By Adrian Fort
St. Martin’s Press, $15.99, 400 pages
Just who was Nancy Astor? Despite three-hundred-and eighty detailed pages by past-master Adrian Fort, we are baffled and bewildered. Born Nancy Langhorne in Virginia in 1879, she was a divorcee barely out of her teens when she visited England and decided to make her life there. Winsome, attractive, verbal if not cerebral, she bewitched then cold-shouldered several established suitors before marrying Waldorf Astor, also American by birth, and the son of the first Viscount Astor who was arguably as rich as Croesus.
Though ostensibly she wished to do good, she hosted astoundingly extravagant parties, inviting to Cliveden (the family’s principal residence) an increasingly well-heeled and well-known assortment of socialites, politicians, and literary lions, and still found the energy to bear several children. When his father died in 1919, Waldorf inherited the title and was obliged to forego his parliamentary seat. Lady Nancy Astor, already committed to a variety of causes, resolved to take his seat and was voted a Member of Parliament for Plymouth, the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons.
Fort relishes describing Astor’s distasteful and often tactless behavior, her provocative flirtation with right-wing and Nazi dinner guests. Was she bold and disarming or simply plain nasty? Gentle readers will enjoy reaching their own conclusion.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster