The Astors at Cliveden

Painting of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent

The American millionaire William Waldorf Astor bought Cliveden in 1893 for $1.2m. With the arrival of the Astors, the estate entered a new era.

America’s richest man

William Waldorf Astor’s grandfather made the family’s fortune through Manhattan property yet America did not suit Astor and following time as US Minister to Italy, he decided to make England home. 

William Waldorf Astor by Sir Hubert von Herkomer
Painting of William Waldorf Astor by Sir Hubert von Herkomer
William Waldorf Astor by Sir Hubert von Herkomer

William Waldorf Astor remodelled many of the rooms within the house, including enlarging the Great Hall and installing the wooden staircase. In 1897 when in Paris, Astor purchased the so-called ‘French Dining Room’ from the Chateau d’Asnieres which exactly matched the size of the dining room at Cliveden.

During his time in Italy, Astor had developed a love of classical sculpture and brought many pieces to Cliveden, including the Borghese Balustrade in 1896 and the Fountain of Love in 1897. He created the Long Garden with its topiary to display his Italian statuary and developed an oriental themed water garden with a Pagoda made for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 at its centre. Astor also designed the giant Maze for the water garden which covered over a third of an acre.

The Fountain of Love, Cliveden
The Fountain of Love at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire
The Fountain of Love, Cliveden

The Cliveden Set

Astor’s eldest son, Waldorf married Nancy Langhorne in 1906 and the couple received Cliveden as a wedding gift. Cliveden entered a new, glittering era as the venue for many parties hosted by the Astors. Cliveden became one of the centres of European political and literary life with guests from Lloyd George, Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin enjoying the lavish hospitality.

In the 1930s the house parties were seen as having a more serious agenda and the group became known as the ‘Cliveden Set’. Newspaper articles accused them of being sympathetic towards Hitler and directing British foreign policy. Prominent Nazi party members did receive invites to Cliveden as did Charlie Chaplin whose outspoken dislike of the Nazi party was well known.

The end of an era

The ‘Profumo Affair’ in 1963 shattered the Astor’s lives and the death shortly afterwards of Waldorf and Nancy’s son Bill hastened the family’s decision to leave Cliveden. Waldorf Astor had given Cliveden to the National Trust in1942 and in 1966 the Trust took over the management of the estate, opening it to the public.

Mary Victoria Leiter, Lady Curzon (1870-1906) by Fransz Seraph von Lenbach

Who were the titled Americans? 

Over 300 British aristocrats married American women between 1870 and 1914. While popular perception understands these marriages as arranged trades of titles for dollars, this explanation is correct for only a few exceptional cases.