Written by Sonja Ingram
"I married beneath me. All women do."
"I’m a Virginian; we shoot to kill."
"I am a born feminist."
"The more I see of men, the more I think of women."
To Winston Churchill: "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea." To which Churchill responded: "Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!"
These spirited quotes are attributed to Nancy Langhorne Astor, the first woman to serve in the British Parliament. She was described in contradictory terms such as witty, saucy, outspoken, feminist, socialite, prudish, devout (she was a staunch Christian Scientist), and even cruel —although never boring.
Nancy was born in an unassuming but appealing house on Broad Street in Danville, Virginia in 1879. Now known as the Langhorne House, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently a public museum displaying Langhorne family belongings and furnishings, as well as a bust of Lady Astor.
The Langhorne House was in danger of demolition in the 1980s and was saved only when local preservationists and the former owner of the local newspaper, Elizabeth Stuart James Grant, stepped in to save it.
Nancy’s parents were Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. Nancy had seven surviving siblings, one of whom, Irene, became the model for the Gibson Girl after she married Charles Dana Gibson.
The Langhornes struggled when the end of the Civil War left many prominent Southern families in ruin. However, her father -- known among other things as inventor of the tobacco auctioneer’s chant -- was able to rebound financially when he amassed a fortune in contracts with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The family later moved to Mirador, the family home near Charlottesville.
Nancy was first married to Robert Gould Shaw II, cousin of Robert Gould Shaw, a colonel in command of the all-African American 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. Nancy and Robert were divorced five years later, in a time when divorce was rare.
In 1906, Nancy married again to one of the wealthiest men of the time, Waldorf Astor. The Astors were a prominent German-American family. They had made their fortune in fur trading, real estate, and later, publishing. One of the Astors, John Jacob Astor IV, died in the sinking of the Titanic. The branch Nancy married into had moved to England. Waldorf’s father gave him and Nancy the family estate at Cliveden, now owned by England’s National Trust, as a wedding gift.
In 1919, Lady Astor decided to run for her husband's vacated seat in the House of Commons. Now Lady because Waldorf Astor was a member of the House of Lords, she won the election and held the seat for twenty-six years. Throughout her time in Parliament, her wealth and persona helped aid the efforts of women serving or attempting to serve in government at a time when women were not seen as effective leaders.
Lady Astor’s time in parliament was not without controversy, but she was heavily involved in social reforms particularly those affecting women and children. She was also committed to the moral transformation she believed women could offer to government and advocated for temperance, suffrage, child labor laws, and the development of nursery schools for poor children.
Ever the socialite, Lady Astor had many famous friends including Charlie Chaplin, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), George Bernard Shaw, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. She often went with T.E. Lawrence on motorcycle rides, but fortunately for Astor, she declined the day Lawrence suffered his fatal accident.
Drawing on the many friends of Lady Astor, Pat Maurakis, president of the Langhorne House, is currently holding an event entitled “A Few of Nancy’s Friends,” which features photographs, items, and information on T.E. Lawrence, Charlie Chaplin, Edward VIII and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
A colossal 16 by 8-foot painting depicting Lady Astor entering the House of Commons currently resides in Danville’s downtown municipal building. The painting, completed by artist Charles Sims in 1926, was purchased by Stuart Grant in the 1980s and moved to Danville from England.
It initially hung in the Stair Hall Lobby of the House of Commons and was later moved to several locations including Bedford College, the University of Virginia, and Jamestown before it finally settled in Lady Astor’s birthplace. The painting’s grandiosity, though it conveys Lady Astor in a simple black and white dress, is a fitting way to honor one of Danville’s most complex and legendary women.
Visit the Langhorne House:
117 Broad Street
Danville, VA 24543
Open by appointment
Sonja Ingram is Field Representative for Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.