The above picture is a portrait of Lady Astor by John Singer Sargent from 1909.
Lady Astor is Elected in 1919
On today’s date in 1919, Nancy Witcher Astor, Viscountess Astor, was elected to the British Parliament, becoming the first woman so elected to ever take her seat. Nancy Astor was born in Danville, Virginia in 1879. Her father had been a Confederate officer and a one time slave owner. In 1897, she married Robert Gould Shaw II (brother of late commander of the fabled 54’th Massachusetts – regiment during the Civil War). and they had one child, a son, before they got divorced in 1903. Not long after that during a visit to England, she met and fell in love with Waldorf Astor (below), the great-great-grandson of the American fur trader John Jacob
Astor. In 1906, they married. They lived at the Astor family estate in Clivedon. Lady Astor took the Unionist seat of her husband, Waldorf Astor, who was moving up to the House of Lords, after he inherited his father’s seat. She had run a bright and flamboyant campaign for the seat and attracted international attention when she won a resounding victory(she was not actually the first woman ever elected -that laurel belongs to Constance Markiewicz, an Irish Nationalist who won in 1918, but declined to take her seat in protest to British policy in Ireland).
Lady Astor and “The Clivedon Set”
Lady Astor (below, circa 1940’s) became known as a strong individualist, a friend of George Bernard Shaw, and prone to many
acidic comments on politics and society saying once “I married beneath me. All women do.” Her comments would sometimes take on a self-deprecating nature: “My vigour, vitality, and cheek repel me. I am the kind of woman I would run from.” She met once with Joseph Stalin despite her hate for communists, and told him that Winston Churchill was finished. This caused considerable comment and was just part of a life-long tendency on her part to go against the grain. She eventually became identified with “the Clivedon Set” a group of British politicians who strongly favored a policy of appeasement towards the regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany. “The set” became so named because they frequently met at the Astor’s estate, Clivedon.
Lady Astor Becomes a Favorite Target of Churchill
But it was as the object of two of Sir Winston Churchill’s most venomous barbs that Lady Astor achieved what is likely her most enduring claim to fame. As noted above, she had written Churchill off as being finished long before he actually was. This was not unusual, as many others did this as well. But Lady Astor and Churchill developed a particularly biting relationship. After one exchange, she is said to have told Sir Winston:
“If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee!” To which Sir Winston is said to have replied “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”
Another exchange between the two came at a point when Churchill, as was often the case, had had a bit too much to drink.
Lady Astor – “Sir Winston, you are very DRUNK!”
Churchill – “Yes madam I AM very drunk. And you madam, are very ugly. But in the morning I shall be sober!”
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Both by William Manchester. Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1983 and 1988.
Portrait by Sargent =