In The Astor Orphan: A Memoir, Alexandra Aldrich talks about growing up in the Astor mansion, Rokeby, in upstate New York.
People would marvel that you grew up in Rokeby, the 43-room, 450-acre mansion in upstate New York that had once belonged to your Astor forebears. Everyone envied you, yet you were actually filled with shame and prayed for a way out.
I think I wouldn’t have been ashamed if I hadn’t grown up in a house with people of different status. I was the poor cousin, while my uncle had a job, my aunt had money. Their lifestyle was so clearly more comfortable than mine. I felt so embarrassed by the contrast. We lived on the third floor; we weren’t allowed to use the antiques. We were like the disorderly elements, kicked out.
You write that while the Astor money is gone, the “undisciplined, orphaned spirit still abounds.” Do you still feel that spirit there?
The house is so rambling; there is so much space. A natural reaction for anyone visiting is that you feel a little lost. There is no structure. You feel the beauty of the landscape, the expanse of rooms, as a visceral reaction. But it’s very hard to get anything done. I didn’t write at the big house, I couldn’t concentrate. I worked in the public library.
Why did it take so long to get around to writing this?
I went back to Rokeby to live in 2005 during a divorce: I lived there from 2005 to 2008, doing renovations. I realized I wasn’t going to change my family’s way of thinking. In 2008 I started the memoir.
You weave throughout the memoir the theme of abandonment: your dad’s dad abandoned the family to alcoholism, and the Astor orphans were abandoned by the death of their parents. How has that theme evolved over the years?
That is the insidious workings in the house. My father was a handyman; he had a gentleman’s education. He was taught to prioritize education and not worry about money or profession; he maintained the property, but the family was appalled by that, too. I grew up the daughter of the black sheep, on the poor side of family. I adored my Grandma Claire, who descended from Hamilton Fish and had a serious drinking problem: she always had a meal for me, and offered a more orderly sense about a day’s schedule. On the other hand, she had a mean streak, and she was not stable.
Have you reconciled with Rokeby?
Writing the memoir is an attempt to reconcile. The narrative continues; my father is still criticized by his siblings and by my mother. When I used to think about my childhood it was a big blur scattered by vivid impressions, but there was no sense, no narrative form. Giving it a narrative form was enormously helpful.