Socialite, and Spy Master: Vincent Astor, FDR’s Area Controller of Intelligence for New York

By William Villano, Astor Project Digital Curator.

Lunch with Royalty: Vincent Astor and FDR entertain the Duke and Dutchess of Kent, Lord and Lady Clifford of the Bahamas. April 1935, Nassau, Bahamas. NPx 47-96:1900.

Shortly after 10:00 am on Tuesday morning May 27, 1941 the tall, thin, well dressed gentleman approached Hudson Terminal. His fine tailored suit, immaculately polished shoes, and priceless pocket-watch, that relic which had been held by his father as he perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic aboard the Titanic, hinted at his immense wealth. With over 60 million annual visitors, Hudson Terminal was one of Manhattan’s busiest transportation hubs which made the gentleman’s office in one of the twin 22-story towers above the terminal an ideal location for his secret meeting. Vincent Astor, the fifty year old, fifth generation Land-Lord of New York and one of the wealthiest men alive, was about to meet with representatives of the F.B.I., the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division, and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence to discuss defending New York from Axis sabotage, espionage, and military offensives in the months before America’s entry into World War II. Two months earlier President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created a new position specifically for him and Astor had promised his life-long friend and Dutchess County neighbor that “In this job I shall do my very best.”

At 10:15, in Vincent Astor’s office at 50 Church St, across the street from the present day World Trade Center, the meeting began. Astor, as Area Controller of Intelligence for New York, brought the six other men to order and the meeting was underway. Names and dossiers of intelligence sources and informants were exchanged by the various agencies, briefings on supplies of food and fuel necessary to England’s war effort were made, and information on potential threats were disclosed, for this was Astor’s primary duty: make all intelligence operations in New York run as efficiently as the many business ventures the multi-millionaire had managed. Next he made arrangements for the Navy and Army to discuss the Axis’s finances with a representative of the American Express Company who had recently returned from the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy France. This was followed by a verbal report on conditions in North and West Africa. By 11:30 Astor’s office had emptied and he resumed his civilian duties of managing a vast business empire which included Chase National Bank, Western Union Telegraph Company, and entire blocks of New York real-estate. He would have to remember to review the Chase bank accounts of the AMTORG Corporation to note what military materials the Russian government was purchasing; particularly molybdenum, which was used in tank armor and when shown to the right military personnel, would give the President a good sense of Russia’s military strength.

This wasn’t Astor’s first assignment in the defense of America and like previous forays into national defense, he intended to use every resource available to him. Astor’s global business connections in banking, telecommunications, and shipping made him uniquely useful to the President. Without these connections Astor, an inactive Commander in the Naval Reserve, surely would not be coordinating America’s intelligence agencies while the nation was not even at war.

For some time the multi-millionaire had been providing housing in his luxurious Hotel St. Regis to England’s head of intelligence in North America, William Stephenson and had been using Ferry Reach, his estate in British held Bermuda, to illegally access international diplomatic messages. Just twelve days earlier, on May the 15th, Astor and Admiral Adolphus Andrews of the Third Naval District had hosted envoys from the navies of South and Central American aboard Astor’s palatial 263 foot yacht Nourmahal. Armed with movie stars, beautiful women, and Astor’s tremendous wealth, America’s alliance with Latin America had been further cemented. Three years earlier, Astor had sailed that same ship through the pacific with Kermit Roosevelt to gather intelligence for FDR on Japanese defenses in the Marshall Islands. Of course his fondest memories aboard the Nourmahal, were not related to America’s defense, but centered on the five fishing cruises he spent with the President.

FDR sits in wheelchair aboard yacht, looks out to sea. April 1935.
President Roosevelt in his wheelchair aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht, the “Nourmahal.” April, 1935. NPx 06-01.

Vincent Astor relished his duties even more due to the jealousy his espionage missions elicited from his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who dreamed of retiring and writing detective novels. For fifty years the Dutchess County neighbors had been friends and in fact were distant cousins. FDR’s half-brother James R. Roosevelt had married Vincent’s Aunt Helen. As boys Astor and Roosevelt would vacation together at Lake St. Regis, and later Campobello with their friendship growing as the two boys turned to men. Even during the difficult years following Roosevelt’s affliction with polio; when he withdrew from the limelight, Astor was there for Roosevelt, lending him the use of his indoor pool at Astor Courts to help with FDR’s hydrotherapy treatments. To Astor, it was no surprise that he, a trusted, close and capable friend, would be appointed to a position so integral to the defense of America.

Coordinating America’s defenses was only one aspect of Vincent Astor’s duties. As he had done in World War I, when he hunted German submarines aboard his yacht the Noma, Astor wished to strike at the enemy, and again Astor’s business ventures afforded him the opportunity. In the Newsweek Building, Astor’s 43 story skyscraper at 444 Madison Avenue, Astor lent room 629 to his friends in the FBI. From this specially equipped room the FBI was monitoring the offices of William Sebold’s “Diesel Research Company” in rooms 627 and 628. The ”Diesel Research Company” was a front used by the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s military intelligence agency, to distribute funds to secret agents in America. Unfortunately for the Nazis, William Sebold was a double-agent working with the FBI. Astor took solace in the fact that even now the FBI was using state of the art listening devices and hidden cameras to record the meetings between Sebold and thirty three Axis spies, including Fritz Duquesne the Nazi’s head operative in North America. Soon a crippling blow would be dealt to the Axis fifth column in America and New York would be safe from the German sabotage attacks that had shocked the city during the First World War.

FBI Agent observing the Diesel Research Company. FBI photo.

For Astor, business and national defense went hand in hand. That is why in 1927, he had organized “The Room” in a small non-descript apartment at 34 East Sixty-Second street. “The Room” was an unofficial spy ring, comprised of bankers like J.P. Morgan, businessmen like Astor, and other prominent members of New York’s high society. For thirteen years this group of powerful New Yorkers had acted as informal advisors and economic spies for their close friend and fellow New Yorker, President Roosevelt.
Astor’s tremendous wealth had caused both the Germans and British to court his favor before America’s entry into the war. Only a year earlier, wealthy German lawyer Gerhard Alois Westrick, who had had previous business dealings with America’s captains of industry had attempted to woo Astor and arrange close business connections between the U.S. and Nazi Germany in the event that Germany conquered Europe. Westrick, of course, reported directly to Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentop. Similarly,  Astor’s wealth and power had prompted the British to request his assistance in acquiring one of American’s secret weapons: The Norden Bombsight. Just about one year earlier Astor had worked so hard to prevent that device from falling into the wrong hands. On that occasion he even had to order FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send an agent to Europe, despite the fact that Astor had no authority to issue such an order and despite likelihood that it would cause an international incident.

Despite his pressing business responsibilities, Vincent Astor’s first loyalty was to his old friend and fishing companion Franklin D. Roosevelt. It had been a month since his last trip to the White House and in only six days the Area Controller of New York was scheduled to report to the President. This friendship, combined with deep roots in New York, would drive the aging gentleman to devote himself to the defense of New York City, much as his love of the city had driven him to care for the city’s poor through making generous donations to housing projects, libraries, parks, and hospitals.