In his day, in the late 1800s, no other man possessed riches to match those of William Waldorf Astor. Having inherited his family’s estate at the age of 42 – encompassing businesses ranging from fur-trapping companies and a Pacific shipping empire to vast tracts of Manhattan real estate – he had access to almost anything he could possibly wish for. The sort of life he led was reflected in the style of the hotels that he built up, including the Waldorf-Astoria: a joint venture with his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, the founder of St. Regis. Building great hotels was something of an Astor family tradition. In 1836, the very first John Jacob, founder of the dynasty and the family fortune – and the cousins’ great-grandfather – had opened the Astor House hotel in New York, the city’s first luxury hotel and the last word in American hospitality for several decades. The hotel that the cousins established together was equally groundbreaking, while John Jacob Astor IV’s St. Regis hotel raised the bar still further when it opened in 1904 – setting the style and standard for St. Regis hotels across the world today.
Although William Waldorf Astor was at the heart of New York society, the city wasn’t a place in which he found happiness. As he wrote in his memoirs, published in 1917: “We were too prosperous; we were exclusive, not hail fellows well met; we liked the amenities of foreign travel; we had been known to employ alien servants, French chefs and English butlers; we were un-American. To the press, we were a shining target. On the 20th of September, 1880, when I was 32, the thought occurred to me that we should fare better in another land.”
As a young man, like his grandfather and father before him, Astor had been educated in Europe, and had traveled there widely with his parents. Of all of the countries on the continent, the place he loved more than any other was Italy: its culture, its arts, its food, and its countryside. As a new book about his great homes, Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast, explains: “He was enraptured… Italy intrigued his mind and invaded his soul. All at once, this sensitive, cultivated, and intellectually curious young man was exposed to a new land; a rich history he had only ever read about in books; dazzling art ranging from Roman, through Medieval, to Renaissance and Baroque; and a vibrant political and cultural climate.”
Although after a period studying in Rome, Astor returned to America, where he studied law at Columbia University, learned his family business and entered into the world of politics, he still hankered for Italy. In 1882, at the age of 34, he was given the perfect excuse to return: the offer by the American Republican President, Chester A. Arthur, of a posting to Rome as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary: the equivalent now of an ambassador. It was a posting that would change his life forever.
Having arrived in Rome, and set up home in the 17th-century Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in the heart of the city, he and his wife Mary lived like royalty, and were frequent guests of the Italian King Umberto and Queen Margherita. When he wasn’t mixing with Italian society, the young diplomat found time to indulge his loves of sculpture, of art, of classical architecture and of literature. The part of the world he particularly loved, though, was Sorrento. This seaside town, in the country’s south, was not only close to the classical ruins of Pompeii and Paestum, which he enjoyed visiting, but had a beautiful coastline, along which friends had villas in which he could stay. It was in the spring of 1905, visiting a friend, that he spotted a villa perched high on a promontory with stunning views across the Gulf of Naples to Vesuvius – and decided to buy it. Although the house was originally known as Aux Roches Grises, because of the volcanic rocks on which it was built, Astor renamed it Villa Sirena, after the mythological creatures that lured sailors onto rocks.
The property had everything he loved: history (the site had been the home of Postumus Agrippa around the time of Christ, and a haunt of Ovid); views of Vesuvius and the coast; seven acres of land with orange and olive groves; monastic ruins and a church; and a grand villa which the art lover could fill with paintings, fine furniture and sculpture. Best of all, it was peaceful, writes his great-grandson, Lord Astor of Hever, in the introduction to Villa Astor.“The light lifted his spirits and he would potter in his orange grove or go for long walks in the hills. He loved the easy tempo of the place, as gentle as a Neapolitan folksong; simple peasant dishes of risotto (which he spelled with a “z”), spaghetti, fried fish or fritto misto, cheese, and rustic wines. And the dry climate improved his gout, which had almost crippled him.”
