Celebrity train wrecks are pretty standard fare for today’s news media (thank you TMZ) but that doesn’t mean history lacks its share of eccentric and ill-advised antics; among these is the the premature report of William Waldorf Astor’s death in 1892.
After a middling political career and having inherited a personal fortune that drew the unrelenting scrutiny of the American press, in 1890, an exasperated Astor fled to the relative safety of England. Then, on July 12, 1892, multiple American newspapers reported that the 45-year-old Mr. Astor had succumbed to pneumonia and died. And yet in its own report, the New York Times’ article hedged that “As late as midnight to-night reporters calling at Landsdowne House were told by the servants that Mr. Astor was not dead.” Meanwhile, unconvinced, the New York Herald waited for confirmation of his demise before printing the news. That didn’t happen. Instead, word that Mr. Astor had not actually passed soon spread, revealing the fallacy of the previous day’s report.
The question arises, how did the rumor get started? Well, the New-York Historical Society’s Astor Family Papers does a great deal towards answering that question. Specifically relevant are the records from Astor’s New York estate agent, Clarence W. Baldwin, which include his outgoing and incoming correspondence, and cables sent from the London office. The saga begins with a cablegram from agent John Coode Adams on July 11th stating that “Mr Astor seriously ill. Will cable again later.” A second cable follows the same day, reading “Mr Adams desires me to say Mr Astor after relapse died between four and five today sen[d] notices to papers immediately.” That missive is signed “Clement” and seems to be the document at the heart of the fiasco.
As the news circulated the next day, Baldwin received cables from Astor’s wife, Mary, and Adams, both refuting the news as part of the scramble figuring out what was actually going on. The London cables are supplemented by confused exchanges from the New York end; Baldwin’s letterbook records an outgoing cable that reads simply “Is Mr. Astor dead or alive.”
In a letter dated July 13th, Adams tries to clarify things. He insists that he had only sent the one cable on the 11th, not the second one notifying New York of Astor’s death, venturing further that even in suggesting Astor was seriously ill he had acted “without perhaps weighing my words.” Given that the other cable was sent without his knowledge, though feigning his authorization, Adams envisions “some evil disposed person” as the culprit, and even guesses that the dispatch was the work of the Associated Press of New York. In an attempt to stack his argument, he also argues that because the “Anglo-American Cable” conveyed the telegram, which they had stopped using, it must have come from outside the Astor camp.
Given Astor’s tumultuous relationship with the media, casting such suspicion isn’t all that shocking. What’s interesting, however, is that Adams mentions Mrs. Astor has obtained a copy of the cable but then comments “I have not seen it as it is Mrs. Astor’s wish that I should not move in the matter.” That they would drop the incident altogether, and that Adams had not seen the copy, is a bit odd and suggestive of something more afoot. According to prevailing opinion, that intrigue is that William Waldorf Astor issued the message himself.
A smoking gun is hard to find but consensus formed early on that it was, indeed, him. And there is certainly evidence. Aside from Adams’ eagerness to divert suspicion onto the press, Astor already had a reputation as a bit of an eccentric which only worsened into paranoia as he grew older. Additionally, a perusal of the cables sent to Baldwin shows that while Adams may have been correct in stating that the London office ceased using Anglo-American Cable, Mary Astor had clearly not, hinting that perhaps the cable originated from the Astor household rather than the office. In light of this, and a lack of evidence to implicate the press, most speculate that Astor’s insecurities about his media portrayal led him to feed the erroneous report, all in an effort to see what would be written about him. While there was ultimately no harm done, this was just one of several awkward and head-scratching blunders in Astor’s life. And humorous as it may be to us, like many celebrity mishaps, its also a troubling insight into the struggle Astor had with his fame and massive fortune.