William Waldorf Astor III is a Conservative hereditary peer and great-grandson of William Waldorf Astor, the American financier and founder of New York’s Waldorf Hotel, which later became the Waldorf Astoria.
Viscount Astor’s family connections also make him a relative of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, as Viscountess Astor is mother to Samantha Cameron by her first marriage to Sir Reginald Sheffield, 8th Baronet.
Born in 1951, Lord Astor was educated at Eton and inherited the viscountcy aged 15 upon the death of his father ‘Bill’ Astor II and entered the House of Lords in 1972, later serving in a number of front bench positions.
Between 1990 and 1993 he served as Lord-in-Waiting (Government whip) and, after three years at the Department for the Environment, the Home Office and the Department for National Heritage, served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Social Security between 1993 and 1994, as well as the Department of National Heritage from 1994 to 1995.
Following the Labour landslide, Lord Astor served as Opposition Spokesman for the Home Office between 1997 and 2001 – during which he was successfully elected to the remain in the House following the House of Lords Act 1999 – Education and Employment between 1999 and 2001, Transport between 2001 and 2005 and Culture, Media and Sport between 2005 and 2006.
In addition to his political work, Lord Astor is a director of Ancroft Tractors Ltd, Cliveden Securities Ltd, Networkers International plc, Silvergate Media Limited, Vampire Squid Productions Ltd and Canadian Overseas Petroleum Ltd, as well as being a partner in Tarbert Estate Partnership.
Viscount Astor is not the only Lord Astor in the House, however, as there is also John Jacob Astor, 3rd Baron Astor of Hever; grandson of the 1st Baron, John Jacob Astor V, who was himself the fourth son of William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor.
Viscount Astor’s great-grandfather was an American politician who served as Republican in both the New York State Assembly and Senate between 1878 and 1881 before his elevation to the peerage in the United Kingdom, which led to criticism in the press over the supposed debasement of the peerage by allowing a foreigner to ‘buy’ his way into the British aristocracy.
His move to England in 1891 was prompted by a family feud with socialite ‘Lina’ Schermerhorn – wife of his uncle William Backhouse Astor, Jr. and mother to his rival cousin Jack, who build the Astoria Hotel next to his Waldorf – over who ought to be the official ‘Mrs Astor.’ Lina won.
Astor even went to such lengths as to fake his own death the following year by having his staff report to the American press that he had died of pneumonia, only for the ruse to be uncovered and leading to him being pilloried in the press. He became a naturalised subject in 1899.
Before long, however, he began making several business acquisitions in journalism including the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892 and establishing the Pall Mall Magazine in 1893 before selling it in 1912.
In 1911 he acquired The Observer newspaper only to make a present of it and the Gazette, along with The Observer’s building in Newton Street and its contents, to his son Waldorf Astor in 1914.
His generosity also extended to large donations to a number of charities and institutions, including Great Ormond Street Hospital, University College London, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Cancer Research Fund, the NSPCC, the Red Cross and an annual donation to King Edward’s Hospital Fund.
In 1916, this was rewarded with with elevation to the peerage as Baron Astor of Hever Castle in the County of Kent, before being created a viscount the following year. He died, unexpectedly, of heart failure while in the lavatory in 1919.
Lord Astor’s grandmother Nancy, Viscountess Astor, also found fame when she became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons after being elected to represent Plymouth in 1919.
That she was to do this in the same year as her father-in-law’s death was not mere coincidence, however, as the erstwhile Member for Plymouth – her husband – now found himself in the House of Lords as the 2nd Viscount Astor.
Also an American, she had married Lord Astor’s grandfather Waldorf Astor in 1906, after divorcing American Robert Gould Shaw III in 1903 and made opposition to alcohol a theme of her more than 25 years in the Commons – even going so far as to suggest alcohol was behind the England cricket team’s defeat to Australia in one speech in the 1930s.
Her equally strong opposition to Catholicism and Communism, together with her antisemitism, led her to her being portrayed as a Nazi sympathiser and even “the Member for Berlin.” As a result, she was persuaded to stand down in the 1945 general election by the Conservatives; even being told by her husband he would not support her if she chose to stand.