Although Astor owned magnificent homes in America and in England, “the Villa,” his great-grandson explains, “holds the key to my great-grandfather’s happiness. It was the place to which he could escape, be free to lead a simple life, and revel in peace. It allowed him to turn the clock back, reminisce, and dream of what might have been.” Not that creating his dream villa was a simple job; the restoration took almost a decade. Wainscoting, parquet floors and hand-painted ceilings were added to every room, and a glassed-in dining room added so guests had an unimpeded view of Naples and Ischia. The old church cloister was turned into a gallery, which Astor and the famous Roman antiquarian Attilio Simonetti adorned with some of the world’s most beautiful pieces of classical statuary, columns, mosaics, bronzes, ironwork, stoneware, and sarcophagi. The exquisite garden was planted with exotic flowers and plants from all over Europe and orchards of lemon, orange and olive trees, and a magnificent swimming pool was added. In the grounds where the cloister once stood, Astor constructed a replica of a Pompeian villa, called Villa Florus, with such authentic-looking floor mosaics, ionic columns and wall paintings that for many years visitors thought they were originals, transferred from Pompeii or Herculaneum.
Above: a great admirer of ancient Rome, William Waldorf Astor adorned his home with classical statuary
One of the villa’s greatest pleasures for Astor, though, was its location. Situated on a rocky outcrop, far from prying eyes, the house was, as the Villa Astor book explains: “A sanctuary from the day-to-day cares of business and family. It was a place to revere nature, thanks to the spectacular panorama of the sea and mountains surrounding the property: a series of thoughtfully placed windows embellished with fragments of antique columns and sculptures romantically framed the view beyond, leading the eye to the horizon.”
Between 1905 and 1914, before the outbreak of war, Astor visited the house every year between November and March. Although much of this time was spent alone (his wife had died in 1894), he had eight staff to attend to his needs, including a prized French chef, who was responsible for ordering what he considered “indispensible” items: foie gras terrines, potted French green peas in butter sauce, Brie and Camembert cheeses, truffles – all furnished through his agent in Paris, Fernand Robert.
When he did socialize, he did so in considerable style. As one account, taken from the new book, recalls: “Astor’s house parties are organized exactly on the same order as royalty, only a trifle more so… For example, each morning every lady of the house is sent a superb bouquet of flowers to her room. With them is a huge box of chocolates… Not infrequently, within the inner recesses of the flowers or of the box of sweets is some exquisite trifle in the way of a charm or trinket. In order not to show favor to any one guest, flowers, sweets and jewels are the same for all. Astor has the finest private collection of automobiles in Europe, and each guest reads over the mantelpiece that by telephoning to a garage, a ‘car’ is always at his or her disposal.”
But mainly, though, Astor spent his time there alone: walking, exploring, eating at local restaurants. As he wrote to his American-born daughter-in-law, Nancy, who became the first female Member of Parliament in Britain: “We have had such exquisite weather that I took advantage of it recently to visit Pompeii and Paestum. I have also amused myself by lunching at odd places within driving distance to feast upon the spaghetti and risotto, which the plainest Italian cook prepares in such perfection... I take good walks and can easily do six miles – to Massa [Lubrense] without over-fatigue. On stormy days I seek my gymnasium or trudge up and down my garden walks for an hour.”
When World War I made traveling to Italy impossible, he took refuge in his homes in England and to his dismay he never made it back to the Sorrento bolt-hole that he’d spent decades creating. The day before he was finally due to return to it – in October 1919 – he died, and his family subsequently sold the property.
Today, more than a century later, the house is owned by another family who still clearly take delight in Astor’s style and historical artifacts. Not only have they employed the leading French architect Jacques Garcia to renovate what is now called “Villa Astor”, keeping its classical elegance and 19th century interiors while updating its amenities, they also rent it out to modern-day travelers who dream of living as Astor might have. Walking into the home, it’s as if the man still lived there, surrounded by his precious antiquities and furnishings, in the land he called his spiritual home.
All images © Eric Sander, from Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast, by Curt DiCamillo, published by Flammarion
Above: the villa has been restored to its full glory by leading French architect Jacques Garcia