After loving Dowton Abbey (and especially Maggie Smith’s wonderfully sharp-tongued Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham), I was prepared to admire Lady Astor. She’s the real-life woman from a slightly later period. After all, she was an American society girl who came to England to make her way. Her witty comments have been quoted ever since. I thought that she wasn’t just fiction, but the real thing.
It was said that her first husband, an American, was a drinker. Her comment was “One reason I don’t drink is because I wish to know when I am having a good time.” She divorced him and left for England.
When asked by an English woman “Have you come to get our husbands?” she politely replied, “If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine….” She also announced, “In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance, he laid the blame on a woman.”
Nancy married American-born, English aristocrat Waldorf Astor, Second Viscount of Astor in 1906. He was one of the wealthiest men in England. As a wedding gift, Astor’s father gave the couple the Cliveden family estate. The Astors apparently had a close marriage at first, and had a daughter and four sons. Nancy said she never stopped finding sex repelling, because her Christian conviction was that lust was a mortal sin. However, she encouraged her husband’s interest in social reform and also introduced him to her devotion to Christian Science.
The lavish Cliveden estate soon became a prominent center for the social elite, and Nancy’s reputation grew considerably. However, her devotion to Christian Science and anti-Catholicism did alienate her from some of her former friends including author and historian Hillaire Belloc. In spite of Nancy’s rejection of medical practices, Cliveden was used as a military hospital during World War I.
Nancy later ran for her husband’s former seat in the House of Commons. She apparently had no previous connection to the suffrage movement, a fact that weighed against her. She was motored around in her chauffeured Rolls Royce from factory to slum, urging ordinary working men to vote for her.They did. In November of 1919, she became the first elected woman to actually take up her seat.
During her parliamentary career with the Tory party she gained notoriety as someone who often did not follow protocol. Oswald Moseley who campaigned for her in the election said, “She was less shy than any woman – or any man – one has ever known.” Although her political accomplishments were minor, she used her freedom to criticize her party and increase her popularity. During a Commons debate on birth control, she said, “One of my sons told me recently that I had not taken enough interest in him before he was seven. My reply was that if I had known as much as I do now, I should not have had him at all.”
Her famous exchange with Winston Churchill began when she said, “If you were my husband I’d give you poison.” He said, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
This is where the surprises began. Just before WWII, her popularity declined with her opposition to another war. It was rumored she had Nazi sympathies. Although she was supposedly anti-Catholic, she did have a friendship with Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Their correspondence was filled with anti-Semitic language. When the War became inevitable, she admitted that she had made some errors of judgment. She then voted against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the famously appeasment Prime Minister. However, her reputation had been damaged. She believed that Nazism would solve the “problems” of communism and the Jews. Lady Astor and her Cliveden Set are forever associated with a strain of aristocratic fascism.
There seems to be a some confusion over her views in her biographies. Some of them paint her as a an anti-Nazi suffragette championing the poor. However, the picture seems to be more unpleasant and I tend to believe the comments in her latest biography, Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor, by Adrian Fort.
Lady Astor retired from politics in 1945, publicly blaming her husband for refusing to support her to run for office again. “When I married Nancy,” he said in 1944, the year she retired from Parliament, “I hitched my wagon to a star… In 1919 when she got into the House I found I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V2 rocket.” The couple soon began living apart, reconciling briefly just before Astor’s death in 1952.
Nancy became more and more isolated, veering into more prejudice against blacks and Jews. She expressed a growing paranoia of all ethnic minorities. On a trip to America she told African-American church members that they should be grateful for slavery because it had allowed them to be introduced to Christianity.
She died at her daughter’s home, Grimsthorpe Castle, in Lincolnshire in 1964. Memories of her acerbic wit live on while her shameful views seem to be mostly forgotten. Surprisingly, she did have some sense of self-awareness. “My vigor, vitality, and cheek repel me,” was one of her famous aphorisms. “I am the kind of woman I would run from.”