BOOK REVIEW / A little more than kin: The Astors - Derek Wilson: Weidenfeld, pounds 20

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LAMENTING the demise of family values has become a favourite pastime among political and social Cassandras in the Western world. The validity of the sport depends, of course, on the state of one's family, and of its particular values or, in the case of the Astors, value. At various times during the history of the dynasty, different Astors have owned the Times, been known as the wealthiest people in the United States, purchased and transformed British castles, and lived in houses with floors composed of silver dollars.

Rothschild family historian Derek Wilson has attempted to tell the 200-year story of this remarkable and, it has to be said, sometimes remarkably repugnant family through the distorted lens of individual biography. Instead of making a bold leap at a thorough chronological account of the clan, he has concentrated his account around 12 central lives. He likes his subjects a little too much, and his alacrity to defend their faults occasionally borders on the quixotic. The result is an elegant, seductive but ultimately disappointing tale. Too many narrative threads are lost, too many of the minor characters are ghost-like or non-existent.

The Astor of Astors was John Jacob, a German who emigrated to America via England. He entered the fur trade, developed a fortune and then multiplied it by inconceivable amounts during the late 18th-century Manhattan real estate boom. Yet this was no merchant pirate, but rather an anaemic laodicean, lacking charm, charisma or even eccentricity. If John was bloodless, his son William was covered in the stuff. He acquired a still greater fortune by exploitation of the denizens of New York's slums and a naked disregard for his tenants' suffering.

After William the family divided and eventually began the English branch of the Astors; an uncle who might have stood in the way of the exportation of the family name and wealth was disqualified from inheritance because he was mentally defective. Britain coated the Astors with an interesting, if not always attractive, veneer. William Waldorf Astor bought the Pall Mall Gazette and Cliveden House, became a Viscount and proceeded to live in one room at Hever Castle, alone and emotionally crippled.

His son Waldorf was a more intriguing character, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lloyd George and at the crux and cause of the Cliveden set. Wilson rather unconvincingly defends him against charges of anti-Semitism and support for National Socialism. Ironically, it was an Astor by marriage, Nancy, who became the most voluble and exotic member of the family. Wilson is fond of her but she still appears as a shrill, strident woman, an MP of promise who became a politician of empty promises.

David was in many ways the most accomplished and scrupulous of the Astors. He was an enlightened and progressive editor of the Observer and an indefatigable opponent of hubristic absurdities such as the Suez invasion. Bill Astor, on the other hand, may have been an activist on the part of refugees but will always be remembered as a profoundly weak aristocrat who became foolishly involved in the Profumo scandal.

The Astor mingling of sophistication and intellect, mean-spiritedness and decadence, has been the recipe for so many of the powerful Anglo- American families down the ages. These days such families seem to be a dying breed, a development which even Derek Wilson might find it hard to condemn.