Now the Story of a Wealthy Family Who Lost Everythingby Katharina Smundak
The Astor Orphan
Toward the end of The Astor Orphan, as Alexandra Aldrich, a descendant of the Astor, Chanler, and Livingston families (among others), prepares for her boarding school interviews at the age of 14, she describes her life: “[My] home is a mansion that was built in the early 19th century but is now in considerable disrepair . . . People often tell me I should write the story of my family’s more recent history. What’s so interesting about it, you ask? Although my family’s directly descended from American aristocracy, my parents are rather . . . bohemian.” “Bohemian,” in this case, is a euphemism for penniless.
Aldrich effectively summarizes the memoir’s entire conflict in a few sentences, and it’s not much of one. The book describes Aldrich’s early life at Rokeby—the Astor estate in the Hudson River Valley, a 43-room mansion sitting on 450 acres—between the ages of 10 and 14, a time when her desire for stability was repeatedly thwarted by a mother who was largely uninterested in her, a father caught up in an affair and an irretrievable past, and a grandmother who paid for her violin lessons and clothes but was quickly becoming a severe alcoholic.
Aldrich’s writing is pleasant, if at times, overly imagistic—for example, “foamy, golden ale” and “bitter, burning liquid” instead of “beer.” Aldrich also has a habit of forcing meaning through the use of single-sentence paragraphs at the end of a chapter. After writing that her father had various shotguns for hunting, she finishes the chapter with the sentence-long paragraph, “He used one of these to kill a pig for the square dance.” But the suspense implied by this formatting is unnecessary. It would make sense if her father went on to kill a man, but he uses it to its express purpose, hunting, so the expected drama never comes to fruition. Although the conversations Aldrich restages are stiff and sometimes read as like a soap opera script—“Do you think that you can bully my children?”—they are effective in expressing family dynamics, which are driven by pettiness, passivity, and mutual dislike. Still, the memoir’s opening chapters have a steady, meandering pace as we follow Aldrich through a typical day on the estate, through the fields, barns, and the molding and water-stained walls of the once-opulent mansion. She approaches her ancestors’s foibles with a sense of humor and at times deploys family anecdotes to comedic effect. Aldrich knows that she has a font of lore to call upon, and she uses it.
Unfortunately, the past cannot prop up the primary narrative, which is largely a catalog of childhood grievances with little retrospective reflection. The greatest issue is that Aldrich’s problems are not particular to a descendant of millionaires, and yet the book’s very existence seems to indicate that they are. Essentially, it’s hard to understand why we are meant to care about her preteen plight.
To be sure, the background of her day-to-day activities is pieces of American history and indicators of past social standing. Aldrich succeeds in making history tangible and quotidian, which it would be for a family of such legacy. The gramophone in their parlor was a personal gift from Thomas Edison. On one occasion, she and her father enter the front hall after a day tending to their tenants and her father’s groundskeeping duties, and pass a marble plaque that reads: “in memoriam, Stanford White, architect and friend.” That’s Stanford White, of McKim, Mead, and White, the firm that designed, among other buildings, the New York Public Library, portions of the White House, and New York’s original Penn Station. Rokeby is the means and the stage for “liv[ing] off the remains of our ancestral grandeur.” It allows the family to display both its wealth and its cavalier attitude toward it—the luxury of not being awed by heirlooms that are not just familial but national.
But the fundamental disconnect between the family’s present standing and her father’s and uncle’s upbringing, which drives the reader’s interest in the narrative, could never be fully explored from a child’s perspective. Alexandra’s father and uncle went to boarding schools and were educated at Ivy League colleges, and then trust fund money ran out, as had the possibility of a gentleman’s lifestyle. Yet her father still “hoped to find the essence of Rokeby now lost.” Her uncle “dwelled in the past perfect,” obsessed with keeping track of the family’s material inheritance. But the question of why the family does not get jobs or seek alternate identities to the ones furnished by their class and social standing remains unanswered because a child’s perspective, ultimately, is not particularly suited to telling the story of a family’s failure to come to terms with its loss of status.
Rather, Aldrich relies on Freudian pop psychology to explain her father’s problems. “Dad’s defiance, lack of personal hygiene, and low self-esteem could be explained by the severe alcoholism of his parents,” she writes. But this kind of unimaginative statement is precisely the problem with the whole book: her thinking regarding her family dynamics seems to have barely evolved past childhood slights and insecurities. And that’s a shame, because there is Faulknerian potential in this narrative. Yes, this is a memoir and not fiction. But surely to be writing a memoir, you believe that your life has the makings of something stranger than fiction. And Aldrich’s does. She just does not possess the narrative skill or perspective to communicate it.