"Mr. Coster," said he, "I want to build a hotel. I have got all the other lots; now name your own price."
To which Coster replied by confessing the real obstacle to the sale.
"The fact is," said he, "I can't sell unless Mrs. Coster consents. If she is willing, I'll sell for sixty thousand, and you can call to-morrow morning and ask her."
Mr. Astor presented himself at the time named.
"Well, Mr. Astor," said the lady in the tone of one who was conferring a very great favor for nothing, "we are such old friends that I am willing for your sake."
So the house was bought, and with the proceeds Mr. Coster built the spacious granite mansion a mile up Broadway, which is now known as Barnum's Museum. Mr. Astor used to relate this story with great glee. He was particularly amused at the simplicity of the old lady in considering it a great favor to him to sell her house at twice its value. It was at this time that he removed to a wide, two-story brick house opposite Niblo's, the front door of which bore a large silver plate, exhibiting to awestruck passers-by the words: "MR. ASTOR." Soon after the hotel was finished, he made a present of it to his eldest son, or, in legal language, he sold it to him for the sum of one dollar, "to him in hand paid."
In the decline of his life, when his vast fortune was safe from the perils of business, he was still as sparing in his personal expenditures, as close in his bargains, as watchful over his accumulations as he had been when economy was essential to his solvency and progress. He enjoyed keenly the consciousness, the feeling of being rich. 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. Only to his own children and to their children was he liberal; and his liberality to them was all arranged with a view to keeping his estate in the family, and to cause it at every moment to tend toward a final consolidation in one enormous mass. He was ever considerate for the comfort of his imbecile son. One of his last enterprises was to build for him a commodious residence.
In 1832, one of his daughters having married a European nobleman, he allowed himself the pleasure of a visit to her. He remained abroad till 1835, when he hurried home in consequence of the disturbance in financial affairs, caused by General Jackson's war upon the Bank of the United States. The captain of the ship in which he sailed from Havre to New York has related to us some curious incidents of the voyage. Mr. Astor reached Havre when the ship, on the point of sailing, had every state-room engaged; but he was so anxious to get home, that the captain, who had commanded ships for him in former years, gave up to him his own state-room. Head winds and boisterous seas kept the vessel beating about and tossing in the channel for many days. The great man was very sick and still more alarmed. At length, being persuaded that he should not survive the voyage, he asked the captain to run in and set him ashore on the coast of England. The captain dissuaded him. The old man urged his request at every opportunity, and said at last: "I give you tousand dollars to put me aboard a pilot-boat." He was so vehement and importunate, that one day the captain, worried out of all patience, promised that if he did not get out of the Channel before the next morning, he would run in and put him ashore. It happened that the wind changed in the afternoon and wafted the ship into the broad ocean. But the troubles of the sea-sick millionaire had only just begun. A heavy gale of some days' duration blew the vessel along the western coast of Ireland. Mr. Astor, thoroughly panic-stricken, now offered the captain ten thousand dollars if he would put him ashore anywhere on the wild and rocky coast of the Emerald Isle. In vain the captain remonstrated. In vain he reminded the old gentleman of the danger of forfeiting his insurance.
"Insurance!" exclaimed Astor, "can't I insure your ship myself?"
In vain the captain mentioned the rights of the other passengers. In vain he described the solitary and rock-bound coast, and detailed the difficulties and dangers which attended its approach. Nothing would appease him. He said he would take all the responsibility, brave all the perils, endure all the consequences; only let him once more feel the firm ground under his feet. The gale having abated, the captain yielded to his entreaties, and engaged, if the other passengers would consent to the delay, to stand in and put him ashore. Mr. Astor went into the cabin and proceeded to write what was expected to be a draft for ten thousand dollars in favor of the owners of the ship on his agent in New York. He handed to the captain the result of his efforts. It was a piece of paper covered with writing that was totally illegible.
"What is this?" asked the captain.
"A draft upon my son for ten thousand dollars," was the reply.
"But no one can read it."
"O yes, my son will know what it is. My hand trembles so that I cannot write any better."
