Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age

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9781400048526: Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age

John Armstrong Chanler—known as Archie to his family—was an heir to the Astor fortune, an eccentric, dashing, and handsome millionaire. Amélie Rives, from a Southern family and the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee, was a daring author, a stunning temptress, and a woman ahead of her time. Filled with glamour, mystery, and madness, their love affair and marriage made them the talk of society in the Gilded Age.

Archie and Amélie seemed made for each other—both were passionate, intense, and driven by emotion—but the very things that brought them together would soon draw them apart. Their marriage began with a “secret” wedding that found its way onto the front page of the New York Times, to the dismay of Archie’s relatives and Amélie’s many gentleman friends. To the world, the couple appeared charmed, rich, and famous; they moved in social circles that included Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stanford White. But although their love was undeniable, they tormented each other, and their private life was troubled from the start.

They were the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their day—a celebrated couple too dramatic and unconventional to last—but their tumultuous story has largely been forgotten. Now, Donna M. Lucey vividly brings to life these extraordinary lovers and their sweeping, tragic romance.
“In the Virginia hunt country just outside of Charlottesville, where I live, the older people still tell stories of a strange couple who died some two generations ago. The stories involve ghosts, the mysterious burning of a church, a murder at a millionaire’s house, a sensational lunacy trial, and a beautiful, scantily clad young woman prowling her gardens at night as if she were searching for something or someone—or trying to walk off the effects of the morphine that was deranging her. I was inclined to dismiss all of this as tall tales Virginians love to spin out; but when I looked into these yarns I found proof that they were true. . . .” —Donna M. Lucey on Archie and Amélie

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About the Author:

Donna M. Lucey is an award-winning writer and photo editor whose previous books include Photographing Montana 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron and I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600–1920. She lives with her husband and son in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the story of Archie and Amélie is part of local lore.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The Education of an Astor, or A Name That Rings Like Bullion

The irony of Archie–man on the run, hiding his face as he crossed the familiar Manhattan precincts of his youth–was not lost on the Astor heir himself. He had been, and still considered himself, one of the princes of the city. In fact, much of the real estate he traversed during that hansom cab ride in 1900 was owned by his family.

The story of the Astor wealth was legend, and Archie could recite it chapter and verse. He had been schooled in the family history and in the expectations that it created. Archie understood only too well the burden involved. As the eldest son in his huge family (he had seven surviving brothers and sisters), he carried a particularly heavy load. All of the Chanler siblings prided themselves on their individuality, on their strong-willed and often eccentric ways. They all professed an indifference to money. Why not? They had plenty of it. Piles of it had been amassed by their forebears, and none of the current generation–least of all Archie–wanted to spend their lives the way their great-grandfather William Backhouse Astor had.

Nicknamed “Landlord of New York,”William Backhouse Astor was both reviled and envied in his lifetime. Hewas a “hard dreary looking old man and the richest in the world,” in the estimation of Lord Rosebery, the future prime minister of England. Six feet tall but stoopshouldered, William B. Astor spent his life hunched over his contracts and leases. He had inherited from his father, John Jacob Astor, vast stretches of Manhattan real estate, and as the population boomed in nineteenth-century New York, the value of the land rose exponentially. By 1860 tenement slums with a population density of 290,000 per square mile became William B. Astor’s specialty. The arithmetic was simple: one block filled with tenements could generate at least twice the revenue of a similar block with more-spacious middle-class housing. As immigrants poured into the city, the Astor name became synonymous with misery. When one newcomer proudly announced to a Board of Health inspector that his house was owned by Astor, the official shot back, “More’s the pity.”

William B. was the caretaker for the vast empire his father had acquired; he had little interest in building or transforming the landscape. He would just as soon let others erect housing for the poor on his land; he would merely collect the rents. Being a pious man, he could then blame others for–or claim ignorance of–the inhumane conditions that prevailed on his property. But of course his ignorance of conditions only went so far. Eager to maintain the status quo and keep his coffers full, he did his best to defy all attempts at tenement reform and for years succeeded in delaying the construction of subways that would allow immigrants to live in more distant parts of the city. Besides, in his view, it was laziness that kept a man in a miserable tenement with no ventilation, plumbing, or light. It was not William B.’s problem. One had only to look at his father’s example to see the opportunity available to any man willing to work hard–a belief commonly held by William B. and other plutocrats who had inherited vast fortunes without lifting a finger.

