American History · biography · history

The Astor Family and the Titanic Tragedy

This month recognizes the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. It was a terrible tragedy, but the legacy provided better maritime safety measures that still assist us today. It is interesting to read stories from the survivors (most of the accounts were stories from women) and how their lives were impacted due to this disaster. Last month, I wrote about Mrs. Caroline Astor who was the pillar of Gilded Age society in New York City. I recently found out that her son was actually aboard the Titanic and, sadly, did perish during the sinking.

Her son was Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and he was the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic. Though his mother’s reign was now over, the Astors were still very popular with the press and the scandal sheets. Colonel Astor and his new wife, the eighteen year old Madeleine Force, were traveling home from their honeymoon in Egypt and Paris. They boarded with Mr. Astor’s valet, Victor Robbins, Mrs. Astor’s maid, Rosalie Bidois, Mrs. Astor’s nurse, Caroline Endres, and their pet dog named Kitty. Kitty was bonded to John Astor and they had been through a lot together, including his difficult divorce.

Colonel Astor was born in 1864. He was the youngest child of William Blackhouse Astor II and Caroline Astor. He was the couple’s only son. He attended Harvard then came back to New York to manage the family investments. Most of these investments included real estate. Colonel Astor was the founder of the Astoria Hotel in 1897 (dubbed the “world’s most luxurious hotel”). This would eventually become the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel after it merged with his cousins (and rivals) hotel next door. He received his military title during the Spanish-American War. He volunteered to raise and equip a battery. He became a Military Inspector with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He saw action in Cuba. He also volunteered his own yacht, Nourmahal, to be at the disposal of the US government.

In 1894, he even wrote his own science fiction novel. This was titled A Journey in Other Worlds. In this novel he wrote about life in the year 2000. He wrote about space travel to the planets Jupiter and Saturn, he wrote about a worldwide telephone network, solar power, and the advances of air travel. It seems Astor had a variety of interests and a creative imagination.

John Jacob Astor IV

In 1891, he married Ava Willing , a socialite from Philadelphia. They had a son and a daughter together. In 1909, after Mrs. Caroline Astor had passed away, Ava sued for divorce from Colonel Astor. Their marriage had not been the best and it was not anything close to a love match. Their son, Vincent, was old enough that he stayed with his father before going on to Harvard University, but Ava received custody of their younger daughter. In 1910, they went their separate ways, but it was a huge scandal in the tabloids. This is part of the reason why it was such a shock that only 2 years later he was engaged to eighteen year old Madeleine Force. Astor was an extremely wealthy man, but a divorce did leave a scar upon his reputation. Additionally, even back in the early 1900s, the 29 year age gap between the couple was quite shocking. Young Madeleine was closer in age to his own son.

Madeleine Talmage Force was born in Brooklyn in 1893. Her father was a business man and owned a successful shipping company. She was educated and had traveled extensively in Europe. She was already very popular when she became a debutant and was properly introduced to society life. She was fond of yachting and, during the courtship with Colonel Astor, had traveled on many yachting trips with him.

Madeleine Force

Due to the scandal of their relationship, they did have a hard time finding a priest who would be willing to perform their ceremony. They eventually found a minister who was willing and the two were married in 1911 at the Astor Newport mansion. The minister himself received a lot of backlash which caused him to resign his position. The press ate up this scandal and put pressure on the new couple. It was difficult to get away from the paparazzi treatment they received. They went on an extended honeymoon to Egypt and Paris as a chance to escape.

The new Mrs. Astor was five months pregnant when she boarded the Titanic for their return journey home. The couple stayed in first class suite C-62-64.

On the night of April 14th, the Titanic was struck by an iceberg. Many of the passengers did not take the orders very seriously when they were told to go above and put on their life vests. After a quick investigation, Colonel Astor returned to the suite to tell his wife that he did not believe the damage was serious. Together, with their servants, the Astors waited in the gymnasium. They watched the boats being loaded for a while, but Colonel Astor did not seem to be very worried. He thought they would be more safe upon the “solid decks” of the ship than in the unstable lifeboats. But, by 1:45 am, he had a change of heart and realized the serious nature of what was happening.

Colonel Astor assisted his wife and her maid into lifeboat 4. This was the last lifeboat to be loaded that night. He attempted to join his wife in the lifeboat. He stated that she was in a “delicate condition” and he wanted to be there and support her. He was sternly reminded that only women and children were boarding at this time. He respected this and returned to the deck of the ship. He gave his wife a parting kiss.

