Nancy Langhorne, the eighth child in a family of eleven, was born in Danville, Virginia, on 19th May 1879. Her father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne (1843-1919), was a wealthy businessman who had made a fortune in railway development. Her mother, Nancy Witcher Keene (1848–1903), married when she was sixteen and worked as a nurse in the last days of the American Civil War.
Nancy's biographer, Martin Pugh, has pointed out: "Nancy Langhorne received a scanty education at a school in Richmond and later at Miss Brown's Academy for Young Ladies, a finishing school in New York. A small, trim figure with piercing blue eyes, she lacked the good looks of her sister, Irene, an acknowledged southern beauty who was known as Queen Bee in the family. From an early age Nancy used her ready wit, which often deteriorated into mere rudeness, to help her fight for a dominant role in her large and competitive family. She possessed enormous energy, loved sports, and was rather a tomboy. But her outward aggression hid considerable insecurity, and throughout her life she found difficulty in establishing close relationships. The combination of her southern protestant upbringing and her personal insecurity made her appear puritanical and censorious; in particular she had a lifelong aversion for alcoholic drink and a rooted fear of physical relationships. "
In 1897 Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw. She was revolted by his heavy drinking and his sexual demands. Though they had a son, Bobbie, they were separated in 1901 and divorced in 1903. The following year she moved to England where she met and married the immensely wealthy Waldorf Astor. She later commented: "I married beneath me, all women do." The couple moved into Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. They also had a home in St. James's Square.
Waldorf Astor was a member of the Conservative Party and represented the Sutton division of Plymouth in the House of Commons. On the death of his father in 1919, Astor became a member of the House of Lords. Nancy now became the party's candidate in the resulting by-election. Oswald Mosley was one of those who campaigned for her in the election: "She was less shy than any woman - or any man - one has ever known. She'd address the audience and then she'd go across to some old woman scowling in a neighbouring doorway, who simply hated her, take both her hands and kiss her on the cheek or something of that sort. 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."
Nancy Astor beat the Liberal Party candidate, Isaac Foot, and on 1st December 1919 became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons (the first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz in 1918 but as a member of Sinn Fein had disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath). Markievicz, like many feminists, was highly critical that a woman who had not been part of the suffrage campaign had been elected to parliament. She accused her being a member of the "upper classes" and "out of touch" with the needs of ordinary people. Norah Dacre Fox, one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union pointed out: "the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject." Rachel Strachey said she was "lamentably ignorant of everything she ought to know".
Astor's maiden speech was in favour of the Temperance Society and in 1923 she introduced a private member's bill that raised to eighteen the age qualification for the purchase of alcoholic drinks. Astor worked closely with Margaret Wintringham, the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons. In a speech in July 1923 she argued: "In 1920 nearly 2,000 persons were cautioned by these women police for acts of indecency in parks and public places. There were nearly 3,000 persons cautioned for unseemly behaviour in parks, and 2,700 young girls were cautioned for loitering in the streets, and advised as to the danger of doing so; 1,000 girls passed into homes and hospitals, and 6,400 respectable girls and women stranded at night were found shelter. We had the evidence of Sir Nevil Macready, Sir Leonard Dunning, and chief constables and social workers, and the Committee unanimously reported that in thickly populated areas, where offences against the law relating to women and children are not infrequent, there was not only scope, but urgent need, for the employment of women police, and they also said that the women should be specially qualified, highly trained and well paid."
According to Martin Pugh: "She campaigned for many women's issues including the provision of nursery schools, widows' pensions, equal employment, women police, and measures to reduce the maternal mortality rates. She strongly supported the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene which campaigned to raise the age of consent to eighteen, and in 1925 she introduced a bill designed to repeal the law on prostitution and soliciting so as to put men and women on an equal footing. On the other hand, she opposed legislation for equal rights in divorce in 1922, and found the movement to extend information on birth control to married women very embarrassing; she regarded birth control in Victorian terms as almost calculated to lower women to men's standards."
In the 1930s Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. Those who attended included Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Edward Wood (1st Earl of Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax was a minister of the government who would later become foreign secretary and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000): "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
On 17th June, 1936, Claude Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence".
During the weekend of 23rd October 1937, the Astors had thirty people to lunch. This included Geoffrey Dawson (editor of The Times), Nevile Henderson (the recently appointed Ambassador to Berlin), Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons), Sir Alexander Cadogan (soon to replace the anti-appeasement Robert Vansittart as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office), Lord Lothian and Lionel Curtis. They were happy that Neville Chamberlain, a strong supporter of appeasement was now Prime Minister and that this would soon mean promotion for people such as Lothian and Lord Halifax.
