Astor, Nancy Witcher (1879–1964)

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Astor, Nancy Witcher (1879–1964)

First woman member of the House of Commons, who was known for her iconoclastic wit and the many controversies into which she entered. Name variations: Lady Astor, Nancy Viscountess Astor. Born Nancy Witcher Langhorne on May 19, 1879, at Danville, Virginia; died on May 2, 1964, at Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire; fifth child of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne (a railroad developer) and Nancy Witcher Keene; sister of Irene Gibson (the Gibson girl); married Robert Gould Shaw, in October 1897 (divorced, February 1903); married Waldorf Astor, on May 3, 1906; children: (first marriage) Robert (Bobbie) Shaw; (second marriage) William (Bill) Waldorf, Nancy Phyllis Louise (Wissie), Francis David Langhorne, Michael Langhorne, John Jacob (Jakie); aunt of actress Joyce Grenfell.

Throughout her life, American-born Nancy Astor was surrounded by controversy. The first woman member of the British House of Commons, she gained an international reputation for crusading zeal and biting wit. To poet Anne Morrow Lindbergh , she was "screamingly funny." To her close friend playwright George Bernard Shaw, she was "a reckless unladylike Lady." But to critics she was "the Pollyanna of the political world," "the most honest of hypocrites." One said, "For her a declaration of good will is equivalent to a realization of justice."

Lady Astor was born Nancy Witcher Lang-horne on May 19, 1879, in Danville, Virginia. Her father was Chiswell (Chillie) Dabney Lang-horne, an impoverished auctioneer and Civil War veteran, who later made a fortune as a railroad contractor. Her mother, Nancy Witcher Keene, had worked in a hospital during the Civil War. Said Nancy of her parents, "Very early in life I sensed that she had the stronger character. But Father had the power. He held the purse strings." Her sister Irene Gibson was a famous beauty, immortalized as the Gibson girl by the then little-known artist Charles Dana Gibson. Though Chillie first referred to Gibson as "this damn charcoal artist," Charles and Irene were married in 1895. Nancy's younger sister Nora Langhorne Phipps had two children, Tommy and Joyce. The shy, overweight Joyce grew up to be the talented comedienne Joyce Grenfell .

First raised in a wooden frame house, at six Nancy moved with her family to an impoverished part of Richmond. Around 1892, however, her father—whose income had radically improved—bought an estate named Mirador, located in Greenwood, Virginia, 17 miles west of Charlottesville. A typical Southern belle, Nancy rode to the hounds in daytime and attended fancy-dress balls at night. When she was 17, she was sent to Miss Brown's Academy for Young Ladies, a finishing school in New York. Finding herself snubbed by the daughters of the city's elite, she retaliated by wearing garish clothes. Already possessing a caustic temperament, the highly attractive Nancy told her classmates that her father was a drunk and her mother took in washing.

In October 1897, after turning down 16 proposals, Nancy Langhorne married New Englander Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a socially prominent family. Shaw was mentally ill and an alcoholic. Though she gave him one son, "Bobbie," the marriage was doomed from the start. Nancy fled Shaw the second night of her honeymoon and possibly several times thereafter. The couple separated permanently in 1901 and divorced in 1903, when Shaw had already committed bigamy. A year later, Nancy started visiting England for the social and hunting seasons. She first fell in love with Lord John Baring Revelstoke of the prominent banking family. In the end, she found Revelstoke too worldly and snobbish; he in turn wondered if she was up to entertaining royalty.

In 1906, on a second trip to England, she married the handsome and dignified Waldorf (later second viscount) Astor. Born in New York, Waldorf was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. Like his American-born father William Waldorf Astor, he was a naturalized British subject. One of the richest families in the world, the Astors possessed political influence as well. They owned the Pall Mall Gazette and later the Observer; young Waldorf sat in Parliament as a Conservative representing the working-class Sutton division of Plymouth. The couple would have four sons and one daughter.

Almost immediately, Lady Astor turned their magnificent country house "Cliveden," near Taplow on the Thames, into a showplace where entertainment was conducted on a grand scale. Here British royalty mixed with prominent political and literary figures. Dinners for 50 to 60 were frequent; major balls would have 600 guests. Commented the leading civil servant Thomas (Tom) Jones of Lady Astor's role at Cliveden: "She was and remained the center of attraction; no visitor could compete with her beauty, athletic figure, immense vitality, and her darting tongue." At that time she was an avid reader, a lover of words. Cliveden visitors included Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc, and Henry James, who was escorted there by Edith Wharton in the summer of 1912. "Though but a reclaimed barbarian," wrote Wharton, Nancy was "full of possibilities and fine material, with all her bounty, spontaneity and charm, too."