There are reports that Colonel Astor began to help other women board lifeboat four. Mrs. Hippach and her daughter reported that the Colonel ordered the lifeboat to stop lowering and escorted the two women to the lower deck so they could climb through a porthole and into the lifeboat. They state that the Colonel saved their lives.

His valet brought his loyal dog, Kitty, to the deck so they could stand together until the last moment. Those who mentioned seeing Colonel Astor said he appeared to be calm despite the panic around him. The sea would end up claiming their lives that night.

Colonel Astor, Madeleine, and Kitty

Meanwhile, Mrs. Madeleine Astor looked on and watched the horror of the magnificent ship sinking into the depths of the ocean. They had just managed to be lowered into the water before the sinking sped up. A panicked man had jumped off the ship and into their already unstable boat. They pleaded with him to assist them in the rowing, but he was too terrified to move. The women, including Mrs. Astor, had to take up oars themselves and row rapidly away. They just narrowly missed being pulled into the suction caused by the sinking of the great vessel. Due to the rough sea water, their boat began to fill with water. Many women were frozen in fear and were unable to provide assistance, yet Mrs. Astor proved to be one of the brave ones.

Mrs. Astor assisted in the bailing out of the water. She even helped with rowing as they returned later to the site of the sinking in order to look for any who were left alive. They found six crew members who were dragged by the women onto the lifeboat. Two ended up perishing before the rescue. They did not find any sign of Colonel Astor. The atmosphere had become eerily quiet after the overwhelming screams and panic just some time before.

They floated there among the wreckage and in the frozen temperatures until they were rescued by the Carpathia. Mrs. Astor had shown great strength and courage throughout her time in the lifeboats, but after she was brought aboard the rescue ship she fell into a nervous breakdown.

This was a very traumatic event for the young Mrs. Astor to experience. She had no idea if her husband (who she had only been married to for a short while) was alive and how they would find each other in New York. She had just watched all that death and destruction in front of her. She was also carrying a child and was facing the possibility of being a widowed mother once she returned to New York.

When the Carpathia docked back in New York on April 18, Madeleine Astor was reported as being “hysterical…on the point of collapse.” She was assisted by her sister, Katherine Force. She was experiencing shock and grief, but now she was thrust once again in front of the public eye as the media had come in droves to see the widowed Titanic bride. She was brought to her parents home to recover.

Colonel Astor’s body was recovered on April 22. He was identified due to the initials monogramed on his clothing, J.J.A. This was the end to any of the hopes that Mrs. Astor or her step son may have had of his survival.

On August 14, 1912, Madeleine Astor gave birth to her son who she named John Jacob Astor VI. He would be known as one of the “Titanic Baby”. The child was left a large estate by his father. This must have been such a joyous, but also sad moment for the young Mrs. Astor.

Madeleine Astor was also left an annual income from a $5,000,000 trust her husband had set up, but this would be forfeit upon her remarriage. She raised her son as part of the Astor family for the next four years. She kept to herself mostly and did not make many appearances in society. Around 1914, she would begin to slowly appear more at events and in public.

John Jacob Astor VI, “Titanic Baby”

In 1916, she would remarry. She married her childhood friend, William Karl Dick, in Bar Harbor, Maine. This was the summer home of the Force family. They had two children together, but would divorce in 1933.

Four months later, she would remarry for a second time to the Italian actor and boxer, Enzo Fiermonte. The marriage did not go well and she would file for divorce in 1938. She charged him with extreme cruelty. She would not marry again.

The former Mrs. Astor would pass away in Palm Beach, Florida in 1940. She died at the age of 47 (ironically, the same age that her first husband perished on the Titanic). The official cause was heart disease.

This is the story of Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, Madeline Force Astor, and the impact that the Titanic had upon their lives. Many survivors of this disaster were left with PTSD and survivors guilt for years after the event. This story was of an interest to me because of the connection to the famous Caroline Astor and the Gilded Age, but, as I read more, I was struck by the bravery of Madeleine throughout the events of that night. She showed strength and courage. She went out of her way to help others. Colonel Astor did as well, even though he knew he was doomed the moment he was told to step out of the life boat.

There are many other survivor stories to be told. I received most of my information from Encyclopedia Titanica which had a great deal of information on many passengers on the vessel. There are contemporary articles there as well which provide a primary source insight to the events. I read though quite a few of those as well to piece together this story.


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