In the early part of the 20th century, one man had more wealth riches, and notoriety than all others. His name was John Jacob "Jack" Astor IV. The press called him "Jack Ass." He was an American businessman, real estate developer, novelist, investor, inventor, and a lieutenant colonel during the Spanish-American War. Oh, and he was a member of the Astor family. AKA, one of the wealthiest families in American history.
In April 1912, Astor became a permanent and prominent part of history when he set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the RMS Titanic. At the time of the Titanic voyage, Astor was the richest person in the world. His personal fortune was estimated at $85 million. Today, that $85 million is equivalent to $2.3 billion.
Tragically, on April 15, 1912, Astor was among the 1,517 people who did not survive the sinking of the Titanic after it struck an iceberg. Take a step back and think about how insane this would be if it happened today.
Imagine if the richest person in the world today, Jeff Bezos, built a space ship that took regular people into orbit. And then let's pretend he volunteered to be one of the space ship's first passengers. And let's pretend instead of "Titanic", the ship was called… "Blue Origin"…
Imagine how crazy it would be if that space ship got hit by a meteorite and blew up halfway through the voyage. This is essentially exactly what happened 109 years ago.
Early Life and Family Wealth
John Jacob Astor IV was born on July 13, 1864. He was the youngest of five children and only son of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., a race horse breeder/owner, collector, and businessman. John Jacob's mother was a socialite named Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn.
John Jacob IV's great-grandfather John Jacob Astor I made his first million trading furs from Canada to wealthy women in New York City. JJAI then used his money to buy up vast quantities of real estate around New York, especially in what we now call Manhattan.
At the time of JJAI's death in 1848, he left behind a fortune of $20 million. $20 million today would be huge fortune. We're talking about $20 million in 1848. After adjusting for inflation, JJAI's fortune is worth the modern equivalent of $121 BILLION dollars. That fortune made JJAI the 14th richest human of all time and the fifth richest American ever.
John Jacob Astor IV grew up in the lap of luxury thanks to his family's vast wealth. Astor attended the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Harvard University. In 1891, Astor married socialite Ava Lowle Willing. The couple had two children, William Vincent, born in 1891, and Ava Alice, born in 1902.
Astor and Ava divorced in 1909. Divorce was a pretty big scandal in those days, and making that scandal worse was the fact that "Jack" planned to remarry almost right away, to a much much younger woman. When he was 47-years old, Jack married his second wife, 18-year old socialite Madeleine Talmage Force. Madeleine was two years younger than Jack's son Vincent. The couple were married in the ballroom of his mother's family's home in Newport, Rhode Island.
Not A Lazy Trust Fund Baby
Jack Astor wasn't just a middle-aged trust fund playboy who traveled the world with his teenage wife. He was a published author. In 1894 he published the science fiction novel "A Journey in Other Worlds" about life in the year 2000 on Saturn and Jupiter.
He was also an inventor who held a number of patents, including a bicycle brake, a "vibratory disintegrator" which was used to produce gas from peat moss, and a pneumatic road improver.
He even helped in the development of a turbine engine.
These side hobbies were impressive, but they didn't enhance his fortune. Jack did that with real estate holdings. Like his great-grandfather before him, Jack Astor made millions in real estate.
In 1897 he built the Astoria Hotel, then the world's most luxurious hotel, next to his cousin Willy's Waldorf Hotel. The two properties eventually became known as the Waldorf-Astoria, and were coincidentally the headquarters for American inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic.
A Fateful Voyage
The controversy over the divorce and the 29-year age difference between Jack and Madeleine drove the couple to embark on an extended honeymoon in Egypt and Europe to give the gossip back home time to calm down.
Among his few American friends at the time was Margaret Brown, who would alter be known as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (famously portrayed by Kathy Bates in the 1996 "Titanic" movie).
Molly went to Egypt and France with the Astors, and coincidentally, was called back to the U.S. at the same time as the Astors decided to go home.