According to Norman Rose, Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relations with Adolf Hitler. "He wished to define what Britain would not fight for. Certainly not for the League of Nations, a broken vessel; nor to honour the obligations of others. As he had explained to the Nazi leaders, 'Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe,' areas that fell within 'Germany's sphere'. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil relations with the Dominions, fatal for the unity of the Empire. For the Clivedenites, this was always the bottom line... In effect, Lothian was prepared to turn central and eastern Europe over to Germany." Nancy Astor supported Lothian: "In twenty years I've never known Philip to be wrong on foreign politics." Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian and this was reflected in an editorial in The Times that he wrote a few days later. Lionel Curtis was the only member of this group that had doubts about Lothian's plans.
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax in secret to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps. Halifax had told Hitler: "On all these matters (Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia)..." the British government "were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today... If reasonable settlements could be reached with... those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block."
The story was leaked to the journalist Vladimir Poliakoff. On 13th November 1937 the Evening Standard reported the likely deal between the two countries: "Hitler is ready, if he receives the slightest encouragement, to offer to Great Britain a ten-year truce in the colonial issue... In return... Hitler would expect the British Government to leave him a free hand in Central Europe". On 17th November, Claude Cockburn reported in The Week, that the deal had been first moulded "into usable diplomatic shape" at Cliveden that for years has "exercised so powerful an influence on the course of British policy." He later added that Lord Halifax was "the representative of Cliveden and Printing House Square rather than of more official quarters."
The term Cliveden Set was first used by the Reynolds News on 28th November, 1937, in an article that argued that the group were highly sympathetic to fascism. David Low, had a cartoon published in the Evening Standard, showing James Garvin, Nancy Astor, Philip Henry Kerr and Geoffrey Dawson, holding high the slogan "Any Sort of Peace at Any Sort of Price". This cartoon inspired the Communist Party of Great Britain to produce a pantomime entitled Babes in the Wood - the Panto with a Political Point at the at the Unity Theatre.
The Reynolds News claimed that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was "in protective custody at Cliveden". The Manchester Guardian, The Daily Chronicle and The Tribune reported the story in similar fashion. When Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary on 25th February, 1938, and replaced by Lord Halifax, left-wing newspapers argued that the "appeasement coup" had been organised by the The Cliveden Set.
The story spread to the United States. Louise Waterman Wise, the President of the American Jewish Congress wrote to Nancy Astor complaining about the activities of the Cliveden Set: "If Jews in America are against Nazi Germany, it is because they conceive it to be their duty as Americans to battle for civilization and humanity and therefore to stand against the crimes of Hitlerism... to render their country the service of making it aware of that monstrous iniquity - imperiling all that men hold dear in the political and spiritual world - of Nazism or Hitlerism." Felix Frankfurter wrote to her arguing that "anti-Semitism is an essential aspect of Nazism" and to persist in this vein would lead people to "infer a sympathy on your part with Hitler's anti-Semitism."
Lady Astor became convinced that she was becoming a victim of "Jewish Communistic propaganda". In the House of Commons on 28th February 1938, Harold Nicolson heard Alan Graham, the Conservative Party MP for Wirral, say to Astor: "I do not think you behaved very well." She turned upon him and said, "Only a Jew like you would dare to be rude to me." This incident was reported in the newspapers and The Daily Chronicle commented that Astor's "emotions about the Jews" had overcome "her sense of fitness". Friends recalled an incident at a dinner party when she introduced Chaim Weizmann as "the only decent Jew I have ever met."
Martin Pugh, the biographer of Nancy Astor, has argued: "Nancy's reputation suffered irretrievable damage. Cockburn targeted the Astors as an example of very wealthy people who used their connections and their newspapers to subvert the policy of the government. He linked them to appeasement on the basis that they were keen to use Hitler as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Like many people at that time Waldorf and Nancy were appeasers in the sense that they believed that Germany had been treated harshly by the treaty of Versailles; she also had connections with influential people such as Philip Kerr who was active as an emissary to Hitler."
Lady Astor turned against Neville Chamberlain after the outbreak of the Second World War and she joined the Conservative rebels in forcing him from office in May 1940, and throughout the war she devoted much of their time to raising morale in Plymouth, where Waldorf Astor served as mayor for five years. Plymouth became a major target of attack and the Astors' house suffered damage from incendiary bombs.
Despite her work in the war the people of Plymouth had not forgotten her pro-appeasement views in the 1930s and she was warned that she was likely to defeated if she contested the 1945 General Election. She stood down and Lucy Middleton, the Labour Party candidate, was elected for the constituency of Plymouth Sutton. The seat was won back for the Conservative Party by her son, John Astor.
Nancy Astor died on 2nd May 1964.