Long Live Lady Astor

A centenary salute to Virginia-born Nancy Langhorne, the first woman to take her seat in the British Houses of Parliament.

Nancy Astor canvassing in 1919.

Photo courtesy of the Box Plymouth

Who would have thought that a woman born into poverty in Danville in 1879 would have ended up not only one of the world’s richest women, but also the first woman—and an American at that—to take her seat in the British Houses of Parliament?

And yet, that’s exactly what happened to Nancy Langhorne, whose election to Parliament as Viscountess Astor on Nov. 28, 1919, is being celebrated this year by the unveiling of a statue in front of her former home in Plymouth, Devon, the constituency she served for 26 years. 

In London, there will be an exhibition in the Houses of Parliament as well as ongoing displays of her portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the historic plaque outside the Astors’ former town house in St. James Square. Here, the Valentine Museum in Richmond has within its archives a small Lady Astor collection, including her death mask and photos of her in the velvet and ermine court gown she wore to two royal coronations and with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

In Danville, her Broad Street birthplace, Langhorne House, a modest two-story clapboard house, is now a small museum. In her time it was only one story with four rooms into which were crammed Langhorne, her parents, seven siblings, and four other family members. Their only financial support was Langhorne’s flamboyant father Chiswell “Chillie” Dabney Langhorne, a tobacco auctioneer who had fallen on hard times. 

John Singer Sargent’s 1908 portrait of Nancy Astor.

Photo courtesy of National Trust Images

Moving his family to Richmond in search of a better life, he was so unsuccessful that by 1890 they were left sitting on packing crates and suitcases outside the Grace Street home he could no longer afford. However, on that very day he was offered a job that made him a wealthy man, enabling him to purchase a grand second home, Mirador, set in beautiful farmland 18 miles from Charlottesville and now privately owned.

There Langhorne became know for her wit, strong personality, and concern for the plight of the “poor whites” in the nearby mountains. She was temporarily eclipsed by the fame of her older sister Irene, the wife of famous and wealthy artist and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who created The Gibson Girls. 

Langhorne, on the other hand, made a disastrous marriage to handsome Northern playboy Robert Gould Shaw, whom she finally divorced on the grounds that he had married his long-time mistress while still married to her. Then she and her young son, Bobbie, fled to England, where she was not only accepted into Edwardian high society, but was also courted by several noblemen. She chose quiet, thoughtful Waldorf Astor, son of William Waldorf Astor, one of the world’s richest men; unlike many upper-class Brits, Astor had an American family heritage and a keen social conscience, and was dedicated to reforming many of the inequities he saw in the surrounding society.

After their marriage in 1906, they moved to palatial Cliveden, where they brought up six children and became the center of an influential social and political set. In 1910, Astor successfully ran for the Plymouth seat in the House of Commons. When his father died in 1919, he automatically became the Second Viscount Astor and a member of the House of Lords, leaving his former parliamentary seat empty; Langhorne stepped into the gap. It was a brave move. British women, and then only those over 30, had achieved the vote just the year before, and Plymouth was a tough, working class port city. How would they take to a rich, aristocratic, and American woman as their member of Parliament?

But with her famous quick wit, sense of humor, and ability to both work a crowd and break down British class barriers, she soon had them on her side, winning some 5,000 more votes than her closest rival. Although things were not easy for her in Parliament, she continued to advocate for such important causes as lowering the voting age for women to 21, establishing nursery schools and state healthcare, and improving the treatment of juvenile offenders and women in prison. By 1924, 24 more women had become members of Parliament. And at last count there were 208 female members of Parliament, as well as two former female prime ministers.

Now you can tour parts of Cliveden—transformed into a National Trust property and a five-star hotel and spa, with a John Singer Sargent portrait of Langhorne in the grand reception hall—and the beautiful grounds and gardens, including the tombs of Astor and Langhorne. It is said she was buried with a Virginia flag in her coffin. 

This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue.

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