"But," said the captain,
"you can at least write your name. I am acting for the owners of the ship, and I cannot risk their property for a piece of paper that no one can read. Let one of the gentlemen draw up a draft in proper form; you sign it; and I will put you ashore."
The old gentleman would not consent to this mode of proceeding, and the affair was dropped.
A favorable wind blew the ship swiftly on her way, and Mr. Astor's alarm subsided. But even on the banks of Newfoundland, two thirds of the way across, when the captain went upon the poop to speak a ship bound for Liverpool, old Astor climbed up after him, saying, "Tell them I give tousand dollars if they take a passenger."
Astor lived to the age of eighty-four. During the last few years of his life his faculties were sensibly impaired; he was a child again. It was, however, while his powers and his judgment were in full vigor that he determined to follow the example of Girard, and bequeath a portion of his estate for the purpose of "rendering a public benefit to the city of New York." He consulted Mr. Irving, Mr. Halleck, Dr. Cogswell, and his own son with regard to the object of this bequest. All his friends concurred in recommending a public library; and, accordingly, in 1839, he added the well-known codicil to his will which consecrated four hundred thousand dollars to this purpose. To Irving's Astoria and to the Astor Library he will owe a lasting fame in the country of his adoption.
The last considerable sum he was ever known to give away was a contribution to aid the election to the Presidency of his old friend Henry Clay. The old man was always fond of a compliment, and seldom averse to a joke. It was the timely application of a jocular compliment that won from him this last effort of generosity. When the committee were presented to him, he began to excuse himself, evidently intending to decline giving.
"I am not now interested in these things," said he.
"Those gentlemen who are in business, and whose property depends upon the issue of the election, ought to give. But I am now an old man. I haven't anything to do with commerce, and it makes no difference to me what the government does. I don't make money any more, and haven't any concern in the matter."
One of the committee replied:
"Why, Mr. Astor, you are like Alexander, when he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. You have made all the money, and now there is no more money to make." The old eye twinkled at the blended compliment and jest.
"Ha, ha, ha! very good, that's very good. Well, well, I give you something."
Whereupon he drew his check for fifteen hundred dollars.
When all else had died within him, when he was at last nourished like an infant at a woman's breast, and when, being no longer able to ride in a carriage, he was daily tossed in blanket for exercise, he still retained a strong interest in the care and increase of his property. His agent called daily upon him to render a report of moneys received. One morning this gentleman chanced to enter his room while he was enjoying his blanket exercise. The old man cried out from the middle of his blanket,—
"Has Mrs. —— paid that rent yet?"
"No," replied the agent.
"Well, but she must pay it," said the poor old man.
"Mr. Astor," rejoined the agent, "she can't pay it now; she has had misfortunes, and we must give her time."
"No, no," said Astor; "I tell you she can pay it, and she will pay it. You don't go the right way to work with her."
The agent took leave, and mentioned the anxiety of the old gentleman with regard to this unpaid rent to his son, who counted out the requisite sum, and told the agent to give it to the old man as if he had received it from the tenant.
"There!" exclaimed Mr. Astor when he received the money, "I told you she would pay it, if you went the right way to work with her."
Who would have twenty millions at such a price?
On the twenty-ninth of March, 1848, of old age merely, in the presence of his family and friends, without pain or disquiet, this remarkable man breathed his last. He was buried in a vault in the church of St. Thomas in Broadway. Though he expressly declared in his will that he was a member of the Reformed German Congregation, no clergyman of that church took part in the services of his funeral. The unusual number of six Episcopal Doctors of Divinity assisted at the ceremony. A bishop could have scarcely expected a more distinguished funeral homage. Such a thing it is in a commercial city to die worth twenty millions! The pall-bearers were Washington Irving, Philip Hone, Sylvanus Miller, James G. King, Isaac Bell, David B. Ogden, Thomas J. Oakley, Ramsey Crooks, and Jacob B. Taylor.
The public curiosity with regard to the will of the deceased millionaire was fully gratified by the enterprise of the Herald, which published it entire in five columns of its smallest type a day or two after the funeral. The ruling desires of Mr. Astor with regard to his property were evidently these two: 1. To provide amply and safely for his children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces; 2. To keep his estate, as much as was consistent with his desire, in one mass in the hands of his eldest son. His brother Henry, the butcher, had died childless and rich, leaving his property to Mr. William B. Astor. To the descendants of the brother in Germany Mr. Astor left small but sufficient pensions.
