Astor, John Jacob, first Baron Astor of Hever 1886-1971, predominant owner of The Times, was born in New York 20 May 1886, the younger son of William Waldorf (later Viscount) Astor and his wife, Mary Dahlgren Paul, of Philadelphia. His mother died when he was eight; his father took British naturalization five years later. He was educated at Eton, for which he had an affection all his life, and for a year at New College, Oxford.
A man of great self-discipline and physical courage, he chose a military career. He left Oxford in 1906 to join the 1st Life Guards, and in 1911 he became aide-de-camp to Lord Hardinge of Penshurst [qv.], then viceroy of India. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he went to France as a signalling officer in the Household Cavalry. At Messines in October he received his first wounds. He twice refused staff appointments. Posted at the beginning of 1918 to command the 520th Household Siege Battery, he distinguished himself by his bravery in action, and was awarded the Legion of Honour. In September 1918 he was wounded in fourteen places, his right leg having to be amputated. This ended his army career, but not his interest in the army. He retired with the rank of major, was appointed in 1927 honorary colonel of the Kent Heavy Brigade, Royal Artillery, and a year later honorary colonel of the 23rd London Regiment. His close personal interest in the Household Cavalry lasted to the end; the day in 1954 on which a squadron standard of the Life Guards was laid up in Hever church was one of the proudest of his life.
Astor's character owed much to his father, a determined man of strong views who taught his children to think before speaking, to be decisive, and never to change their minds. Because of what he considered the disesteem for the Astors in America he settled in England. He bought Cliveden, gave it to his elder son, Waldorf Astor [qv.], in 1906, and then lived at Hever Castle in Kent, which he had acquired in 1903 and had considerably extended to make it a Tudor village under one roof, as indeed it looked from the battlements.
In 1916 he accepted a peerage. His elder son, who was prospering as a politician, and even more his son's wife, Nancy Astor [qv.], were furious. To them it then seemed the eventual ruin of their political hopes. John Astor was at the front and took no part in the family quarrel. The fact that he did not join his brother in protest led to a coolness between the two branches of the family. When John Astor lost his leg in 1918, his father gave him Hever Castle, so that he should have a new interest in life. The estate, the village, and the life of Kent generally thereafter became one of his abiding affections.
On his father's death in 1919 Astor inherited the use of a great fortune. The life of a country gentleman could not satisfy his sense of duty. Modest, diffident, and sensitive though he was, he wished to play some useful part in English affairs. He entered the House of Commons in 1922 as Unionist member for Dover—he held the seat until June 1945—but as he was neither a ready speaker nor politically inclined, it was not enough. A fortunate chance, typically arising out of his character, met his need.
When Lord Northcliffe [qv.] died in August 1922, the scramble to acquire the ownership of The Times alarmed the editorial staff. They favoured none of the contenders, and held a meeting among themselves. It was easily decided that what was needed was a man rich enough to see the paper through any hazard, and modest enough, having appointed an editor, to leave him and his colleagues absolutely independent. The difficulty was to find such a man. Various names were rejected. (Sir) Bruce Richmond [qv.], editor of the Times Literary Supplement, then suggested Astor. Many years before, Richmond had been present at an after-dinner discussion at New College, Oxford, about the topography of one of the reaches of the Thames. When the argument had become somewhat ill-tempered, a young man, who had hitherto stayed silent, said in a weak, hesitant voice: Don't you think — and described the area meticulously. Good God, Astor, how do you know it so well? someone asked. My father has a house near there. Richmond said that when the editorial meeting seemed to have reached a dead end, memory of this episode flashed into his mind. A man who, knowing what he did, would not enter a dispute except to relieve everyone from being uncomfortable, and who could so modestly describe Cliveden, was, he was certain, the man to own The Times.
It was indeed in that spirit that Astor discharged his long stewardship in Printing House Square which began in December 1922 when he and John Walter the fifth [qv.] became joint owners of The Times in the ratio of nine shares to one. At the outset of their relationship he handled John Walter with a firmness which Northcliffe had never achieved. He made it clear at once who was master of the board and of the management. But the four editors of the paper during his long reign could testify that he never once pressed a single view on them. On assuming control he and John Walter agreed to dismiss Wickham Steed [qv.] and bring back Geoffrey Dawson [qv.]. Thereafter they left the policy and the contents of The Times and all its publications to the editors they had chosen. When Astor's friends told him that as the owner of a leading organ of opinion he had a duty to ensure that it expressed the views he thought right, he replied that the paper's staff could give much more time to the study of affairs than he could, and were far more qualified to do so.
