like just about everyone wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Perhaps the most frequent were restaurants who tried to duplicate in some fashion the dinner served in the first-class dining room on that fateful night. Few could do the entire menu of numerous courses that were served there. But the Lehigh Valley’s Hotel Bethlehem did them all one better. Staff there discovered that a Titanic victim had stayed at the Eagle Hotel, predecessor to the Hotel Bethlehem. That was John Jacob Astor IV, then among the richest men in America. It was a story that Edith Wharton, who mixed socially on the edges of that world, could have made the plot for one of her novels.
The date was February 18, 1891, and Astor and his bride Ava Willing of Philadelphia had been married the day before and were on their way to the Poconos. Her family was among the oldest in the Quaker City. It included several early mayors. The New York Times said their marriage “surpasses any matrimonial event that has taken place in this country in a century.” That may have been true, but this “matrimonial event” did not live happily ever after. In fact, what followed was one of the largest headline divorce cases of the early 20th century, when divorce was regarded as the ultimate scandal for prominent families. Husbands and wives could live apart from each other for whatever reasons by mutual agreement. But to parade your disagreements before the courts and newspapers was to court social ostracism. Yet that is what Astor did, and it was headline fodder for every newspaper in the country.
Astor was probably at least familiar with Bethlehem and Northampton County as having links to his family’s past. The founder of the family, John Jacob Astor, who came from Germany as a young butcher’s apprentice, based his fortune on the fur trade. His North American Fur Company traded a rifle made by the Henry family at Jacobsburg with native American tribes in the northwest. John Jacob Astor stayed in Bethlehem, probably at the Sun Inn, during his dealings with the Henrys. By the 1830s Astor began to get out of the fur trade and invest in New York City real estate. At the time of his death in 1848 he was worth $20 million, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States. Shortly before his death he was asked if he ever made a mistake in his business life. “Yes,” Astor is said to have replied, “not buying more New York real estate.”
John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV was born in 1864 to William Backhouse Astor Jr, a grandson of the family’s founder. Astor’s father was a businessman, managing the family’s real estate, and also a collector of art and a racehorse breeder and owner. His mother was Caroline Webster “Lina” Schermerhorn Astor, a member of one of the city’s aristocratic Dutch founding families. These ties led Caroline Schermerhorn to become the leading social figure in New York society. Known as “the” Mrs. Astor, she set the rules about who was and was not acceptable at the highest levels of high society. As one elderly dowager of the day remarked, “in my day people did not ‘arrive.’” Still, ambitious “climbers” vied to be invited to Astor’s home for dinner. She snubbed the wealthy Vanderbilts because their money was made in railroads, which in her eyes made it vulgar and too “new.” Under the direction of social advisor Ward McAllister, an Astor cousin by marriage, the concept of the elite 400 leaders of fashionable society, with “Lina” Astor as the arbiter, was established. Although it was not, as some thought, based on the number of people who could fit into Astor’s New York City ballroom, it was dominated only by those who passed muster with “the” Mrs. Astor.
As her only son and his sisters learned early, their mother was not someone who would tolerate children who did not “toe the line.” Her daughters married into old families, one to James “Rosey” Roosevelt, a diplomat and elder half-brother of future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was almost certain that his mother had to approve who her son married. And clearly Ava Lowie Willing made the grade. On source says “Lina” Astor even pre-arranged it. Rumors were circulating that Ava’s parents had forced her to break off an engagement with an impecunious law student she loved and that she had made a scene. Something briefly appeared in the gossip columns the day after the wedding but nothing more was heard of it.
Willing was not, of course, old New York, but her linage back to the Shippen family, among the founders of the city of Philadelphia and its second mayor, and the Willing family’s old money made long ago from trade and shipping made Ava highly acceptable. When Willing’s father died several years later, a Philadelphia newspaper noted, “he never engaged in any pursuit.” No dirty “vulgar” railroad money in that family!
February 17, 1891 was set for the date of the wedding at the Willing mansion at 510 South Broad Street (now occupied by a modern building housing a division of the Philadelphia Health Department). A special train was hired to carry all the Astor family members and a large wedding party of friends from New York. “Rosey” Roosevelt was in charge of “shepherding” the confused New Yorkers who had apparently never been to Philadelphia before. One went so far as to inquire if the streets were paved. The wedding was held in the mansion’s large picture gallery with ushers in cutaways and bridesmaids in dresses of rose pink described in detail in the next day’s society pages. Potted palms lined the room while a surpliced bearded body of Episcopal clergy, headed by the “massive form” of Rev. William N. McVicker, rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, performed the service. “The wedding of Miss Ava to Mr. John Jacob Astor in Philadelphia yesterday was precisely the simple, solemn and dignified ceremonial which should unite superb beauty to a regal fortune,” gushed the next day’s New York Herald. Astor gave his responses in a resonant voice. Ava’s could hardly be heard.
