NANCY: THE STORY OF LADY ASTOR
By Adrian Fort
St. Martin's Press, 400 pages, $25.99, illustrated
The life of the woman born Nancy Langhorne in Virginia in 1879 and died as Viscountess Astor in England in 1964 is the stuff of a glitzy romance novel of the kind made famous by Judith Krantz. Rich, spirited, Southern belle marries polo-playing Yankee socialite and soon leaves him after finding him a drunken brute. As a beautiful wealthy divorcee, she goes to England, where she falls in love with a rich aristocrat and, after becoming disillusioned with him, marries an even richer one, Waldorf Astor. When he succeeds to his father's peerage and thus becomes ineligible to sit in the House of Commons, she is elected to his seat and becomes the first woman to sit in the British Parliament. Yet, as Oxford-educated biographer Adrian Fort shows in his biography, such novelistic grist — and a whole lot more — was the reality of this trans-Atlantic force of nature.
Lady Astor might seem like a dream subject for a biographer — and in some ways she is — but she also poses some major problems. Just as she was a handful for those around her, from her husbands and children to her parliamentary colleagues, she makes it hard for someone writing about her to find the right tone. Her eccentricities, abrasiveness and downright rudeness, vocal bigotry against Roman Catholics and Jews, general intolerance, and at times, questionable political judgment that led her to become a symbol of appeasing the Nazis in the late 1930s complicate matters. These traits and actions make it easy for a biography to turn into an indictment, if not an outright condemnation.
Yet she possessed good qualities as well. Honesty, loyalty, a capacity for friendship for all sorts of people from youngsters to George Bernard Shaw, an intolerance for hypocrisy and an aversion to cant. Tenacity, grit, determination, spiritedness and courage were all necessary to triumph over the prejudice, expressed in ways petty and serious, that she encountered in the House of Commons, where she sat, always in a tiny minority of women, for more than a quarter-century. For the most part, Mr. Fort adopts a detached, neutral tone, preferring to present Lady Astor as she was, allowing readers to form their own judgments. This generally serves him — and them — well.
Sometimes this approach falters, however. It is arguably easy for a biographer who must possess a certain measure of sympathy for all but the most heinous subject to fall into the trap of special pleading or, worse, becoming an apologist. It is perfectly legitimate to provide evidence of Lady Astor acting contrary to what might have been expected:
"At the request of the Prime Minister [in 1943], her guests included the first black American general, whom Winston Churchill [generally speaking no admirer of Lady Astor's] wanted to ensure was entertained just like any guest."
But on the vexed matter of her role in fostering British appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Fort veers perilously close, to put it as generously as possible, to those minefields of excusal and apologia.
It is certainly true that, like many other appeasers, she was motivated by a sincere desire to avoid the horrors of another world war, which had cost the lives of so many, including people she deeply cared for. It is also true that she was not alone in thinking that Germany had legitimate grievances about the treatment it received in the Versailles Treaty. There were indeed other prominent hostesses and political figures who entertained Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop when he was the spearhead of the Nazis' charm offensive in London. Her profile and that of the "Cliveden Set" (named after her splendid country estate) was elevated by a crude caricature fostered by the sensational London press and based upon strident journalism by the communist Claud Cockburn.
But you can't make bricks without some straw, and Lady Astor's reputation as a leading light of appeasement was to some extent deserved. She was vocal in her grousing about Hitler's treatment of Christian Science, of which she was a militant advocate, but less so about his treatment of Jews, and blind and unrealistic at best about his determination for world conquest through aggression.
When war arrived, though, patriotism came to the fore, and she supported her badly bombed constituents in Plymouth with characteristic vigor. She was even among the relatively few Conservative rebels whose vote in Parliament led to the replacement of Neville Chamberlain with Churchill as prime minister in 1940. Will you come away from this biography liking Lady Astor? Probably not. Admire her? Hard not to.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.