Of course he chose editors who he was satisfied would be true to the paper's trust. It must favour no party, person, or interest, except in so far as it thought at any moment and in any controversy what they advocated was for the public good. Whatever the economic or other difficulties, The Times must continue to be a journal of record as well as of opinion. The financial consequences of such a course were his problem. When he eventually relinquished control he was insistent that The Times had not been a rich man's expensive hobby, and that averaged out over all the years of his ownership it had given him a modest rate of interest; but his staff always knew that come what may he would see the paper through. For him it was a proud and high responsibility, although he never talked in that vein.
On being offered a peerage in the 1956 New Year honours he consulted the editor on the propriety of accepting it. Traditionally men on The Times refused honours. It was agreed that as he had no influence on the policy of the paper, for him to become Lord Astor of Hever would raise no question about its independence. His other activities alone justified the honour. He thereafter began to transfer his share of the ownership to his eldest son, Gavin, while remaining a chief proprietor with John Walter, this office carrying the sole power to appoint and dismiss the editor. Gavin also became a chief proprietor, but John Astor did not relinquish his own post until the transfer of The Times to Lord Thomson of Fleet [qv.] at the end of 1966.
While The Times was Astor's paramount interest, he had many others. In 1916 he married Lady Violet Mary (died 1965), the youngest daughter of the fourth Earl of Minto [qv.], and widow of Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, younger son of the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne [qv.]; they had three sons. It was a happy partnership. She brought Astor out of his shell. His activities widened. Weekends at Hever became occasions when statesmen and artists, soldiers and clergymen, men and women of distinction in every sphere met informally. They did not hear much from their shy host; they did come to appreciate his selflessness, common sense, and integrity. Appointments came. He was a member of the broadcasting committees of 1923 and 1935; a member of the BBC's general advisory council in 1937-9. He attended the Imperial Press Conference at Melbourne in 1925 as treasurer, and was president for many years. When the Press Council was set up in 1953 he was its first chairman, resigning in 1955 because of ill health. He was at one time and another a deputy lieutenant for Kent, a lieutenant of the City of London, a justice of the peace, honorary secretary of the King's Roll National Council, chairman of the advisory committee of St. Dunstan's, a vice-president of the British and Foreign Bible Society, chairman and president of the Old Etonian Association. His City interests included directorships of Barclays and Hambros banks, the chairmanship of the Phoenix Assurance Company (1952-8), and he had been a director of the Great Western Railway (1929-48).
It was part of his character that to all these he gave not only his name but also his assiduous interest. His chairmanship of the Middlesex Hospital took on another dimension. His hospital experiences in 1918 had given him an abiding regard for medical work, and particularly for nursing. To the Middlesex he made many gifts: £300,000 for a nurses' home completed in 1931, £400,000 for the medical school in 1955, a further £50,000 in 1957, and others never disclosed.
To a man who cherished English traditions and loved the English way of life the Finance Act of 1962 dealt a terrible blow. People domiciled in Britain henceforth must pay estate duty on assets abroad as well as on those in the United Kingdom. Aimed at rich men who had placed their wealth overseas to escape death duties, it hit also John Astor who had all his life been bringing money into England from the great Astor Trust in New York. In desperation Astor tried to resign from this Trust, the ultimate beneficiaries of which were his children. Under American law he could not do so. To leave things unchanged would have crippled the estate on his death, and have enforced the sale of The Times under most disadvantageous circumstances. He decided it was his duty to emigrate. On 21 September 1962 he made a frank and dignified public statement, which brought widespread sympathy, and proceeded to settle in the south of France. He never got over the hurt of this blow. Yet he did not become bitter. When he found that living in France was enriching him, he carefully calculated the difference and placed it in a trust fund to help medical education in England.
Tall, upright, crop-moustached, Astor looked a military man whatever he was doing. Few who met him casually realized that he had what he called a tin leg. (He insisted on using one made by ex-servicemen and not a more luxurious kind.) He did not let his handicap end his sporting pleasures. He had been an outstanding player of ball games. He was in the Eton eleven for two years, and in 1905 won the public schools rackets championship with M. W. Bovill. In 1908 he won the army championship in singles and in the doubles with Lord Somers (whose notice he contributed to this Dictionary) and with V. Pennell the doubles in the Olympic Games. After he had lost his leg he played cricket, lawn tennis, and golf, and won the parliamentary squash rackets in 1926 and 1927. He was president of the MCC in 1937. In later life his hobby was painting. He lived sparely. He was modest and unassuming in everything he did. The iron side of his character showed in matters of principle. About these he was stern and inflexible.
He died in hospital at Cannes 19 July 1971 and was succeeded by his eldest son Gavin (born 1918). Among the many portraits of Lord Astor of Hever are those by Sargent, Birley, Orpen, Munnings, and Elwes (all in the possession of the family); and by A. K. Lawrence (Phoenix Assurance Company); and Edward I. Halliday (Middlesex Hospital).
The Times, 20 July 1971
Contributor: William Haley