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The Viscountess Astor, 1908

1908 Portrait of Mrs. Waldorf Astor by John Singer Sargent_766112

Name:  The Viscountess Astor (Nancy Langhorne Astor)

Date:  1908

Image Number:  by John Singer Sargent; National Trust Collections, UK,
Accession No. 766112

Comments:  Nancy Langhorne began her life in 1879 in a crowded house in Danville, VA, the fifth of her parents' eleven children.  The Langhornes of Lynchburg had been wealthy before the Civil War, but, like so many others, faced straitened circumstances in the post war period.  Nancy's father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, was working as a tobacco auctioneer in Danville.  He was apparently quite good at the rapid-fire patter, but it was not very remunerative.  He moved his family to Richmond in 1885, where he finally struck it rich, getting construction contracts to hire in Virginia.  He was so successful at this business that he was able to relocate to the palatial estate of Mirador in Albemarle County in 1893.

Mirador, Greenwood, Albemarle Co., VA, 1926
Mirador, Greenwood, Albemarle County, Virginia, 1926.  Frances Benjamin Johnston, Photographer, 1864-1952.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC (Library Call No. LC-J7-VA-1229)

The Langhorne sisters were famous for their good looks.  Irene, the second sister, was a beauty in the Southern Belle style, opening balls in New York and Philadelphia, and was named a Queen of the New Orleans Mardi Gras.  In 1906, Irene Langhorne married Charles Dana Gibson, the artist who had created the "Gibson Girl," an ideal beauty, who looked amazingly like Irene.  Shown at left is a 1895 Gibson Girl Drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, entitled "A Daughter Of The South." 
(Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Cabinet of American Illustration, Reproduction No. LC-Dig-cai-2a12856)

Nancy, after a disastrous first attempt at marriage, traveled to England where she married Waldorf Astor, the son of one of the richest men of his day.  When Waldorf's father died, he inherited his title becoming 2nd Viscount Astor.  He had represented the borough of Plymouth Sutton in the British House of Commons, but had to give up his seat when he was elevated to the House of Lords.  In an action that was startling for its day, Nancy decided to run for the vacant seat and became the first one to accept a seat in the House of Commons.  That was 1919 -- British women had had the right to vote for less than a year.

Lord and Lady Astor arrive in New York City on the Olympic on April 19, 1922.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection; Call No. LC-B2-5708-2)

Nancy's political causes were education and temperance:  all three of her brothers, her first husband, and her son suffered from alcoholism.  Nancy also was a devout believer in Christian Science.

Outspoken and flamboyant, as well as incredibly wealthy, the new Lady Astor cut a serious swath through British high society and politics.  But she never forgot her Virginia roots.  Despite a lengthy sea journey home, she made frequent visits to Mirador, participating enthusiastically in the local fox hunts.  Her brother, William ("Buck"), who had bought a farm near Warren, took her out shooting birds when she came to Virginia.  Once being reprimanded for a cutting remark, she said, "I'm a Virginian.  We shoot to kill!"

Lady Astor welcomed to U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., 27 Jan. 1938 Lady Astor welcomed at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1938.  Lady Astor, the former Nancy Langhorne of Virginia and then a member of the British Parliament, received a warm welcome when she looked in on the U.S. Senate that day.  L to R:  Senator Joseph O'Mahoney, Senator Hattie Caraway, Lady Astor, Senator Harry Byrd, Senator Key Pittman, and Senator Claude A. Pepper.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection; Call No. LC-H22-D3125.

Lady Astor was lacking in political savvy.  About the German leader, Adolf Hitler, she commented, "No one can take him seriously with that mustache.  He looks too much like Charlie Chaplin."

Lady Astor was a loyal donor to the University of Virginia, paying for a set of squash and handball courts, long known as the "Lady Astor Courts."  She also arranged for the Astor collection of Native American photographs and artifacts to be given to the University, apparently still there in the attic of Cabell Hall.

Lady Astor lived until 1964, the last survivor of the five "Langhorne Beauties."  She passed away at the home of her daughter, Nancy Astor, at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, England.

Evelyn Edson, President
Scottsville Museum

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