To many of his surviving children and grandchildren in America he left life-interests and stocks, which seem designed to produce an average of about fifteen thousand dollars a year. Other grandsons were to have twenty-five thousand dollars on reaching the age of twenty-five, and the same sum when they were thirty. His favorite grandson, Charles Astor Bristed, since well known to the public as an author and poet, was left amply provided for. He directed his executors to "provide for my unfortunate son, John Jacob Astor, and to procure for him all the comforts which his condition does or may require." For this purpose ten thousand dollars a year was directed to be appropriated, and the house built for him in Fourteenth Street, near Ninth Avenue, was to be his for life. If he should be restored to the use of his faculties, he was to have an income of one hundred thousand dollars. The number of persons, all relatives or connections of the deceased, who were benefited by the will, was about twenty-five. To his old friend and manager, Fitz-Greene Halleck, he left the somewhat ridiculous annuity of two hundred dollars, which Mr. William B. Astor voluntarily increased to fifteen hundred. Nor was this the only instance in which the heir rectified the errors and supplied the omissions of the will. He had the justice, to send a considerable sum to the brave old captain who saved for Mr. Astor the large property in China imperilled by the sudden death of an agent. The minor bequests and legacies of Mr. Astor absorbed about two millions of his estate. The rest of his property fell to his eldest son, under whose careful management it is supposed to have increased to an amount not less than forty millions. This may, however, be an exaggeration. Mr. William B. Astor minds his own business, and does not impart to others the secrets of his rent-roll. The number of his houses in this city is said to be seven hundred and twenty.
The bequests of Mr. Astor for purposes of benevolence show good sense and good feeling. The Astor Library fund of four hundred thousand dollars was the largest item. Next in amount was fifty thousand dollars for the benefit of the poor of his native village in Germany. "To the German Society of New York," continued the will,
"I give thirty thousand dollars on condition of their investing it in bond and mortgage, and applying it for the purpose of keeping an office and giving advice and information without charge to all emigrants arriving here, and for the purpose of protecting them against imposition."
To the Home for Aged Ladies he gave thirty thousand dollars, and to the Blind Asylum and the Half-Orphan Asylum each five thousand dollars. To the German Reformed Congregation, "of which I am a member," he left the moderate sum of two thousand dollars. These objects were wisely chosen. The sums left for them, also, were in many-cases of the amount most likely to be well employed. Twenty-five thousand dollars he left to Columbia College, but unfortunately repented, and annulled the bequest in a codicil.
We need not enlarge on the success which has attended the bequest for the Astor Library,—a bequest to which Mr. William B. Astor has added, in land, books, and money, about two hundred thousand dollars. It is the ornament and boast of the city. Nothing is wanting to its complete utility but an extension of the time of its being accessible to the public. Such a library, in such a city as this, should be open at sunrise, and close at ten in the evening. If but one studious youth should desire to avail himself of the morning hours before going to his daily work, the interests of that one would justify the directors in opening the treasures of the library at the rising of the sun. In the evening, of course, the library would probably be attended by a greater number of readers than in all the hours of the day together.
The bequest to the village of Waldorf has resulted in the founding of an institution that appears to be doing a great deal of good in a quiet German manner. The German biographer of Mr. Astor, from whom we have derived some particulars of his early life, expatiates upon the merits of this establishment, which, he informs us, is called the Astor House.
