A spokesman for the family said that Mr. Astor had been ailing recently, although the nature of the illness was not disclosed. He had intended to go to his winter home near Phoenix, Ariz., soon.
Ever since the first John Jacob Astor emigrated to this country from Germany in 1783, the Astor family has set a way of life that markedly influenced every important element in the nation's life---financial, social, economic and even political.
The Astors became the first millionaires in the United States, about 1800. This mark was established by the emigrant forebear through fur trading, world merchandising and astute realty operations.
Vincent Astor's grandmother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, was "the [in italics in original] Mrs. Astor," New York's social leader of the Eighteen Nineties, who established the famous "400." This limitation on the number of social élite was due to the fact that her ballroom could comfortably accommodate only that number. She was society's undisputed empress.
The financial and social prestige of the Astor family led to significant roles in the economic development of the nation. The fortune accumulated in furs and real estate was employed to reach out into railroad, shipping and other transportation fields. It was a natural development from economic power to political influence.
William Vincent Astor was born on Nov. 15, 1891, in the Astor mansion, a brownstone building at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. This building was torn down to make way, first, for the Astoria section of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and then for the Empire State Building. The child was the son of Col. John Jacob Astor and his first wife, the former Ava Lowle Willing of Philadelphia.
His mother, who became Lady Ribblesdale some time after her divorce from Colonel Astor in 1909, died last June 11. Young Astor was reared by his father, with private tutors and under stern discipline. After five years at St. George's School, Newport, R. I., he entered Harvard at the age of 20, only to leave the next year after the death of his father in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Vincent Astor, then only 21, became head of the American branch of the house of Astor.
He also inherited the family fortune, then estimated at $87,200,000 of which $63,000,000 was in real estate, mostly in Manhattan. And he inherited the family ability to make money. A 1957 survey by Fortune magazine placed Mr. Astor's worth at between $100,000,000 and $200,000,000.
Mr. Astor, who had been zealously guarded by his father as a boy, broke with the aristocratic family idea while he was at Harvard. First, he dropped his first name, William. Then he became interested in social reform and sociological problems. Soon after inheriting his fortune he broke another Astor tradition by keeping a close hand over his real estate investments rather than leaving them to managers.
Difference in Philosophy
His social and economic idea might well have caused his forebears moments of despair. He was more interested in automobiles, airplanes and atomic power than in furs. He did retain the ancestral interest in realty, only his concepts were markedly different from those of the preceding Astors.
The basic philosophy guiding the realty investments of the first generations of the family was that the true value of real estate lay in the land. For that reason they held on to the land and leased it for development, usually for ninety-nine years.
Under such an arrangement owners of the buildings frequently permitted the properties to deteriorate and some of the worst slums in Manhattan became known as "Astor flats.” Buildings owned by the Astors were generally business and "luxury" dwellings, which were kept in first-class condition.
Mr. Astor was shocked at the conditions he found in houses on Astor land and decided to get rid of slum properties. Theodore Roosevelt's maledictions on "malefactors of great wealth" and Upton Sinclair's socialistic advice found receptive ground in his disturbed soul. During the administration of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia Mr. Astor sold his remaining slum holdings to the newly organized Municipal Housing Authority for little cash and a long-term low mortgage.
In contrast to most other Astors, he cared relatively little for social life. He raced early automobiles madly. He lent support to aviation and joined the Aero Club of America in 1913. He built the Nourmahal, a luxurious yacht, and other craft, which during the two World Wars he turned over to the Navy.
An independent in politics, Mr. Astor came out for Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1932 campaign and strongly supported the New Deal in its first years. Later he lost much of his enthusiasm. In the 1933 Mayoralty election, he was an important figure in the unsuccessful independent campaign of Joseph V. McKee.
When Raymond Moley fell out with the Roosevelt Administration in 1933, Mr. Astor founded the publication Today as an outlet for the Moley theories. In 1937 Today was merged with Newsweek, of which Mr. Astor became the owner.
In 1935 Mr. Astor won control of the St. Regis Hotel, Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, modernized the structure and developed it into a successful enterprise.
His last venture, however, was doomed to failure, not through any fault of his own, but because of the 1957-58 business recession. Mr. Astor announced in September, 1956, plans for a forty-six-story office building on the block bounded by Park and Lexington Avenues, and Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets. The $75,000,000 building was to be called the Astor Plaza.
After the plat was cleared, Mr. Astor could not get the financing to build his skyscraper. One difficulty was that the land was owned by William Waldorf Astor estate, which was in the hands of the English branch of the family.
Mr. Astor asked the executors of the estate to permit him to mortgage the land, as well as the projected building, because he needed the extra money to erect the expensive kind of "prestige" skyscraper he wanted. Mortgages on land under office buildings in New York are rarely granted. The owners of this plot refused Mr. Astor's request.
Switched to Office Building
He then amended his plans in favor of a more utilitarian, less expensive office building. But still he failed to find a backer among banks, which took account of Mr. Astor's lack of construction experience and which did not favor the tenants he had tentatively signed.
In March, 1958, the First National City Bank of New York took the project off Mr. Astor's hands by deciding to put up its own office building on the site and by hiring an experienced builder.
The British branch of the Astor family was established in 1899. William Waldorf Astor, a great-grandson of the founder of the American branch, became a British subject and later the first Viscount Astor. The sharp-tongued Nancy Langhorne of Virginia became the second Viscountess Astor and the first woman to sit in the House of Commons.
In the business world Mr. Astor had been at various times a director of the Western Union Telegraph Company, the Chase National Bank, the Great Northern Railway Company, the United States Lines and other corporations. He was a trustee of the New York Public Library and the New York Zoological Society, a governor of New York Hospital and a director of the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital.
During both World Wars Mr. Astor served as a staff officer in the Navy. He was a retired captain in the Reserve.
Mr. Astor retained a legal residence at the family estate at Rhinebeck, N. Y., not far from Hyde Park. His office was at 152 West Forty-second Street, the Newsweek Building.
Married Three Times
In 1914 Mr. Astor married a childhood playmate, Helen Dinsmore Huntington. They were divorced in 1940. Later that year he married Mary Benedict Cushing, daughter of Dr. Harvey Cushing, Boston brain specialist. That marriage ended in divorce in 1953. Mr. Astor's third marriage was in October of that year. His bride was Mrs. Mary Brooke Russell Marshall, daughter of the late Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, who had commanded the Marine Corps from 1934 to 1936. Mr. Astor had no children by any of his three marriages.
In 1941, about a year after she divorced Mr. Astor, his first wife was married to Lytle Hull, a real estate broker and an old friend. He died last June 28. For years Mrs. Hull has been a leading patron of music and musicians in New York.
Mr. Astor's second wife was married in 1953, soon after her divorce, to James Whitney Fosburgh, a New York painter of traditional style.
In addition to his third wife, Mr. Astor leaves a half-brother, John Jacob Astor 3d, son of Colonel Astor and his second wife, the former Madeleine Talmage Force. He was born in 1912, four months after his father went down with the Titanic and his mother was rescued.
Vincent Astor also had a sister, Ava Alice Muriel Astor. She died on July 19, 1956. At that time she was Mrs. Bartholomew Pleydell-Bouverie.
The spokesman for the family said that since Mr. Astor was childless, he had willed most of his fortune to the Astor Foundation, a philanthropic agency he set up "to alleviate human misery."
A funeral service will be conducted at 10 A. M. Friday at St. James Protestant Episcopal Church, 865 Madison Avenue, by the rector, the Rev. Dr. Arthur Lee Kinsolving.