Langhorne Sisters

Good morning. It’s, March 9, 2020.

On this date in 1923, a female member of Parliament stood in the House of Commons and made a passionate plea for a proposed law raising the legal drinking age in Great Britain from 14 to 16 for beer, and 16 to 18 for hard liquor. Prohibition was already the law of the land in the United States, but Americans were following the legislation in the U.K. mostly because of who was sponsoring it. She was American-born Nancy Astor, and the measure was dubbed on both sides of the Atlantic as “Lady Astor’s Rum Law.”

Lady Astor is a name largely forgotten in modern American culture, except when she appears as the foil in stories showcasing Winston Churchill’s great wit — mostly apocryphal tales attributed to Churchill at Lady Astor’s expense.

“Winston, if I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee,” Lady Astor supposedly said.

“And if I were your husband, Nancy, I would drink it,” Churchill is alleged to have replied.

Or there’s this one: “Sir, you are drunk!”

“Yes, but you are ugly,” replies Churchill, “but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

This second exchanges couldn’t possibly have taken place, and I’m skeptical of the first one for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Worse, these fables obscure the memory of one of the great female dynasties in American culture, one involving five sisters from Virginia, who reigned in our national consciousness for 100 years.

Here’s one thing you should know about Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill: Before World War II, she was much more famous than he was. In the early part of the 20th century, she may have been the most famous woman in the Western world.

Image result for lady jane astor

This was before Hollywood created global celebrities out of film stars, and just as politics was beginning to open as an outlet for women’s civic talents. Nancy Astor, in fact, was the first woman seated in Parliament, but I’m getting ahead of my story.

It begins in Danville, Va., in 1864, with Elizabeth, the first of five daughters born to Chiswell Langhorne and his wife, Nancy Witcher Keene. Chiswell had been born into wealth in Lynchburg and had served with distinction in the Confederate Army, but his family’s finances had been wrecked by the Civil War. This didn’t stop Chiswell and his wife from having 11 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Nor did it stop him from doing business with Yankees during Reconstruction. Langhorne made a fortune in the railroad business and moved his family from their crowded little house in Danville to an estate outside Charlottesville called Mirador.

It was there where the four younger daughters came of age. They learned to ride horses, enchant men, compete with women, and throw elbows in the faces of a society that tried to keep women in traditional roles.

In an epic account of these women, a book called “Five Sisters,” Phyllis Langhorne’s grandson James Fox, put it this way:

“The lives of the Langhorne sisters spanned one hundred years, from the birth of Lizzie to the death of Nancy in 1964; from the end of the Civil War, through the traumas of Reconstruction, to Edwardian England; the politics and turbulence of the 1920s and 1930s, through the Second World War to the early 1960s.”

Their myth was so enduring that when sister Irene visited the White House in April 1945, a few days before Franklin Roosevelt died — this was 40 years after Nancy had married Waldorf Astor — Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her newspaper column: “The younger members of the family were fascinated by her, because she is still the Gibson Girl of her husband’s drawings; and though some of the youngsters had never heard of the Gibson Girl, they fell a victim to her charm of manner and beauty. All of the Langhorne sisters are people one has to notice!”

For starters, they were physically beautiful. That’s why the story about Churchill calling Nancy ugly simply couldn’t have happened. (As for the exchange about poisoned coffee, well, that does sound like how Nancy and Winston might have sniped at one another, but this was an old joke that had appeared in American newspapers since at least 1900, when she was 21 and still living in the U.S. with her first husband. So I have my doubts.)

Irene, the elegant second daughter, married Charles Dana Gibson, the famous illustrator responsible for the image of the Progressive Era’s “new woman.” Tall, thin-waisted, full-bosomed, with a thin neck and her hair piled on top of her head, the “Gibson Girl” was upper class and, although not a suffragist, obviously competent and very independent.

Gibson, asked to explain his inspiration, once said, “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theaters, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores.

