David Astor by Jeremy Lewis – review

He thought any house with fewer than 16 bedrooms was a ‘cottage’ and never knew what a mortgage was, but steered the newspaper he inherited to many achievements and great success

With compound interest accumulating on the rental income from their Manhattan property empire, the Astors, wishing to better themselves, very reasonably decided that “America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live”. In 1890, the latest in the line, one William Waldorf, having trumped up a coat of arms ( “a silver goshawk perched on a gloved hand”), thus bought an Italianate mansion on the Thames at Cliveden, a house so large and ostentatious, meals were despatched from the kitchen to the dining table by miniature railway. There were dozens of maids and gardeners. The Astors took their own cow on holiday to ensure a private supply of fresh milk.

Realising that a good way for a pushy individual to “interfere in public affairs” was to become a newspaper proprietor, William purchased the Observer from Lord Northcliffe in 1911 for £5,000.

It was his son, Waldorf Astor who was David Astor’s father. In 1906, Waldorf married southern belle Nancy Langhorne, and what a complete pain she sounds. Nancy “conveyed a sense of perpetual restlessness”, Jeremy Lewis says in this nevertheless highly sympathetic biography. “She enjoyed reducing children to tears as much as driving them to a frenzy of excitement.” Nancy Astor became a member of parliament, campaigning for women’s pensions and prison reform, though her sole achievement was to raise the drinking age in pubs (it was 14); she engaged in a feud with Winston Churchill, whom she thought a disgusting alcoholic.

Nancy’s party piece at Cliveden was to impersonate the facial contortions of a person having a stroke. After dinner she would don a silly hat and put in a pair of comical false teeth. Perhaps she was simply trying to emulate her niece, Joyce Grenfell? In any event, she was, seemingly, a nightmare mother. David was born in the family townhouse in St James’s Square in 1912. If Nancy visited him at school she would take over from the teachers and bark out orders.

Lewis says that David grew up “a queer mixture of extreme softness and extreme hardness” – a human meringue? Though “modest, self-effacing, generous, complicated and single-minded”, he infuriated the family care activist Erin Pizzey so much she installed an answering machine to avoid his calls. “David became increasingly controlling,” she said – ironic, as he was helping her set up a women’s refuge from abusive men.

“I wish you’d been born an ugly girl,” his mother told David, “then you couldn’t leave me.” It can’t be any surprise that he became an enthusiastic devotee of Sigmund Freud, as well as having to be prescribed Prozac and lithium. Astor used some of his money to endow a psychiatric unit at Guy’s and he startled Observer columnist Katharine Whitehorn by telling her with authority that she was “suffering from penis envy”.

At Eton, he was “very average academically”. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, and kept two horses and a groom outside the city. “I don’t think David does any work,” said his tutor. “He has a lot of social engagements.” His mother was such a domineering and possessive snob that when he befriended “the son of a Welsh miner”, she expected the professors to put a stop to it.

During the war, Astor joined the Royal Marines and was wounded in a German ambush in the Ardennes. There he met a “bibulous” Terence Kilmartin, whom he later appointed literary editor of the Observer..

At least Astor could see, Lewis argues, that he was leading “a shallow, vapid, cotton-wool life”. As an antidote he thought perhaps he would become a plumber or garage mechanic. In order to feel “a refugee from my family”, he visited the Rhondda and helped unload a lorry. Unfortunately, a vast inheritance materialised from his grandfather, which made him financially independent for the rest of his days. Though his chauffeur was luckily always there to keep him “informed of what the man in the street was thinking”, Astor never quite knew what a mortgage was, and he was ignorant of overdrafts or the realities of everyday expenditure – he assumed that everyone on the staff of the Observer enjoyed a private income. His office manager, attempting to economise, turned out the lights while people were still working.

David Astor
David Astor Photograph: PR Image

Lewis is light on the private life. We are told that Astor had an affair with Elisabeth Welch, the cabaret artiste, and that later he married the daughter of a Torquay solicitor. Because he had “no innate taste for luxury”, he was determined to lead “a more middle-class life”, and I salute him for managing to cope with just “a driver, a housekeeper and a Czechoslovakian cook” in a succession of big stucco villas. Any dwelling with fewer than 16 bedrooms was a “cottage” to the Astors – and the question now arises: would Astor have been appointed editor of an important national broadsheet on his own merits, without the powerful family connections?

Though “not so mad on journalism as all that”, he was put in charge in 1948, when it was still decreed by the Astor trustees that no Catholic or Jew could be allowed on the staff, only people “with the correct ethical point of view”, preferably Christian Scientists. Cyril Connolly thought Astor “a clumsy wielder of accidental power”, but still, with the news that the Independent is to cease its print editions next month, it is easy to relish the rollicking chapters here about the golden age of a long-vanished Fleet Street, before Pilates and San Pellegrino came in, when any semi-educated reporter was capable of writing crisp and concise English; when Dickens, Meredith and Goethe could be discussed knowledgably by typesetters; when everyone smoked and drank themselves comatose and a newspaper had brilliance and bounce.

When Astor took over the Observer, its circulation was 360,000. He doubled it in a decade. Vita Sackville-West did the gardening column. Kenneth Tynan went to the theatre. Kim Philby was employed to cover the Middle East because “he seems an extremely reliable chap and he has created a good impression”, Astor said. Though Anthony Burgess was sacked when he started reviewing his own novels favourably in the Yorkshire Post, Kilmartin sensibly got him back. The foreign editor was appointed “on the basis of an essay he’d written on one of the Brontë sisters”. The Washington correspondent filed his report on Bobby Kennedy’s funeral before it had taken place.

As it was David’s habit to fill the paper with “various friends and acquaintances”, he didn’t mind if they defenestrated typewriters or seized pneumatic drills from labourers and began to dig up Tudor Street. The porter-cum-receptionist had been a butler at Cliveden, “sacked after being found asleep in Lord Astor’s bed”.

If the sense of dynastic poshness and entitlement on display here is an outrage, what counts in the end is that Lewis has turned Astor, featherbedded by his loot as he was, into a character from Wodehouse or Surtees. He died in 2001, ending his days campaigning for the welfare of Myra Hindley, who had begged him to get Lord Longford to stop visiting her, as she had suffered enough.

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  • This article was amended on 4 March 2016 to correct a number of errors. In the article we suggested that William Waldorf Astor was named after a hotel, when in fact his name referred to the family’s native Rhineland village. He didn’t build Cliveden, as we suggested, but bought it, and he didn’t sack the editor of the Observer for spiking his contributions (although he did sack the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, another Astor acquisition, for spiking his contributions). We said Katharine Whitehorn was women’s editor of the Observer when in fact she was a columnist. We said Patrick Leigh Fermor compared David Astor to Disney’s Pluto; Fermor actually compared the writer Philip Toynbee to that cartoon character. Terence Kilmartin replaced Jim Rose as Observer literary editor, not JC Trewin. During the war, David Astor didn’t merely suffer “a mild attack of dysentery” as suggested in the review. In fact he was wounded in action during a German ambush in the Ardennes. Terence Kilmartin is believed to have been involved in his rescue, and Astor was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Roger Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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