For many years there was a barn at the intersection of Highland Street and Cutler Road in Hamilton with a sign that read “Nancy’s Corner.” I wondered who Nancy was and discovered an amazing story.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was the daughter of a Virginian slaveholder whose family fell into poverty after the Civil War. By the time she reached her teen years he had regained most of his wealth. Nancy and all of her sisters were phenomenally beautiful, and she was a born elitist. She went to finishing school in New York City, which is where she met her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II, a wealthy Boston socialite. They built a mansion on 140 acres of land across from what we know as Appleton Farms Grass Rides.
Nancy was of course an equestrian, as was expected of anyone in that exclusive neighborhood. She would ride her horse down the driveway to the corner of the Appleton estate to meet other riders for fox hunts. One of the Appleton men was such an admirer that he named that spot “Nancy’s Corner.”
Robert Shaw had a reputation for alcohol abuse and promiscuity. She had a reputation for being (how shall I say this) blunt. She once said “I married beneath me–all women do.” Their marriage was a disaster and after four years Nancy divorced him. At her father’s suggestion she left for England where she made quite an impression on the men. A woman once asked her, “Have you come to get our husbands?” to which she replied “If you only knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine!”
Nancy nonetheless married Waldorf Astor, another American expatriate and a member of one of the richest families in the world. In 1919 her husband inherited the title of Viscount and became a member of the House of Lords. Lady Astor had became involved in a political group known as Milner’s Kindergarten which advocated expansion of British imperialism. She won the seat he vacated in the House of Commons despite being a political novice, making her the first female member of the British Parliament. Her victory was all the more surprisingly in light of her zealous and vocal advocacy of Christian Science.
Although Nancy Astor’s political accomplishments in the House of Commons were minor, she made up for it with flamboyance and a sarcastic wit. An English politician recalled, “She was absolutely unabashed by any situation…Great effrontery but also, of course, enormous charm. People were usually overcome by it. She was much better when she was interrupted. She must have prayed for hecklers and interrupters. She certainly got a lot.” When people complained that she had rejoiced at the death of a political foe, she replied “I’m a Virginian, we shoot to kill”.
Nancy Astor’s story of ascending from poverty in the American South to a world of wealth and power is told in the book Nancy by Adrian Fort. He portrays an unforgettable woman who left a lasting but controversial imprint on the social and political life of Great Britain.
She was an ardent feminist, devoted herself to the causes of women and children, but also demonstrated no reluctance in expressing her overtly racist and elitist views. Her narcissistic personality and sarcastic retorts made her wildly popular but created many enemies. When miners went on strike in the 1930’s, she was overheard saying, “What do those earthworms want now?”
Nancy Astor’s downfall was hastened by her support of Nazism as a solution for ridding the world of communism. Among much of the citizenry she was viewed as Adolf Hitler’s advocate. It is widely reported that she once said to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea” to which the indomitable Churchill replied “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”
After the Second World War began, Astor admitted to having been mistaken about Hitler but redoubled her outspoken prejudice against Catholics. She was increasingly seen as a quack, and even her own husband refused to support her politically.
In 1945 Astor decided not to run for another term in the House of Commons. She died in 1964 at the age of 85. Her son Michael Astor wrote in his memoirs Tribal Feeling “At no time did she accept that the ordinary standards of life need necessarily apply to her.”
And what of the grand estate at Nancy’s Corner? The Appletons purchased the property from Nancy’s first husband Robert Shaw. Frederic Winthrop became the next owner of the property and renamed it Groton House, as it is known today. During World War II, while he was serving in the Pacific theater, his wife, Angela Forbes Winthrop, opened their home to refugee children from Britain and the Netherlands. In 2011 Angela Forbes Winthrop, the widow of Frederic Winthrop and at that time the oldest resident of Hamilton, died at Groton House, her home since 1933.