In her prime, Lady Astor was a short, trim woman, though her alertness made her appear taller. Her eyes were blue, her complexion fair, her nose and chin strong and finely shaped. Her personality was far from simple. Writes her biographer Christopher Sykes:

There was never a person of more contradiction than Nancy. It is almost true to say that she had in greater or lesser degree the opposite of all her qualities. She could be fanatic, she could be extraordinarily broad-minded; she could be cruel, she could bring comfort as no one else was able to; she could be foolish, she could be remarkably intelligent; she could be tyrannical, she could be humbly self-critical.

In 1914, when Lady Astor suffered from an internal abscess and was close to becoming an invalid, she converted from her nominal Anglicanism to Christian Science. Henceforth, she seldom became ill. Indeed, she was so enthusiastic about her new faith that she was able to convert her close friend, the prominent civil servant Philip Kerr, later 11th Marquis of Lothian.

During World War I, the Astors turned Cliveden into a hospital. In total, 1,400 troops were tended. Feeling the impact of the conflict severely, Lady Astor later wrote: "After two years in that first war, we did not look at the casualty lists any more. There was nothing to look for. All our friends had gone." Throughout this time, Waldorf Astor was holding high positions: in 1917, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister David Lloyd George; in 1918, parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Food and Local Government Board and in 1919 to the Ministry of Health. In 1918, on the death of his father, Waldorf succeeded to his viscounty. Much against his will, he was elevated to the House of Lords.

Gibson, Irene Langhorne (1873–1956)

The original "Gibson girl." Born in Danville, Virginia, in 1873; died in 1956; third child of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne (a railroad developer) and Nancy Witcher Keene; sister of Nancy Astor ; married Charles Dana Gibson, in 1895; children: daughter Babs.

Irene was the beauty of the Langhorne family. She opened the ball of the Philadelphia Academy, was queen of the Mardi Gras, and led the grand march at the Patriarch's Ball in New York (1894). After refusing 60 proposals of marriage (it is not known who kept track), she agreed to marry the Yankee artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944), one of the top illustrators of his day. For 20 years, Charles drew the "Gibson girl," modeled after her. Immensely popular, the patrician Gibson girl was competent and assured, fashionably dressed, and moved through an undemanding world. Embodying the American dream of the Gilded Age, women modeled their clothes and hair after Irene Gibson. Her likeness was everywhere: printed on pillow covers, chinaware, and silver spoons.

In the resulting by-election, Lady Astor agreed to stand for Parliament in his place, running as a Conservative supporter of the Lloyd George coalition. "I am a Virginian," she said, "so naturally I am a politician." The campaign did not lack color. Refusing to look dowdy in order to please voters, she campaigned in highly fashionable garb. She claimed that her Labour

Party opponent represented the "shirking classes," she the "working classes." When someone commented that she should be home looking after her children, she replied, "This is true, but I feel that someone ought be looking after the more unfortunate children."

While campaigning, she had "unlimited effrontery," said Oswald Mosley (soon to be husband of Diana Mitford ):

She was less shy than any woman—or any man—one has ever known. She'd address the audience and then she'd go across to some old woman scowling in a neighbouring doorway, who simply hated her, take both her hands and kiss her on the cheek or something of that sort. She was absolutely unabashed by any situation. Great effrontery but also, of course, enormous charm. People were usually overcome by it. She was much better when she was interrupted. She must have prayed for hecklers#x2026;.

On December 1, 1919, Lady Astor became the first woman to sit in the British Parliament, remaining in the Commons for 26 years. To mark her entrance, she was introduced by Lloyd George and former prime minister Arthur Balfour. Yet some members sought to make her uncomfortable. Wrote Mary Stocks :

From the first moment of her appearance in that exclusive club a terrifying responsibility rested upon her. She carried the repute of future women MPs in her elegant gloved hands…. Everybody waited to see what she would say or do; and those who resented female incursion into that sacred male preserve devoutly prayed that she might say or do the wrong thing.

Lady Astor said many things, and what she said was often out of order; during sessions, she would audibly comment or interrupt any speech with which she disagreed. She tried to limit one Conservative speech by pulling the speaker down by the coat-tails. "People who live in two houses do not realise what it is like to live in two rooms. That's what is wrong with the Conservatives." By such antics, Lady Astor immediately made her mark. Rather than claiming herself equal to her male colleagues, she maintained that women were the superior sex. "I married beneath me," she used to say. "All women do."

