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Book Review: ‘Astor’ is a primer on the rise and fall one of America’s richest families

Last Updated Sep 19, 2023 at 11:13 am MDT

This cover image released by Harper shows "Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune" by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe. (Harper via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s hard to escape the name Astor when you are in New York: from Astor Place downtown to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and even the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, the family’s legacy is everywhere.

In “Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune,” CNN journalist Anderson Cooper and his co-writer Katherine Howe trace the famous family’s legacy from its beginning, when John Jacob Astor immigrated from Germany and established himself in the beaver fur trade, a bloody and highly competitive business. He invested his fortune in buying up land in the rapidly developing island of Manhattan and became one of the richest men in the U.S.

Cooper and Howe wrote the book as a follow-up to “Vanderbilt,” a chronicle of Cooper’s own famous family that came out in 2021. “Astor” sketches how subsequent generations either built on or frittered away the family’s initial fortune. It ends with the elder abuse case of Brooke Astor in the 2000s. At times, the narrative drifts away from the Astor family itself, with a chapter on a riot that happened at the Astor Opera House and another on a second person named John Jacob Astor who may or may not have been related to the family. It’s an effort to paint a fuller picture of the U.S. during the time period, but at times it feels like filler.

Drawing mainly from secondary sources, “Astor” is a breezy overview of a storied family. Those who want to dig deeper into the family can turn to the extensive bibliography that references the many other books written about the Astors.

Mae Anderson, The Associated Press