American Links at Cliveden

Painting of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent

Americans, aspects of American causes and American culture and learning have been linked to Cliveden since the 19th century; from the era of the Duchess of Sutherland, to the Astor family and to the National Trust. 

The Duchess of Sutherland (1806–1868), a prominent political hostess welcomed the American activist Harriet Beecher Stowe to Stafford House, (the Sutherland’s London home) to address a meeting on the abolitionist cause in 1852.  The meeting, chaired by the Duchess, was an important event that drew attention to the efforts to bring an end to slavery in the Southern States.

The glamour and glitter of America’s gilded age was brought to Cliveden when William Waldorf Astor (1848–1919), bought the estate in 1893. He was the only child of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), the founder of the vast Astor family fortune. William Waldorf was an anglophile and when appointed to the role of Minister to Rome in 1882, by President Chester Arthur, he fully immersed himself in European culture. He had famously rejected American culture when he declared, “America is good enough for any man who has to make a livelihood, though why travelled people of independent means should remain there for more than a week is not readily comprehended”. Yet he collected works of art in style of America’s grandest families and he furnished and decorated Cliveden in the style of the Newport Rhode Island and 5th Avenue mansions. He gifted the house and estate to his son Waldorf (1879–1952) on his marriage to Nancy Langhorne Shaw (1879–1964). A Virginian by birth, Nancy Astor rose to fame as the first woman to be elected to Parliament and take her seat in the British House of Commons in 1919.

The intricate ceiling inside the house
The intricate ceiling inside the house

Waldorf and Nancy used Cliveden to create powerful networks from the social, political, cultural, and business worlds from both sides of the Atlantic. Nancy’s capricious nature and infectious enthusiasms charmed all of those in her orbit. She adamantly refused to adopt British fashionable tastes and manners of the day and as an American she took a certain pride in never taking the English upper classes as seriously as they took themselves. She said “You can’t be a snob if you’re a Virginian because we can’t imagine anyone being above us”. Things were never stuffy at Cliveden during Nancy’s reign. She was generous, charming and hospitable, and brought many fellow American luminaries to Cliveden such as the great American novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton. She commissioned a bust from the celebrity New York born sculptor Jo Davidson. She entertained the star of the silent screen Charlie Chaplin and enjoyed the company of fellow teetotaller and industrialist Henry Ford.  Nancy hosted the leaving party for Joe Kennedy and his family at Cliveden when he resigned his post of American Ambassador to Great Britain in 1940.  

Waldorf, encouraged by his friend, the Marquis of Lothian gifted Cliveden and some of its contents to the National Trust in 1942. He believed that Cliveden should continue to be used as an important meeting place for people from the English speaking world. He hoped that people from all political persuasions could come together to promote a deeper understanding between Britain and North America.

Waldorf would have been very pleased to see the great American centre of learning, Stanford University lease Cliveden from the National Trust in 1969. The university maintained their British campus at Cliveden for fifteen years and countless numbers of young Americans enjoyed living for a few summer months, at the Astor’s former home. Several of the Stanford Alumni Society have returned to us over the years to share their memories of what many have described as ‘ten weeks to remember’;

Several memories concerning the spring of 1983 have remained deeply etched into my mind. I spent the academic quarter at Cliveden while studying in England as a Stanford student. I can still recall winding up the serpentine drive, seeing the Fountain of Love for the first time, and then looking up to the estate in the distance. Students quickly learned that, during the week, we had the home to ourselves. On weekends we tried to be invisible out of respect for National Trust visitors. In many cases, weekends were used for our own off-site trips. As the years unfold, I have come to appreciate the look of déjà vu on the faces of the shopkeepers in Maidenhead as they welcomed to town what must have seemed like an endless quarterly flow of Americans purchasing souvenirs and asking the same questions as their predecessors. …….  Cliveden is a magical place, and I feel extremely fortunate to have spent ten weeks living at the Estate.