From the time she entered Parliament, she spoke for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Noting the enormous fortunes made from brewing, she claimed that the Peerage might be called the Beerage. When in 1930 the British lost a major cricket competition, she said, "The reason England lost the Ashes was that the Australians did not drink." In 1923, she introduced a bill raising the drinking age to 18. Once it passed the Commons, her husband conducted the bill through the House of Lords, and it became law.

In Parliament, Lady Astor continually pressed issues concerning women and children. Women were particularly appreciative of her causes, which included votes for females at 21, equal rights in the civil service, better conditions in women's prisons, the preservation of the women's police forces, milk for the needy, allowances for widows, birth control, the suppression of prostitution, and the elimination of venereal disease. She was equally active on behalf of children, fighting child labor in unregulated trades and calling for the protection of the young from indecent assault, the raising of the school age, and the introduction of juvenile courts. She was a staunch defender of the famous nursery school program of Margaret McMillan . Extremely constituent-minded and representing a naval district, Astor often spoke for British mariners. For instance, she demanded improved conditions for naval wives and children and better educational facilities for enlisted men.

Her bumptiousness and self-assurance made her the right woman for parliamentary trailblazing, wrote Harold Nicolson:

Her courage … was such that no subsequent woman Member ever felt inferiority when faced with that predominantly male assembly. It was Lady Astor who, from the very day of her introduction, taught her contemporaries that the expansion of woman's liberty could be achieved, not by mute acquiescence, but by voluble pugnacity. She taught her sex to fight.

In 1922, Lady Astor visited the United States, where she met a host of dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding. Outspoken as usual, she attacked the wearing of short skirts, stressed that the United States had been founded by Protestants, called the proposed bonus for veterans "a dangerous thing," and claimed that America should have joined the League of Nations. Her speeches were published under the title My Two Countries (1923).

Another visit was even more provocative. In 1931, the Astors visited the Soviet Union with playwright George Bernard Shaw. When Lady Astor asked Joseph Stalin how long he was going to keep on killing people, the Russian dictator said, "As long as necessary." (Her very next question focused on Soviet nurseries.) Though Shaw returned to Britain fervently enthusiastic over the Soviet system, Lady Astor strongly assailed it.

During the 1930s, Lady Astor condemned the Nazi system early on, while calling for accommodation with Germany. In May 1933, she denounced Nazism as tyranny. That June, she protested to the German embassy about illiberal treatment of professional women. When in 1936 she met German diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, she told him Adolf Hitler's performances were absurd and mocked the führer's appearance. In 1938, she intervened on behalf of the uncle of American jurist Felix Frankfurter, detained by the Nazis in Austria.

Yet Lady Astor was equally outspoken in defense of appeasement. In May 1937, she called for an Anglo-German pact, saying that one must either live with people one did not wholly approve or face a new world war. In June, while in New York, she said that hatred of Nazism should not breed hostility towards Germany itself. She also warned Jews not to allow their anti-Nazism to result in support of communism. When criticized for the latter remark, she simply claimed that she had been making "a plea for an atmosphere of constructive goodwill." A strong admirer of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whom she saw as Britain's greatest leader since Lloyd George, she strongly endorsed the Munich agreement. When Winston Churchill called the pact "a total and unmitigated defeat," she heckled "Nonsense!" Yet once Hitler seized Prague, she urged Chamberlain to protest.

In the immediate years before World War II, the Astor country house Cliveden became the subject of much controversy, so much so that the press even spoke of a "Cliveden set." It was claimed that the Astor mansion was headquarters to a shadow foreign office where schemes were hatched to assure Hitler's dominance in Europe. The myth was first given currency by Claud Cockburn, a former New York correspondent of The Times (London) and publisher of a mimeographed bulletin entitled The Week. In the issue of November 17, 1937, Cockburn told of a plan, laid at the Astor house, by which Lord Halifax, lord president of the Council and a prominent appeaser, would bargain with Hitler. In exchange for an Anglo-German truce, Britain would not interfere with Germany's eastern expansion. The story was wrong in every particular. For example, Halifax was not present while foreign secretary Anthony Eden, a foe of appeasement, was. Indeed, writes biographer Sykes, "When it comes to evidence of Appeasement policy and action, the Astors never seem to be there." Yet the damage was done. The term "Cliveden set" was picked up by a host of other journals, ranging from the Communist DailyWorker to the liberal Manchester Guardian. Even the British fascist organ Action accused Cliveden of representing "the powers of money and the press." David Low of the (London) Evening Standard drew savage cartoons while Labourite Sir Stafford Cripps called Lady Astor "the honorable member for Berlin."

