John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire

Axel Madsen, Author, Madsen, Author John Wiley & Sons $35 (320p) ISBN 978-0-471-38503-5
Expertly situating his subject's accomplishments in the context of late 18th- and early 19th-century commercial and geopolitical expansion, Madsen (Chanel; Gloria and Joe) weighs in with an absorbing biography of one of 19th-century America's most powerful men. Having immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1783, Astor was on friendly terms with such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Albert Gallatin by the time he came to dominate the North American fur trade in 1800. While Astor's relationships with Jefferson and others characterized the wheeling and dealing in fledgling Washington, D.C., his mastery over the fur trade figured significantly in opening up the American West. The book's best moments come when Madsen describes Astor's efforts to establish a permanent outpost in the Oregon territory. Called Astor, it was designed not only to aid its founder's domination of the fur trade in the Northwest, but to help him facilitate trade with China--for while fur brought Astor his first fortune, foreign trade provided him with his second. While he had a talent for exploiting new business opportunities, Astor also had the foresight to extricate himself from both the fur and trading businesses before they waned. Astor's third fortune, the legacy he would pass on to his heirs, sprang from his real estate investments in Manhattan. He sank the profits from his first ventures into large swaths of land in rapidly expanding New York City, where he built mansions and tenements alike. Madsen provides a largely sympathetic portrait of Astor; while no revelations emerge, the book effectively projects his story against the backdrop of seminal events in early American history. 21 illus. and 2 maps. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/29/2001
Release date: 01/01/2001
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