The scandal over Jack's second marriage was still raging, but Madeleine was pregnant and she wanted her baby to be born in the United States. So Brown and the Astors booked their passage on the luxurious new ocean liner, the RMS Titanic. The trip was supposed to take seven days because Titanic was supposed to be the fastest, most-advanced boat ever produced.
Molly and the Astors booked their trans-Atlantic trip on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic and boarded in Cherbourg, France. As the wealthiest passengers on the ship, they had first class accommodations. Traveling with the Astors were Jack's valet Victor Robbins, Madeleine's maid, Rosalie Bidois, her nurse Caroline Endres, and the couple's beloved dog, an Airedale named Kitty.
We all know what happened next. In the wee hours of April 15th, the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink.
Shorty after the Titanic hit the iceberg, Astor told his young wife that the damage was not serious. As the lifeboats for first class were being manned and deployed, Astor remained unruffled. It is said that he and Madeleine were in the ship's gym playing with the mechanical horses. Reportedly, Astor even used a pen knife to slice the lining of an extra life vest to show Madeleine the contents.
Eventually, the couple either made their way to the A Deck, or were retrieved from the gym for evacuation. Madeleine, her maid, and nurse were loaded into Lifeboat 4. Astor asked to accompany his pregnant wife, but, of course, no men were allowed to jump ship until all the women and children had been evacuated.
Below is a photo of Madeline Astor's actual life jacket:
At 1:55am Lifeboat 4 was lowered into the Atlantic Ocean. John Jacob Astor IV never was able to escape. He was last seen by his wife and friends standing the Starboard bridge wing, smoking a cigarette. Just 30 minutes later, the mighty Titanic disappeared beneath the surface of the ocean. Madeleine, her nurse, and her maid all survived. Jack Astor and his valet Victor Robbins did not.
Of the 1,517 passengers who died in the sinking of the Titanic, only 333 bodies were ever found. Jack Astor's was among them. He was found on April 22nd and was identified thanks to the monogrammed initials on his jacket. A very expensive gold pocket watch was also found on his person. His son Vincent would go on to wear that watch for the rest of his life.
Four months after the Titanic sunk, Madeleine Astor gave birth to Jack Astor's second son John Jacob "Jakey" Astor VI.
What Happened To The Largest Fortune In The World?
To reiterate, at the time he died, Jack Astor was worth $85 million (the modern equivalent of $2.3 billion). He was the richest person on the planet.
According to the terms of his will, $69 million (the modern equivalent of $1.9 billion) was left to his son from the previous marriage, Vincent. Vincent would grow his inheritance to over $200 million by the time of his death in February 1959. Vincent left his entire fortune, worth the equivalent of $2 billion to the Vincent Astor Foundation, and his third wife, famous socialite Brooke Astor.
His daughter Ava, also from that previous marriage, was left a $10 million trust fund (worth $270 million today).
His 19-year-old widow Madeleine was left the income generated from a $5 million trust fund (roughly $135 million today) PLUS an additional annual income of $500,000 (equal to $13.5 million per year today). She also got his New York City mansion at 65th and Fifth Avenue, his Newport mansion, all of the furnishings of both houses, a limousine, and five of his horses as long as she never remarried.
Interestingly, Madeleine Astor went on to get married two more times (and divorced twice) before dying in 1940 at the age of 46 at her mansion in Palm Beach.
Madeleine and Jack's son Jakey, who was nicknamed "The Titanic Baby", was left $3 million, to be inherited when he turned 21. When Jakey turned 21 in 1933, the trust was worth $5 million (equal to $103 million in today's dollars). When Vincent Astor died childless in 1959, Jakey felt cheated by not being made the inheritor of what had become an enormous fortune. He actually sued Vincent's widow and ended up settling for $250,000.
Jakey would be remembered for being engaged many many times and marrying four times. He died in 1992 at the age of 79.