by Natasha Wolff | April 16, 2013 12:00 am
“Astor” is a name that Americans associate with wealth and privilege—but not for Alexandra Aldrich. Even though Aldrich was a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor—he was her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather—and she grew up in the 43-room Hudson River manse Rokeby, she knew only poverty and chaos. By her generation, Aldrich’s branch of the prominent family had lost their fortune. In the page-turning new memoir, The Astor Orphan (HarperCollins), she tells her story.
The book’s title comes from the fact that Rokeby, located in Barrytown, NY, was where the 11 willful, eccentric Astor orphans—the great-grandchildren of William Backhouse Astor Sr., the richest man in 19th-century America, and the son of John Jacob Astor—were raised. The author herself wasn’t an orphan, although she was often neglected by self-involved, distracted parents. Her mother, Ala, was an artist, and her father, Teddy, who’d been educated at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and spoke five languages, farmed some of Rokeby’s 450 acres and served as a handyman. Living in three rooms on the mansion’s third floor, the family subsisted on factory-reject TV dinners and borrowed money. Teddy’s mother, Claire, who lived next door, still had a trust fund and provided some food and stability for young Alexandra, but she was a serious alcoholic.
Aldrich doesn’t angle for the reader’s sympathy, but then again she doesn’t need to. In the book’s opening episode, which captures the dark humor of the book, 10-year-old Alexandra and her cousins go ice-skating and while on the frozen pond, they see a horrifying sight: her father’s goats, dead and encased in the ice. “Even more frightful was that I knew Grandma Claire had killed them,” Aldrich writes.
The Astor Orphan focuses on the author’s life between the ages of 10 and 14, and this regrettably ends up limiting the book’s perspective and its impact. So while this memoir gives an enthralling look at one sprig of a famous family, you leave feeling like the glimpse you’ve gotten of the grandeur of Rokeby—and of the Astors—has been through nothing more than a spot rubbed on a dusty window.
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