John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler was an heir to the Astor fortune, an eccentric, dashing, and handsome millionaire. Amélie Rives, Southern belle and the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee, was a daring author, a stunning temptress, and a woman ahead of her time.
Archie and Amélie seemed made for each other—both were passionate, intense, and driven by emotion—but the very things that brought them together would soon tear them apart. Their marriage began with a “secret” wedding that found its way onto the front page of the New York Times, to the dismay of Archie’s relatives and Amélie’s many gentleman friends. To the world, the couple appeared charmed, rich, and famous; they moved in social circles that included Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stanford White. But although their love was undeniable, they tormented each other, and their private life was troubled from the start.
They were the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their day—a celebrated couple too dramatic and unconventional to last—but their tumultuous story has largely been forgotten. Now, Donna M. Lucey vividly brings to life these extraordinary lovers and their sweeping, tragic romance.
“In the Virginia hunt country just outside of Charlottesville, where I live, the older people still tell stories of a strange couple who died some two generations ago. The stories involve ghosts, the mysterious burning of a church, a murder at a millionaire’s house, a sensational lunacy trial, and a beautiful, scantily clad young woman prowling her gardens at night as if she were searching for something or someone—or trying to walk off the effects of the morphine that was deranging her. I was inclined to dismiss all of this as tall tales Virginians love to spin out; but when I looked into these yarns I found proof that they were true. . . .” —Donna M. Lucey on Archie and Amélie
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Archie and Amelie
By Donna M. Lucey
Random HouseDonna M. Lucey
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The Education of an Astor, or A Name That Rings Like Bullion
The irony of Archie--man on the run, hiding his face as he crossed the familiar Manhattan precincts of his youth--was not lost on the Astor heir himself. He had been, and still considered himself, one of the princes of the city. In fact, much of the real estate he traversed during that hansom cab ride in 1900 was owned by his family.
The story of the Astor wealth was legend, and Archie could recite it chapter and verse. He had been schooled in the family history and in the expectations that it created. Archie understood only too well the burden involved. As the eldest son in his huge family (he had seven surviving brothers and sisters) he carried a particularly heavy load. All of the Chanler siblings prided themselves on their individuality, on their strong-willed and often eccentric ways. They all professed an indifference to money. Why not? They had plenty of it. Piles of it had been amassed by their forebears, and none of the current generation--least of all Archie--wanted to spend their lives the way their great-grandfather William Backhouse Astor had.
Nicknamed "Landlord of New York," William Backhouse Astor was both reviled and envied in his lifetime. He was a "hard dreary looking old man and the richest in the world," in theestimation of Lord Rosebery, the future prime minister of England. Six feet tall but stoop-shouldered, William B. Astor spent his life hunched over his contracts and leases. He had inherited from his father, John Jacob Astor, vast stretches of Manhattan real estate, and as the population boomed in nineteenth-century New York, the value of the land rose exponentially. By 1860, tenement slums with a population density of 290,000 per square mile became William B. Astor's specialty. The arithmetic was simple: one block
lled with tenements could generate at least twice the revenue of a similar block with more-spacious middle-class housing. As immigrants poured into the city, the Astor name became synonymous with misery. When one newcomer proudly announced to a Board of Health inspector that his house was owned by Astor, the of
cial shot back, "More's the pity."
William B. was the caretaker for the vast empire his father had acquired; he had little interest in building or transforming the landscape. He would just as soon let others erect housing for the poor on his land; he would merely collect the rents. Being a pious man, he could then blame others for--or claim ignorance of--the inhumane conditions that prevailed on his property. But of course his ignorance of conditions only went so far. Eager to maintain the status quo and keep his coffers full, he did his best to defy all attempts at tenement reform and for years succeeded in delaying the construction of subways that would allow immigrants to live in more distant parts of the city. Besides, in his view, it was laziness that kept a man in a miserable tenement with no ventilation, plumbing, or light. It was not William B.'s problem. One had only to look at his father's example to see the opportunity available to any man willing to work hard--a belief commonly held by William B. and other plutocrats who had inherited vast fortunes without lifting a
Archie knew as well of the more colorful saga of his great-great- grandfather, who had amassed the original fortune. The family patriarch's saga was indeed impressive. As legend has it, John Jacob Astor, twenty-year-old son of a poor butcher in Waldorf, Germany, arrived in Baltimore in 1784 with seven utes and about
ve pounds sterling, and parlayed it into a fortune conservatively estimated at $20 million, a sum that staggered the imagination of his contemporaries. In 1848, the year Astor died, the richest man in Boston left behind only $2 million. John Jacob's winter passage to America was in steerage, and he subsisted on salt beef, biscuits, and dreams of what lay ahead. Just short of Baltimore the ship became trapped in ice, and there it remained stranded for two months--enough time for Astor to hatch a plan. One of his fellow German passengers was in the fur trade, and he passed the time by telling stories of the fortunes that could be made by buying American furs for next to nothing and selling them in England for exorbitant prices.