“The nation made the type,” he added. “There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”

The interesting thing is how much Irene looked like The Gibson Girl, notwithstanding the fact that he didn’t meet Irene Langhorne until five years after he first drew her. “Irene was but a schoolgirl when The New York Times singled her out from amid a whirl of 20-inch waists,” noted Times writer Stacy Schiff in 2000. “She was whisked off to New York posthaste; these were years when the North looted Southern belles as if they were French statuary.”

The two middle Langhorne daughters, Nancy and Phyllis, also looked like Gibson Girls, but had less luck marrying Yankee scions. Both matches ended in divorce, and they ended up in England. Nancy and Phyllis had other skills besides their looks, however. Both were accomplished horsewomen, for one thing, known for fearless and skilled riding. Nancy was developing the rapier wit that reminded Virginians of her father — and reminded the English of, well, no woman they knew.

She met Waldorf Astor on the boat across the Atlantic. America-born but England-raised, he was the wealthiest man in Britain, and maybe in the world. Meanwhile, Phyllis married Oxford scholar and intellectual Robert Brand, dubbed “the wisest man in the empire.”

The phrase “power couple” wasn’t in vogue then, but the Langhorne sisters made it a fact. Lord Astor would ensconce his new bride at Cliveden, a huge and lavish estate that dwarfed Mirador (it would dwarf “Downton Abbey”) where they entertained the cream of British society.

Nancy’s husband served in the House of Commons, but soon was elevated to the House of Lords. Nancy, now “Lady Astor,” decided to run for the lower seat herself. She proved a natural candidate, with campaign trail instincts than any modern political consultant would admire.

She knew just how to pitch her natural political base, most women having achieved the vote in Britain in 1918. “I think that women had better put a woman in the House of Commons,” she told female audiences. “Much as I love you, gentlemen, you have made a terrible muddle of the world without us.”

She responded to hecklers with a deftness that surprised no one who’d dined with her at Cliveden. When one man jeered during a speech that she had no idea what it was like to live on two pounds a week, she smiled at him and replied, “Would I like to live on two pounds a week? No, but would you work as hard as me if you had what I had?”

She served in Parliament until 1944. That year, Lord Waldorf looked back on her career and his marriage to a woman who would live another 20 years. “When I married Nancy, I hitched my wagon to a star,” he said. “In 1919, when she got into the House, I found I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V-2 rocket.”

Long before she retired from public office, history had passed Nancy Astor by. An ardent Christian Scientist, she read her Bible and texts instead of keeping abreast of international affairs, wasn’t careful enough about expressing childhood prejudices — usually against Catholics, not blacks, for some reason — and found that her withering sarcasm alienated family members, especially children, as she got older. She wasn’t big on sex, either, for reasons no one has been willing to ever explain — especially her youngest sister Nora, who followed Phyllis and Nancy to England where she availed herself of the joys and excesses of Edwardian society.

Yet Nancy managed to maintain long and loyal relationships, as her grandnephew James Fox noted. These friendships included Arthur Balfour, the last of the great aristocratic Tory prime ministers, along with George Bernard Shaw, Irish communist playwright Sean O’Casey, T. E. Lawrence, and, yes, ultimately Winston Churchill.

If her uneasy relationship with Churchill is all we remember now — and recalled only because of apocryphal yarns — their real relationship had a poignant, if not happy, ending. This account was related in a relatively recent memoir, “Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor,” by Nancy’s longtime lady-in-waiting, Rosina Harrison.

In that book she recalls the time T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — came to Cliveden on his motorcycle. He took Nancy for a spin on the vehicle, speeding as he usually did, before returning a flushed and animated Lady Astor to her home and husband. “We did 100 miles-an-hour,” she screamed excitedly to his less-than-amused lordship.

Lord Astor’s fears turned out to be a premonition, but for Lawrence, not Nancy. It wasn’t many months later when news reached Cliveden that he had been killed on his motorcycle when he swerved to avoid two boys on their bicycles.

“It was at Lawrence’s funeral that Mr. Winston Churchill and her ladyship for once got close together,” Rose wrote. “As Mr. Churchill was leaving afterwards, she ran to him and caught hold of his hand and they stood in silent understanding with tears running from their eyes.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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