World: The Ginger Woman

  • Share
  • Read Later

"My vigor, vitality and cheek repel me," she said in one of her rare fits of humility. "I am the kind of woman I would run from." In 84 years of almost constant exercise, Nancy Aster's acerbic tongue and quixotic heart led many to agree with her self-estimate. As Britain's leading feminist, best-known hostess, and fulltime gadfly, she herself was criticized, denounced and derided during much of her life, but all her foes in chorus could not have insulted so many people of high and low station so joyously as Lady Astor.

Among the favorite targets of her Astorisms were fellow politicians, her fellow rich ("The only thing I like about them is their money"), Communists, Socialists, Nazis, Yankees, liquor manufacturers, newspapers (her husband's family owned two), antifeminists, the cult of the Common Man. It was idealism, not malice, that propelled her bricks and bons mots. She scolded Stalin for "shooting your enemies, and that sort of thing," scorned the late Joe McCarthy to his face, belittled the Vanderbilts as parvenus: "The Astors skinned skunks a century before the Vanderbilts worked ferries."

Down with Duds. In 1919, Virginia-born Nancy Astor became the first woman ever to sit in Britain's House of Commons. She shocked that hallowed chamber by describing her entrance into politics as "this downward career from home to House." Like many another politician, Winston Churchill refused to speak to the female fellow M.P. for several years, explained later that her presence in the traditionally male sanctum made him feel "as if a woman had come into my bathroom and I had only the sponge to defend myself." Retorted Lady Astor: "You are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind." Churchill was the only sparring partner she seldom bested. Once she exclaimed: "If I were your wife, I'd put poison in your coffee!" Growled Churchill: "And if I were your husband, I'd drink it."

Returned seven times to Parliament, she described her mission as "gingering up the government." That she did. Of the Labor Party she remarked: "During my 25 years in the House of Commons, the Socialists did nothing but promise the Kingdom of God without praying and the good of this world without working." Voting to oust her old friend, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, after Hitler invaded Norway, she explained: "Duds must be got rid of, even if they are one's dearest friends."

Cliveden Chatelaine. One of the five "handsome Miss Langhornes" of Virginia society, Nancy, barely 18, plunged into an unhappy six-year marriage to a drunkard that made her a lifelong crusader for Prohibition. She was 27 and at the height of her beauty when she married Waldorf Astor, whose father, the 1st Viscount and fabulously wealthy great-grandson of John Jacob, had settled in England. For a wedding present, her father-in-law—Nancy called him "Old Moneybags"—presented the couple with several million pounds and Cliveden, a 300-year-old Thames-side estate. Now the home of her eldest son, William, Cliveden hit the headlines in 1963 as the place where Christine Keeler disported with Jack Profumo.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2