Archie knew as well of the more colorful saga of his great-greatgrandfather, who had amassed the original fortune. The family patriarch’s saga was indeed impressive. As legend has it, John Jacob Astor, twenty-year-old son of a poor butcher in Waldorf, Germany, arrived in Baltimore in 1784 with seven flutes and about five pounds sterling, and parlayed it into a fortune conservatively estimated at $20 million, a sum that staggered the imagination of his contemporaries. In 1848, the year Astor died, the richest man in Boston left behind only $2 million. John Jacob’s winter passage to America was in steerage, and he subsisted on salt beef, biscuits, and dreams of what lay ahead. Just short of Baltimore the ship became trapped in ice, and there it remained stranded for two months–enough time for Astor to hatch a plan. One of his fellow German passengers was in the fur trade, and he passed the time by telling stories of the fortunes that could be made by buying American furs for next to nothing and selling them in England for exorbitant prices.

Astor’s course was set. Arriving in New York, he went to work for a furrier, and spent the following summer beating pelts to keep moths out of them. Astor became a keen student of the fur business, and within several years had set up his own shop. Shouldering a backpack stuffed with at least sixty pounds of trade items, he tramped hundreds of miles through the wilderness, struck tough bargains with the trappers, and then brought the pelts to London, where he sold them at great profit. One beaver pelt in London might bring the equivalent of three dollars–the same price as a musket, which Astor could then trade with an Indian for ten more beaver skins.

While in London, Astor cemented a deal with the firm of Astor and Broadwood (his older brother was a partner in the company), manufacturers of musical instruments. He served as New York agent for their pianos, flutes, and violins–valued and scarce commodities in New York–and, in the process, helped finance his burgeoning fur business. He opened a small shop in Manhattan that bore the unusual sign furs and pianos. One of John Jacob’s original pianos remains at Rokeby, a reminder of the Astor patriarch’s early strivings in commerce.

As his business grew, so did John Jacob’s ambition. He leaped into the China trade, eventually sending his own fleet of ships to Canton, where furs could be bartered for tea, silk, and porcelain. With a ruthlessness and cunning that would be admired–and copied–by later robber barons, Astor turned his American Fur Company into the country’s first great monopoly. Other successful merchants and financiers would hang paintings in their offices to display their refined taste; Astor preferred to hang a fine fur in his counting room, which he would stroke and boast of its worth in China.

As he piled up more and more money, John Jacob turned his eye toward investing it. All he had to do was look around and see the changes that had transformed Manhattan. When he had arrived in New York in 1784, the city’s 23,000 residents lived largely below Cortlandt Street, at the southern tip of the island. By 1800 the population had more than doubled, and buildings had sprouted nearly a mile farther north. Betting that the city would continue that constant move northward, Astor began buying up property just beyond the built-up sections of the city. It was the future he was buying. In around 1810, John Jacob sold a lot near Wall Street for $8,000. The purchaser was certain that he had just fleeced Astor. Gloating, the new owner said, “Why, Mr. Astor, in a few years this lot will be worth twelve thousand dollars.” “Very true,” Astor replied, “but now you shall see what I will do with this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars.” And he was right.

Astor’s real estate holdings made him as rich as Croesus, his very name conjuring up lucre. “John Jacob Astor,” the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” opined, “[is] a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion.” The newly minted millionaire was disdained for his peasant aura, his heavily accented and grammatically fractured English, and his alarming table manners. In 1815, James Gallatin noted in his diary that the fur peddler had dined at their home and “ate his ice-cream and peas with a knife”–reason enough for his father, the patrician Jeffersonian statesman, Albert Gallatin, to decline Astor’s offer of a partnership in the American Fur Company. Five years later, John Jacob once more discomfited the Gallatins, by dining at their home and wiping his dirty fingers on their daughter’s white sleeve.

Like a character out of Dickens, the richer Astor grew, the more miserly he became. “I used to know him, when an ignoble dealer in Musk Rat skins,” James Kirke Paulding, novelist of old Knickerbocker society, wrote contemptuously, “but cut his acquaintance when he became a Millionaire, for found he grew mean faster than he grew rich, and that his avarice increased with his means of being generous. He lived miserably and died miserably.” Stories of his mean-spiritedness were legion. This “monarch of the counting-room” was tarnished by his greed, according to a scathing biographical sketch of the millionaire in the February 1865 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “The roll-book of his possessions was his Bible. He scanned it fondly and saw with quiet but deep delight the catalogue of his property lengthening from month to month. The love of accumulation grew with his years until it ruled him like a tyrant. If at fifty he possessed his millions, at sixty-five his millions possessed him.”

Though he was reputed to “now and then, bestow small sums in charity,” the magazine claimed that “we have failed to get trustworthy evidence of a single instance of his doing so.” In his final years, however, he was talked into leaving behind a gift to the city that had made him rich: a library open to the public. Though the nuances of the English language eluded him, Astor was particularly fascinated by literary men, and in his semi-retirement years he frequently entertained writers and poets in his home. He befriended Washington Irving and chose him as one of the executors of his estate; he also employed the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck as his p...

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