When war broke out in September 1939, Lady Astor's sons went into service almost immediately. Cliveden became part nursery for evacuated children, part hospital for Canadian troops. When Waldorf served as lord mayor of Plymouth for five years, Nancy was most effective as co-mayor, often substituting for him in times of ill-health. During the bombing raids, she was continually in the Plymouth shelters, nursing babies and raising morale by performing cartwheels. After a major blast on March 21, 1941, which began a sustained blitzkrieg on the city, she said, "There goes thirty years of our lives, but we'll build it again." At the same time, she was saying, "Hate is a deadly poison. Kill the Germans, don't hate them." She wrote a friend, "Only I and the P.M. [Prime Minister] enjoy the war, but only I say so."

In Commons, she fought to curb the import on champagne, wanted supplies rationed to brewers, and demanded the evacuation of children from urban areas. Ever mindful of women's concerns, she pushed allowances to soldier's wives, equal compensation for women injured in air raids, admission of women to the foreign service, and—a favorite cause—the enlargement of the women's police force. In part due to her efforts, a national fire-fighting service was established.

In 1940, during the debate over the abortive Norwegian campaign, she supported the summoning of Winston Churchill as prime minister. (Her personal choice had been the 77-year-old Lloyd George.) Personal relations with Churchill, however, had seldom been good, and there had been one quite famous exchange:

Winston, if I were married to you, I'd put poison in my coffee.
Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.

Certain stands were almost designed to court unpopularity. In 1942, Lady Astor warned of Roman Catholic influence over the foreign service and overseas propaganda agencies. In the same year, she said of the Soviet Union, "I am grateful to the Russians, but they are not fighting for us. They are fighting for themselves." Opposing the internment of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley without trial, she commented, "It's not the British way to keep people in prison if they are uncondemned."

By 1945, Lady Astor had lost her influence in Parliament; she seemed unable to focus on an issue. Commented information minister Brenden Bracken in the midst of a debate, "Would the noble lady tell the House exactly what she means?" She lacked the support of the local Conservative Association and, as the Labour Party won the elections by a wide margin, she would undoubtedly have been defeated. When, however, her husband persuaded her not to seek reelection, she never forgave him. For the first time in their marriage, and until Waldorf's death in 1952, their relationship was shaky. Moreover, she never recovered from the blow of being out of office.

During her trips to America, she was more provocative than ever. In 1946, in the midst of a debate concerning a loan to Great Britain, she said at a press conference in Washington, "You should get down on your knees and thank God for Britain." When asked her reaction to the city of Savannah, Georgia, to which she had been unexpectedly diverted because of weather, she replied: "The city is beautiful, as everybody knows it is. It's one of the most beautiful cities of America. But the way y'keep it. It's revoltin'. Never seen anything so revoltin' in m'life."

In 1947, during another visit to the United States, she experienced more criticism by calling the Zionist movement "purely political." Six years later, when she returned to the States, she met Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, then approaching the height of his Communist witch-hunt. She told the Wisconsin Republican that she wished the glass of whiskey in his hand were poison, a comment that caused one editor to demand her arrest.

On May 2, 1964, Lady Astor died of a stroke at her daughter's house, Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire. When she saw all her children assembled around her for the last time, she asked, "Am I dying or is this my birthday?" Her son Jakie replied, "A bit of both."


Annan, Noel. New York Review of Books. February 8, 1973.

Astor, Michael. Tribal Feeling. John Murray, 1964. Astor, Nancy W. My Two Countries. NY: Doubleday, 1923.

Collis, Maurice. Nancy Astor: An Informal Biography. NY: Dutton, 1960.

Grigg, John. Nancy Astor: A Lady Unashamed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1980.

Langhorne, Elizabeth. Nancy Astor and Her Friends. Praeger, 1974.

Sykes, Christopher. Nancy: The Life of Nancy Astor. NY: Harper and Row, 1972.

suggested reading:

Jones, Thomas. A Dairy with Letters, 1931-1950. Oxford University Press, 1954.

Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. The Flower and the Nettle: Diaries and Letters, 1936–1939. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida