Titanic’s Richest Passenger: John Jacob Astor IV | History Hit

Titanic’s Richest Passenger: John Jacob Astor IV

Celeste Neill

01 Jun 2023
John Jacob Astor IV
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

John Jacob Astor IV was one of the wealthiest individuals in the world when he boarded the ill-fated RMS Titanic in 1912. He hailed from the illustrious Astor family, renowned for their real estate empire and known as one of the richest families in the United States.

His grandfather, John Jacob Astor, emigrated to the United States from Germany, aged just 21, with little more than a suitcase of musical instruments. However, he was a shrewd investor who ventured into various industries, including fur trading and real estate. Within 4 decades, he became the country’s first multi-millionaire.

Astor IV himself became a prominent figure in business and high society, by further building upon his family’s wealth and financial empire through savvy investments in New York City’s booming real estate market. He developed and owned prestigious properties, including the iconic hotels the Waldorf-Astoria and the St. Regis, as well as several other prominent buildings.

However, Astor IV is most famously remembered for his tragic demise aboard the Titanic, an ill-fated journey he had embarked upon in order to avoid the publicity of a family scandal. At the time of boarding he was aged 47 and as head of the Astor family, had a personal fortune worth approximately $80 million (equivalent to over $200 billion in today’s money). He was the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic.

Birth and family legacy

Born on 13 July 1864, in New York, John Jacob Astor IV hailed from one of the most affluent families in the world.The Astor family’s prestigious lineage dates back to the early 1700s when his great-grandfather, John Jacob Astor, arrived in America from a small village in Germany.

John Jacob Astor IV’s mother was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who had married William Backhouse Astor Jr. (the son of John Jacob Astor III and the grandson of the original John Jacob Astor).

John Jacob Astor built his family’s wealth as a successful exporter for a Canadian fur company, amassing a fortune of over $250,000 by the late 1790s. Astor later shifted his focus to New York City real estate, capitalising on the city’s expansion by strategically selling developed land along the routes of essential services. He amassed great wealth through real estate ventures, including acquiring land in Manhattan, which later became Times Square.

A privileged life

John Jacob Astor IV was raised in a world of opulence and privilege. His childhood was marked by luxurious living, surrounded by the finest amenities and cultural opportunities.

His father, William Backhouse Astor Jr., in contrast to his business-minded father, did not share his father’s drive for aggressively expanding the family fortune. Instead, he found joy in a life of luxury and leisure. He spent much of his time aboard the Ambassadress, the world’s largest private yacht at that time.

Despite his privileged upbringing, Astor IV received a well-rounded education, attending prestigious institutions such as St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Harvard University.

However Astor IV did not complete his studies, and spent several years abroad before returning to New York to join the family real estate business.

Real estate success and iconic hotels

After his father died in 1892, John Jacob Astor IV utilised his inherited wealth by investing heavily in real estate projects. In 1897, he constructed the Astoria Hotel adjacent to the Waldorf Hotel, built by his cousin William Waldorf Astor. The combined establishments became renowned as the Waldorf-Astoria. Astor’s real estate interests extended to other hotels as well, including the Hotel St. Regis (1905) and the Knickerbocker (1906).

The world-renowned Waldorf-Astoria Hotel soon became synonymous with luxury, opulence, and sophistication. With 1,300 rooms it was the largest hotel in the world, and the first hotel to offer electricity and private bathrooms throughout.

The hotel soon attracted foreign dignitaries and hosted notable events such as fundraising dinners and balls, with guests including Andrew Carnegie. It played a significant role in advancing women’s status of the time, admitting them without escorts and providing amenities like billiards and ping-pong, eliminating the need for a ladies-only parlour.

Dan takes a walk around Colonial New York with Karen Quinones (of Patriot Tours) to explore the great battle and in its original setting.
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Marriages and private scandal

John Jacob Astor IV married Ava Shippen in 1891, and together they had a son named Vincent and a daughter named Ava. However, their marriage faced challenges, and they eventually divorced in 1909. Astor’s second marriage in 1911 to Madeleine Force garnered significant attention due to their substantial age difference. At the time of their marriage, Madeleine was only 18 years old, while Astor was 47.

The couple’s union caused a scandal due to the rarity of divorce and remarriage during that time, and drew public criticism, prompting them to seek refuge abroad. They travelled extensively, spending time in Europe and Egypt, before deciding to return to the United States aboard the luxurious RMS Titanic.

Washington Times story about Madeleine Force, the future bride of John Jacob Astor IV in 1911.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A fatal decision

The couple boarded the ship at Cherbourg, on 10 April 1912, accompanied by their respective staff members and Madeleine’s nursemaid due to her pregnancy.

Just 2 days later the Titanic struck an iceberg. Astor was one of the first to realise the boat was sinking. He woke his wife, advised her to dress warmly, adorned her with jewellery, and placed her in a lifeboat. His wife was reluctant to leave his side, but Astor assured her that she would be safe and that they would reunite in the morning.

John Jacob Astor IV, wearing a distinguished dinner suit and clutching his personalised pocket watch, was last sighted on the deck of the Titanic. His body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett on 22 April, identified by the initials sewn into his jacket, and the watch which was engraved with the initials J.J.A. He was buried at Trinity Cemetery, New York.

A young newspaper seller holds a banner declaring TITANIC DISASTER GREAT LOSS OF LIFE. Cockspur Street, London, UK, 1912.

Image Credit: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

A controversial inheritance

If Astor had survived and reached the United States, he intended to make his unborn child with Madeleine the heir to his fortune. However, the majority of his wealth passed on to his first son, Vincent Astor, who dropped out of University and dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy.

The Vincent Astor Foundation was established in New York City in 1948 for the purpose of “alleviating human misery” and Astor donated a significant portion of his fortune to educational institutions, healthcare initiatives, and the arts. He played a pivotal role in the development and funding of notable institutions such as the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bronx Zoo.

Celeste Neill