“But what could I have been, really, if not a bohemian? I was a free spirit who watched unrated, arty foreign films with Mom and dressed in vintage clothing from the local thrift shop. Our living quarters were furnished with random, broken hand-me-downs. We didn’t live by rules that coincided in any way with the outside world.” Alexandra Aldrich is an Astor, one of the Astors, and in American society, that gives her a certain glitter. But as a child, she experienced chaos, living in a crumbling mansion in conditions that spoke of lack of hygiene, lack of morals, and benign if not actual neglect.
Not long after the American Revolution, an immigrant named John Jacob Astor came here and made not one but several fortunes, first investing in the fur trade and then in the city of New York --- from his name we have the Waldorf Astoria. He was our first millionaire. The family, like its fortune, grew and spread and stayed in the gossip columns to the present day.
"The author’s voice is always that of the bewildered, brilliant, lonely little girl. There would have been no other way to tell this story; an adult would have been too cynical, too involved."
Alexandra’s branch of the Astor family had property --- the ruined but still magnificent estate, Rokeby --- but no money. Her father ran an informal junk business and a sort of farm, and seemed not to believe in bathing. He was married to a Polish émigré with multiple degrees who had been a carpenter’s helper, cooked dark inedible stews and “painted her nearly nonexistent eyebrows an electric blue.” Her parents quarreled constantly. The three of them lived “in the eaves” in a small apartment on the third floor of Rokeby that gave Alexandra the only sense of safety she had as a child, a place where she could lock the doors and dream her dreams of escape. The world outside the apartment would gradually impinge when her father took up a long-term affair with a Frenchwoman, Giselle, who bore him a child.
Alexandra paints a big canvas on which we see the eccentricities of this extended family, living in the mansion and its many outbuildings, along with equally eccentric boarders and a ghost named Bob. The motley mélange managed to interact but somehow rarely intersect, as everyone seemed to be on a private trip, like the indomitable Grandma Claire, organized and neat in her way, but a secret, hopeless alcoholic. The estate was filled with forgotten treasures and forgotten people, some of them depicted in black-and-white photos in the book. The author’s voice is always that of the bewildered, brilliant, lonely little girl. There would have been no other way to tell this story; an adult would have been too cynical, too involved. As we see it through the child’s eyes, Rokeby and its inhabitants are like characters in a skewed fairy tale --- enchanted, trapped, and sometimes, despite their better intentions, very wicked.
Alexandra did not have to be forgotten like Rokeby. Luckily, through an inheritance brokered by Grandma Claire, the girl, who was a talented violinist, did escape --- to boarding school and a life of her own, leaving behind the childhood that had been “privileged yet impoverished, cultured yet squalid, past yet present.” This book is her tribute, a well-staged bow with humorous flourishes and a touch of sadness, to those years and to Rokeby.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 19, 2013
The Astor Orphan: A Memoir