Astor's course was set. Arriving in New York, he went to work for a furrier, and spent the following summer beating pelts to keep moths out of them. Astor became a keen student of the fur business, and within several years had set up his own shop. Shouldering a backpack stuffed with at least sixty pounds of trade items, he tramped hundreds of miles through the wilderness, struck tough bargains with the trappers, and then brought the pelts to London, where he sold them at great pro
t. One beaver pelt in London might bring the equivalent of three dollars--the same price as a musket, which Astor could then trade with an Indian for ten more beaver skins.
While in London, Astor cemented a deal with the
rm of Astor and Broadwood (his older brother was a partner in the company), manufacturers of musical instruments. He served as New York agent for their pianos, utes, and violins--valued and scarce commodities in New York--and, in the process, helped
nance his burgeoning fur business. He opened a small shop in Manhattan that bore the unusual sign furs and pianos. One of John Jacob's original pianos remains at Rokeby, a reminder of the Astor patriarch's early strivings in commerce.
As his business grew, so did John Jacob's ambition. He leaped into the China trade, eventually sending his own eet of ships to Canton, where furs could be bartered for tea, silk, and porcelain. With a ruthlessness and cunning that would be admired--and copied--by later robber barons, Astor turned his American Fur Company into the country's
rst great monopoly. Other successful merchants and
nanciers would hang paintings in their of
ces to display their re
ned taste; Astor preferred to hang a
ne fur in his counting room, which he would stroke and boast of its worth in China.
As he piled up more and more money, John Jacob turned his eye toward investing it. All he had to do was look around and see the changes that had transformed Manhattan. When he had arrived in New York in 1784, the city's 23,000 residents lived largely below Cortlandt Street, at the southern tip of the island. By 1800 the population had more than doubled, and buildings had sprouted nearly a mile farther north. Betting that the city would continue that constant move northward, Astor began buying up property just beyond the built-up sections of the city. It was the future he was buying. In around 1810, John Jacob sold a lot near Wall Street for $8,000. The purchaser was certain that he had just eeced Astor. Gloating, the new owner said, "Why, Mr. Astor, in a few years this lot will be worth twelve thousand dollars." "Very true," Astor replied, "but now you shall see what I will do with this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars." And he was right.
Astor's real estate holdings made him as rich as Croesus, his very name conjuring up lucre. "John Jacob Astor," the narrator of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" opined, "[is] a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion." The newly minted millionaire was disdained for his peasant aura, his heavily accented and grammatically fractured English, and his alarming table manners. In 1815, James Gallatin noted in his diary that the fur peddler had dined at their home and "ate his ice-cream and peas with a knife"-- reason enough for his father, the patrician Jeffersonian statesman, Albert Gallatin, to decline Astor's offer of a partnership in the American Fur Company. Five years later, John Jacob once more discom
ted the Gallatins, by dining at their home and wiping his dirty
ngers on their daughter's white sleeve.
Like a character out of Dickens, the richer Astor grew, the more miserly he became. "I used to know him, when an ignoble dealer in Musk Rat skins," James Kirke Paulding, novelist of old Knickerbocker society, wrote contemptuously, "but cut his acquaintance when he became a Millionaire, for found he grew mean faster than he grew rich, and that his avarice increased with his means of being generous. He lived miserably and died miserably." Stories of his mean- spiritedness were legion. This "monarch of the counting-room" was tarnished by his greed, according to a scathing biographical sketch of the millionaire in the February 1865 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine: "The roll-book of his possessions was his Bible. He scanned it fondly and saw with quiet but deep delight the catalogue of his property lengthening from month to month. The love of accumulation grew with his years until it ruled him like a tyrant. If at
fty he possessed his millions, at sixty-
ve his millions possessed him."
