Julian Fellowes used the sinking of the Titanic as one of the dramatic points of Downton Abbey, after all with the death of Patrick Crawley, who was traveling on the ship with his father, the conflict was created. For legal reasons at the time, Downton Abbey would be inherited by the son of Robert and Cora Crawley, Earl and Countess of Grantham, but, as they had only daughters, it was Robert’s cousin’s son who would get everything. To “lighten up” things, he was going to marry Mary, but with his unexpected trip on the fateful ocean liner, everything changed. Of course, it was Patrick who also created the first problem between the Crawley sisters, as Edith was in love with him (not Mary). Anyway, without Patrick, the title went to Matthew, and those of us who follow the series know the rest. The point is that the showrunner can once again have in his hands the tragedy that turned 110 years old in 2022 as a backdrop for one of his series, now The Gilded Age. And this time, not for fiction.
By bringing the characters of Caroline “Lina” (Donna Murphy) and Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth) to the plot of the HBO Max series, Julian Fellowes includes the existence of the most famous victim of the shipwreck, millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, Caroline’s only male child. He’s Carrie’s (Amy Forsyth) brother and hasn’t been featured yet. For historical reasons, his death comes after the period known as “The Golden Age”, but clearly the whole pre-trip scandal could enter further into the series.
As the only male son of Caroline and John Jacob Astor, John Jacob IV (known as Jack) was born with his destiny assured and determined for him, as the legitimate heir to the fortune based on real estate and other investments in Manhattan. Jack took over the family business at a young age after dropping out of Harvard. Leading the interests of the Astors, he was responsible for the construction of the famous (until today) hotel Saint Regis. In addition, he was a writer and inventor. It’s possible to anticipate Jack’s connection with the future architect, Larry Russell (Harry Richardson), isn’t it?
The feud between the Astors
The seed of rigidity with which Mrs. Astor leads her children’s personal life has already been planted, but there’s a lot of ground to explore with Jack. But there’s a lot more to discover behind the Astors’ perfect facade (including Caroline’s facade marriage).
Caroline, on her husband’s side, had a nephew, William Waldorf Astor, who inherited his father’s personal fortune in 1890. Immediately after his passing, he began construction of the luxurious Waldorf Hotel, on the site of his former residence, at 5th Avenue and 33rd Street (now the address of the Empire State). The establishment, at the time with the frightening number of 13 floors, was adjacent to Caroline’s mansion, who was obviously offended by having commerce glued to her house. Family disagreements took 7 years to have a peaceful alternative, only when Jack convinced his mother to move. When she left, he teamed up with his cousin and turned his mother’s mansion into the Astoria Hotel, an extension of the Waldorf that came to be known as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Again, this was the original! The current one is not at the same address.
But the tantrum didn’t stop there. Although technically William’s wife was also “Mrs. Astor”, Caroline didn’t want to give up being “The” Mrs. Astor whose New York society would have as a reference. For her, the title was almost like a noble one, only one could use it while the other was alive and Charlotte, William’s wife, would have to wait. Annoyed, the two abandoned New York and moved to England, from where they never returned, taking British citizenship after a few years. William would also be or will be a rich character for the series, because, in order to “disappear from public view”, in the summer of 1892, he launched the fake news of his own death, apparently from pneumonia. The hoax didn’t last long and Astor was mocked in the press when the truth came out. In England, she made several real estate and business investments, buying and restoring the Hever Castle Estate in Kent, where Anne Boleyn spent her childhood. The restoration cost millions, but it can still be visited today. Waldorf Astor’s daughter-in-law, Nancy Witcher Langhorne (Astor after her marriage), was Britain’s first female Member of Parliament.
But in New York, where Caroline remained sovereign, Jack also played a role in some scandals, one of which led to the fateful Titanic.
Marriages, Divorces, and Tragedy
Jack, much to his mother’s taste, married Ava Lowle Willing in 1891, with whom he had two children, Vincent and Alice. But the union was unhappy. While Caroline was alive, the two kept up appearances but less than a year after the matriarch’s death they divorced.
Outside the family business, Jack tried to be a writer, writing the science fiction novel Journey in Other Worlds, as well as being a patented inventor. Designed a bicycle brake and improved turbine engine. But nothing beat her interest in her love life.
Following their separation (or simultaneously, one cannot say for sure), Jack fell in love with a young woman 27 years younger, Madeleine Talmage Force. The chaste American society did not give peace to the couple, who made their union official in 1911, leaving for Europe to get away from the gossip. However, as soon as they arrived in France, Madeleine discovered that she was pregnant. To get back to the United States faster, they boarded the transatlantic, sealing their fates.
When the ship hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers. Reports at the time greatly exaggerate what would have happened next. One says the couple sat in the ship’s gym, wearing life jackets, and waited. It was only at the last minute that Madeleine and her maid got into a lifeboat. One version casts Jack as both a gentleman and a hero, having walked away after seeing Madeleine safe to allow women and children into the lifeboat. He asked if he could accompany his wife, to which he was refused. He said goodbye to her and stayed on the ship’s deck as it began to sink, smoking a cigar and accompanied by his valet. He was elegantly dressed and his gold watch is one of the most prized pieces of what was rescued from the dead and the ship.
The body of John Jacob Astor IV was recovered and identified several days after the sinking. One of the stories says that it was badly damaged, giving rise to the version that the chimney fell on it in the water, but the one that remains is that it was intact. Jack was out at sea, holding on to a raft, but the freezing water soon caused hypothermia and he would have drowned. His son Vincent took a train to Halifax, Nova Scotia to claim the body. The funeral was held on May 4 in Rhinebeck, but Jack is buried in Manhattan, in the family plot, alongside his father and great-grandfather, in Trinity Church Cemetery at 153rd Street.
Madeleine became famous as one of the few survivors and her son, for some time, was called “the baby of the Titanic”. According to her, on the night of the sinking, she was “compelled to handle an oar” and draw ice water from the lifeboat while others rowed frantically away from the sinking ship. She suffered a complete nervous breakdown when rescuers arrived and learned of her husband’s death. The son was named after his father, John Jacob, in his honor.
The Titanic tragedy may enter later in the series, who knows? The conflict between the Astors alone yields material for many episodes! The 2nd season of The Gilded Age hasn’t started shooting yet, apparently only in 2024 will we know more!