"Certain knowledge," he says,
"of Astor's bequest reached Waldorf only in 1850, when a nephew of Mr. Astor's and one of the executors of his will appeared from New York in the testator's native town with power to pay over the money to the proper persons. He kept himself mostly in Heidelberg, and organized a supervisory board to aid in the disposition of the funds in accordance with the testator's intentions. This board was to have its head-quarters in Heidelberg, and was to consist of professors in the University there, and clergymen, not less than five in all. The board of control, however, consists of the clergy of Waldorf, the burgomaster, the physician, a citizen named every three years by the Common Council, and the governor of the Institution, who must be a teacher by profession. This latter board has control of all the interior arrangements of the Institution, and the care of the children and beneficiaries. The leading objects of the Astor House are: 1. The care of the poor, who, through age, disease, or other causes, are incapable of labor; 2. The rearing and instruction of poor children, especially those who live in Waldorf. Non-residents are received if there is room, but they must make compensation for their board and instruction. Children are received at the age of six, and maintained until they are fifteen or sixteen. Besides school instruction, there is ample provision for physical culture. They are trained in active and industrious habits, and each of them, according to his disposition, is to be taught a trade, or instructed in agriculture, market-gardening, the care of vineyards, or of cattle, with a view to rendering them efficient farm-servants or stewards. It is also in contemplation to assist the blind and the deaf and dumb, and, finally, to establish a nursery for very young children left destitute. Catholics and Protestants are admitted on equal terms, religious differences not being recognized in the applicants for admission. Some time having elapsed before the preliminary arrangements were completed, the accumulated interest of the fund went so far toward paying for the buildings, that of the original fifty thousand dollars not less than forty-three thousand have been permanently invested for the support of the Institution."
Thus they manage bequests in Germany! The Astor House was opened with much ceremony, January 9,1854, the very year in which the Astor Library was opened to the public in the city of New York. The day of the founder's death is annually celebrated in the chapel of the Institution, which is adorned by his portrait.
These two institutions will carry the name of John Jacob Astor to the latest generations. But they are not the only services which he rendered to the public. It would be absurd to contend that in accumulating his enormous estate, and in keeping it almost entirely in the hands of his eldest son, he was actuated by a regard for the public good. He probably never thought of the public good in connection with the bulk of his property. Nevertheless, America is so constituted that every man in it of force and industry is necessitated to be a public servant. If this colossal fortune had been gained in Europe it would probably have been consumed in what is there called "founding a family." Mansions would have been built with it, parks laid out, a title of nobility purchased; and the income, wasted in barren and stupid magnificence would have maintained a host of idle, worthless, and pampered menials. Here, on the contrary, it is expended almost wholly in providing for the people of New York the very commodity of which they stand in most pressing need; namely, new houses. The simple reason why the rent of a small house in New York is two thousand dollars a year is, because the supply of houses is unequal to the demand. We need at this moment five thousand more houses in the city of New York for the decent accommodation of its inhabitants at rents which they can afford to pay. The man who does more than any one else to supply the demand for houses is the patient, abstemious, and laborious heir of the Astor estate. He does a good day's work for us in this business every day, and all the wages he receives for so much care and toil is a moderate subsistence for himself and his family, and the very troublesome reputation of being the richest man in America. And the business is done with the minimum of waste in every department. In a quiet little office in Prince Street, the manager of the estate, aided by two or three aged clerks (one of them of fifty-five years' standing in the office), transacts the business of a property larger than that of many sovereign princes. Everything, also, is done promptly and in the best manner. If a tenant desires repairs or alterations, an agent calls at the house within twenty-four hours, makes the requisite inquiries, reports, and the work is forthwith begun, or the tenant is notified that it will not be done. The concurrent testimony of Mr. Astor's tenants is, that he is one of the most liberal and obliging of landlords.
So far, therefore, the Astor estate, immense as it is, appears to have been an unmixed good to the city in which it is mainly invested. There is every reason to believe that, in the hands of the next heir, it will continue to be managed with the same prudence and economy that mark the conduct of its present proprietor. We indulge the hope that either the present or some future possessor may devote a portion of his vast revenue to the building of a new order of tenement houses, on a scale that will enable a man who earns two dollars a day to occupy apartments fit for the residence of a family of human beings. The time is ripe for it. May we live to see in some densely populated portion of the city, a new and grander ASTOR HOUSE arise, that shall demonstrate to the capitalists of every city in America that nothing will pay better as an investment than HOUSES FOR THE PEOPLE, which snail afford to an honest laborer rooms in a clean, orderly, and commodious palace, at the price he now pays for a corner of a dirty fever-breeding barrack!
[Footnote 1: Old Merchants of New York. First Series.]