A reception followed with the popping of champagne corks and the arrival of the bride and groom. An elaborate meal began with “consommé a la princessee tasse,” proceeded to several other courses that included “Terrapin a la Pinard” and “Filet de boeuf aux truffes” and was topped off with “Glaces fantaisies.” Three types of French wine were served. Afterward the New Yorkers apparently staggered back to the special train. The couple returned to New York and apparently left the next day for an overnight stop at Bethlehem before going on to the mountains.
At that point in its history the Eagle was a wonderful old mid-Victorian dowager of a building with a cupola and wide, two-story front porch. It might just have had a rustic charm for jaded wealthy honeymooners. Its charm was lost on Bethlehem Steel’s Charles Schwab who by 1920 wanted a more modern place to house his international clients and guests, hence the Hotel Bethlehem.
The honeymoon did not end there. A five-week tour of Europe followed as did two children, Vincent and Ava Alice Muriel. With plenty of money and time, “Jack” Astor indulged in personal projects. He sponsored an artillery battery in the Spanish-American war, wrote a science fiction novel, “A Journey in Other Worlds” about possible life in the year 2000 on the planets Saturn and Jupiter, and patented inventions including a bicycle brake. Astor was also a yachtsman known for his daring if not to say reckless seamanship. He had once run his big steam yacht Nourmahal into a sandbar and was sued for having rammed the Vanderbilt’s steam yacht, the North Star, off of Newport. Astor also served in Cuba during the war and was ever after known as “Colonel” Astor. In 1897 he took his millions and built the Astoria Hotel, adjoining the Waldorf Hotel owned by his brother, William, and became the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
But Astor’s marriage was falling apart. One source called it “tumultuous.” The last straw came when the 47-year-old began an affair with the 18-year-old Madeleine Talmage Force. Her mother, known behind her back by reporters as “Force majeure,” wanted Astor to make “an honest woman” of her daughter. But Jack Astor would not dare to move while his ailing mother was alive. In 1908 “Lina” passed away. In 1909 Ava sued for divorce, charging adultery. His friends and family, particularly his son Vincent, were furious but even more outraged when Astor married Force. Society folks were shocked, and his club members and fellow Harvard classmates branded him a cad.
Hoping the situation would die down with time, the Astors took an extended honeymoon to Europe and eventually, Egypt, then the Florida of the wealthy. While there they ran into the eccentric Denver millionairess Margret ”Molly” Brown. They would meet again onboard the Nomadic, the White Star Line’s ferry taking them from Cherbourg to the Titanic. Madeleine was five months pregnant. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Astor did everything he could to comfort his wife. Before it sank, he put his wife, her maid, and nurse into a lifeboat. Told that he could not accompany them, he walked away. Later a passenger testified that he saw Astor in the water clinging to a raft with another passenger, the English journalist William Stead. He assumed their feet froze and they slipped into the sea and drowned. Astor’s body was found and buried in Trinity Church Yard in Manhattan.
Madeleine Force Astor gave birth to a son, John Jacob Astor VI, that August. Known as Jackey or the Titanic Baby, he was married four times and spent many years fighting in court over his father’s estate with brother Vincent before his death in 1959. Jackey Astor died in 1992. His mother re-married twice, the last time to Italian prizefighter Enzo Fiermonte, whom she divorced. By marrying again, she cut herself off from the Astor family and money. Shunned by the Astor family, Madeleine died of a heart attack in 1940 in Palm Beach at age 47, the same age as Astor when he died.
Ava Willing Astor had already established herself in England before her divorce. She purchased a large house in London’s Mayfair district and a country estate in Surrey where she entertained lavishly. Willing re-married in 1919 to Thomas Lister. Her husband died in 1925. She continued to live in England, only returning to America at the start of World War II. Willing died in New York in a Park Avenue apartment in 1958 at age 89. She left her $3 million estate to be divided with her four grandchildren by her four times married and divorced daughter Ava Muriel Alice, who had died in 1956.