Though he was reputed to "now and then, bestow small sums in charity," the magazine claimed that "we have failed to get trust- worthy evidence of a single instance of his doing so." In his
nal years, however, he was talked into leaving behind a gift to the city that had made him rich: a library open to the public. Though the nuances of the English language eluded him, Astor was particularly fascinated by literary men, and in his semi-retirement years he frequently entertained writers and poets in his home. He befriended Washington
Irving and chose him as one of the executors of his estate; he also employed the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck as his personal secretary for sixteen years. (The poet once made the mistake of telling his employer in jest that he had no need of millions, that he could live happily on several hundred dollars a year--as a cruel joke, that is exactly what Astor left Halleck as an annuity.) The Astor Library, John Jacob hoped, would serve as a permanent monument to him and to his
fortune--and perhaps counter his infamous reputation as a tightwad.
Not everyone was convinced. The press, led by the irascible James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the mass-circulation New York Herald, howled. Calling John Jacob "a self-invented money-making machine," he declared that by rights Astor should bestow half his fortune on the people of New York--after all, it was they who had created his wealth. In fact, Astor left about two and a half percent of his estate, a little over half a million dollars, for benevolent purposes. The largest chunk, $400,000, was allotted to fund the library, the rest given to a small assortment of charities: the German Society of New York, the German Reformed Congregation, the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, the Institution for the Blind, the Society for the Relief of Half Orphans and Destitute Children, and the New York Lying-In Asylum. Astor had a perfect horror of beggars, but obviously made an exception when it came to the poor in his native village of Waldorf, to whose care he pledged $50,000. The rest of his $20 million went to his family.
The reformer Horace Mann denounced Astor's parsimony as nothing short of "insanity," depicting him as "hoarding wealth for the base love of wealth, hugging to his breast, in his dying hour, the memory of his gold and not of his Redeemer; gripping his riches till the scythe of death cut off his hands and he was changed, in the twinkling of an eye, from being one of the richest men that ever lived in this world to being one of the poorest souls who ever went out of it." In Astor's defense, public philanthropy--with some notable exceptions--was not commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century; but the immense scale of his wealth in an era before the personal income tax, combined with the fact that he himself had come from poverty, made his gifts--with the exception of the library--appear paltry and, in fact, reinforced the stereotype of him as a mean-spirited old miser.
Archie was well aware of the contempt the populist press had for his forebear, and was determined that his life would be different. As heir to a fortune, Archie felt a keen sense of responsibility toward others; it was part of his patrician notion of noblesse oblige. Nonetheless, the sheer drama of John Jacob's life--from poor immigrant to fur peddler traipsing through the wilderness to merchant prince whose empire stretched from China to the streets of Manhattan--had a swashbuckling style that Archie and his siblings couldn't help but admire. John Jacob's energy and dash, and even his touch of eccentricity (attributes that could also be ascribed to Archie and his siblings) somehow managed to elude entirely his son and principal heir, William Backhouse Astor. Even the patriarch's uncouth manners lent him a comic edge--a humanity--that his somber son could never attain. At John Jacob's funeral, James Gallatin--who had once sneered at the senior Astor's boorish manners--was among his pallbearers. In a
tting touch, the family waiters marched with napkins pinned to their sleeves at the rear of the funeral procession.
Of course, by the time of John Jacob's death in 1848, he had long since been accepted--however grudgingly--into the fabric of the old Knickerbocker society that ruled New York. Having enough money will do that in New York. Besides, in 1818 his son, William Backhouse, had made a most propitious marriage to Margaret Armstrong, a woman with impeccable social credentials who helped raise the standing of the Astors. Margaret Armstrong was the daughter of General John Armstrong Jr. and Alida Livingston, one of the heirs to the vast Livingston lands--nearly a million acres--in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. The Livingstons were among the great landed aristocratic families in New York dating back to the seventeenth century, and they ruled the Hudson Valley like lords of a feudal empire. After serving as minister to France, General Armstrong built a country house on Livingston land overlooking the Hudson and christened it La Bergerie, "the sheep pen," in reference to the merino sheep he imported at the suggestion of Napoleon.
The Astor name rose immeasurably in social importance, tied as it was to the Livingston-Armstrong blue bloods.
Excerpted from Archie and Amelie by Donna M. Lucey Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
1. The subtitle of the book is “Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.” What do you think of the love affair between Archie and Amélie? Do you think Amélie married Archie because of his money and social position? Do you think she ever loved Archie? Likewise, do you think Archie truly loved Amélie, or was he just enthralled by the idea of marrying a seeming goddess? Which of the two characters do you find more sympathetic?
