Nancy Langhorne Astor (1879-1964) came from humble stock but grew up to become a Viscountess when she married Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor (1879-1952). This beautiful woman went on to make history as the first female Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons.
Her Southern Confederate family became impoverished after the American Civil War. Her rough, tough, hard-drinking father, Chiswell Langhorne struggled to provide for his family for many years. It wasn't until Nancy was in her early teens that he finally struck it rich in the railroad business.
Nancy and all her four sisters were beauties who inherited their good looks from their mother, Nancy Witcher Keene. Nancy's older sister, Irene, married artist Charles Dana Gibson who used her as the model for his famous Gibson Girl look - the ideal view of feminine beauty of that time.
Nancy had her own fair share of admirers and at 18, married a rich but alcoholic Bostonian, Robert Gould Shaw II. The brief marriage was a huge mistake. Nancy left Shaw several times during the marriage and finally for good 4 years later.
Soon after her divorce, she visited England. A long time Anglophile, she loved England right from the start. Her father eventually persuaded her to settle permanently in England since she was so happy there.
Nancy appeared on the British social scene at the time when many estate-rich but cash poor British noblemen were marrying American heiresses (see my past post, Jewels for the Dollar Princesses). There was predictably some resentment from female quarters. However, she charmed everyone with her unusual combination of religious devoutness, social decorum and saucy wit. Someone asked her, "Have you come to get our husbands?" Nancy shot back, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine..."
Nancy and Waldorf Astor
She soon met fellow American expatriate, Waldorf Astor, a descendant of the fabulously wealthy Astor family. His father, William Waldorf Astor had brought his family over to England where they all became British subjects. William Waldorf later earned himself a hereditary peerage as the 1st Viscount Astor for his large charitable contributions.
Nancy and Waldorf were of the same age and their temperaments complimented each other. He was the strong, serious, methodical type who needed someone vivacious and who also shared his views and interests. He fell in love with her first. When she finally agreed to marry Waldorf, his wealth was definitely one deciding factor but she also felt he would be a good stepfather to her beloved son, Bobbie Shaw.
Despite Nancy being a divorcee with a 6 year-old son, Waldorf`s father approved of Nancy. As a wedding gift, he gave his son Cliveden, the huge family estate together with a vast amount of money for the upkeep.
Nancy received the legendary 55.23 carat Sancy or Sanci diamond which her new father-in-law bought in 1906. This pale yellow diamond is centuries old and is believed to be of Indian origin due to the unusual faceting. At different times in its long and checkered history, it belonged to French and British sovereigns, Russian and Indian nobility. The diamond is the main feature in the tiara worn by Nancy in the pictures below. It was later sold by Nancy's grandson, the 4th Viscount Astor, to the Louvre Museum in 1978 for $1 million.
In the early years of their marriage, Nancy spent her time as a social hostess and supported Waldorf's entry into British politics as a Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Both were committed philanthropists.
During the First World War, Cliveden served as a military hospital for Canadian soldiers. By then, Nancy had become a staunch Christian Scientist - one who did not believe in medical assistance - but nevertheless she still supported the efforts of the medical staff and had some success with her shock tactics on hopeless cases.
Her sharp tongue was apparently instrumental in turning around injured soldiers who had lost their will to live. One said,"I am going to die". Nancy shocked him by agreeing, "Yes, Saunders, you're going to die. You're going to die because you have got no guts. If you were a Cockney or a Scot or a Yank, you'd live. But you're a Canadian, so you'll lie down and die! I'll have them send you up a good supper for your last meal, and I will bet you this wrist watch you'll be dead by this time tomorrow. You can keep it until then. I'll get it back when you're gone." He not only lived but he kept the watch!
When Waldorf's father died in 1919, Waldorf became the 2nd Viscount Astor, which meant he automatically became a member of the upper House in Parliament, the House of Lords. So Nancy decided to run for his vacated House of Commons seat with full support from Waldorf. She was actually the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons, but she was the first to take her seat. This broke a 600-year-old all male bastion!
Considering her wealth and privileged position, she had a marvelous rapport with the ordinary people in her constituency. She made them laugh with deliberately frivolous comments like, “The only thing I like about rich people is their money”.
Although she wasn't actively in the suffrage movement, she had a feminist streak. Some of her famously witty quotes include :
- “I married beneath me. All women do.”
- "In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he laid the blame on a woman."
- "Women have got to make the world safe for men since men have made it so darned unsafe for women."
- "We women talk too much, but even then we don't tell half what we know."
She was the sole female MP for 2 years before other women began to join her. It wasn't easy as many of the other male MPs resented her presence. She dressed with more decorum and was strong enough to hold her own.
She met her match with Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime Prime Minister who did not support women's suffrage or women in Parliament. Friends before her political career, they were at loggerheads afterward. The portly statesman said having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom. Nancy shot back, "You're not handsome enough for such fears."
Churchill made the mistake of asking how he should go to a masquerade she was organizing. So she suggested, "Why don't you come sober, Prime Minister?" The best known exchange occurred at a dinner party. Nancy said, “If I were your wife, I would poison your coffee,”whereupon Churchill retorted, “If I were your husband, I would drink it.”
Her career started to wane during the run-up to World War II. Waldorf and Nancy were anti-war and supported the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain's peace plan to appease Hitler at all costs because they feared the rise of communism. She unfortunately earned the nickname, "Hitler's woman in Britain". But she threw in her support during the Second World War where Cliveden was again a military hospital.
She became increasingly out of touch with the British public and with her Plymouth constituents. Her speeches in Parliament started to ramble. Waldorf decided the time had come for Nancy to quit politics. He also had health issues of his own and felt he could not support her fully as he had in the past. He then made the announcement she would not be standing in the 1945 election. She was furious and never forgave Waldorf for acting in her best interests. They were estranged for a number of years but reconciled before he died in 1952.
Her final years were lonely ones. Waldorf, her close friends and her sisters were all gone - she was unfortunately estranged from her own children. She may have charmed many adults but Nancy terrified children, including her own when they were little. Domineering and an insensitive tease, her approach with children was that of an "affectionate bully". With the exception of her eldest son, they were not close to their mother when they grew up. Even her favorite son grew combative with her towards the end of her life.
Nancy died at 84. Her ashes lie with those of Waldorf at Cliveden. A Confederate flag was buried with her.
Women's History : Nancy Astor
Lady Astor's Quotes
Nancy Astor biography in a 5 minute video
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