2. Amélie’s bestselling fiction was largely concerned with the war between the sexes. Though very tame by present-day standards, her writings scandalized the public because her female characters dared to express sexual desire. In real life, Amélie felt very conflicted about sex. What do you think of this ambiguity? Do you think she ever actually consummated her marriage with Archie?
3. Amélie always tried to present herself as an innocent naïf, victimized by those who misunderstood her and her work. Do you think she was an innocent victim, or was she the one in complete control? What about the limitations placed on women at that time? Was she merely trying to push the boundaries of what was acceptable for women, and did she suffer the consequences of that effort? Do you find anything noble in that struggle?
4. Over the years Amélie suffered horribly from “neuralgia of the brain,” headaches, and finally drug addiction. At that time morphine was commonly prescribed for symptoms like those Amélie endured. For “hysterical” women like Amélie, one of the common medical treatments was the “rest cure,” which is described on pages 165—166. Does this give you an insight into the way that women were treated as if they were a species apart from men? Does this make you more or less sympathetic to Amélie’s plight?
5. Archie also struggled against the accepted code of behavior when he began his psychic experiments. Do you think his family was justified in committing Archie to the insane asylum against his will? Do you think they were genuinely concerned about his mental well-being or more concerned about the family finances? Do you think that all of the siblings truly believed Archie was insane, or was this primarily a vendetta by his brother Winty, who was deeply involved in the creation of the mill town of Roanoke Rapids? What do you think about Stanford White’s role in Archie’s commitment?
6. Being orphaned at a relatively young age had a profound effect on Archie. As heirs to the Astor fortune, the Chanler children inherited a great deal of money; yet the Guardians who made all of the decisions about the orphans and their upbringing seemed more concerned about saving money than about the emotional well-being of the children. (Archie, for instance, was not allowed to return from England for two years after he had been orphaned.) Do you think the extreme loneliness and grief that Archie endured as a boy made him incapable as an adult of forming a healthy relationship?
7. Archie was a restless searcher his whole life. What exactly was he searching for? Do you think that Amélie was the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to him?
8. Archie never got over Amélie and even continued to support her after they divorced and she remarried. This made him the object of ridicule in some quarters, but he did not care what anyone thought. Do you think his obsession with Amélie pushed him over the edge into mental illness?
9. Amélie certainly suffered from mental anguish. For long periods of time she took to her bed with unspecified maladies, and yet she also had a very grandiose sense of her own self (see her self-portrait in the photo insert). Do you think these extremes indicated an underlying mental illness?
10. At least one man committed suicide over Amélie, and she attracted an endless stream of worshipful suitors. Drawing a voluptuous portrait of herself on the day that Lord Curzon came to visit seemed to be a provocative act in itself. What do you think of Amélie’s deep-seated need to be adored?
11. Marriage among the upper class in the Gilded Age was often more a business transaction–a way to combine or acquire fortunes–than a relationship based on love. In 1897 Amélie gave a newspaper interview in which she extolled the virtue of a marriage based on companionship and mutual respect. A woman should aspire to be the “wife-friend” of a husband, rather than a “wife-chattel” or “wife-vassal,” in her words. What do you think of her second marriage to the painter Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy?
12. It took Archie nearly twenty years of legal fighting before he was declared legally sane in New York and able to reclaim control of his fortune. Archie then proceeded to spend all of his money on national campaigns such as keeping farmers on the land and reforming the “lunacy laws,” as well as spending it on the entertainments he created on his own Virginia estate for the pleasure of all his neighbors. Do you think these actions indicated that Archie was insane after all, or was he just very civic-minded and generous?
13. In many ways Amélie resembled Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind, for like Scarlett’s obsession with her family’s plantation Tara, Amélie was determined to save Castle Hill at all costs. By the end of her life Castle Hill was in tatters and Amélie had lost her youth and beauty–a tragedy for a woman whose whole self-worth was bound up in her physical allure. Do you think Amélie had changed at all by the end of her life? Do you think she looked back and regretted the way she had used people in order to get what she wanted?
14. Archie and Amélie were both highly educated and had deep intellectual curiosity and talent, yet they were also larger-than-life celebrities whose every move was covered by the press. If you had to compare them to a modern celebrity couple, whom would you choose?